Commentary by Alice Schroeder
July 1 (Bloomberg) -- The rock-star treatment I received on my recent book tour in China makes sense only if viewed through the lens the Chinese apply to American culture: Its importance is relative to whether it can make you rich.
Which is why Warren Buffett is no mere Oracle in China; he is the “GOD OF STOCKS” (usually translated this way, in uppercase). Buffett is probably the most popular American in China other than President Barack Obama.
The Chinese don’t give a hoot about Obama’s politics; his appeal is his power, through which he, like Buffett, can make you rich. Faith in Obama’s ability to create wealth on a personal level is so strong that one Chinese author has even capitalized on it in a book: “Get Rich With Barack Obama’s Change We Can Believe In Principle.”
It is just as strange that Buffett, the man of patient capital accumulation, has been so fetishized in China, the land of instant everything. The tour gave me a window into the attitude of Chinese investors. It resembled no book tour imaginable in the U.S., consisting of marathon two-plus-hour press conferences and six-hour “forums” (a speech of at least 60 minutes, followed by a panel, then audience questions and answers followed by a book signing and a banquet) in Beijing, Nanjing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai.
Chinese investors have the attention span of meditating monks when it comes to information they are interested in, which is strange considering that “long-term” investing there works more like a trigger-happy hedge-fund strategy.
You need strong nerves to invest in China. Under Beijing’s pro-growth monetary policies the Shanghai Stock Exchange A- Shares Index quintupled from 2005 to 2008 before it crashed 70 percent in November 2008 during the financial crisis. The SSE has since doubled, but remains well below its high.
Investors have no clue what to make of this in light of inconclusive, but encouraging, signs that China’s 4 trillion- yuan ($585 billion) stimulus plan is working. The impending Nasdaq-like small-cap Growth Enterprise Market, which could become a treasure chest for investors, is also likely to encourage more bubbles and volatility.
My audiences were understandably nervous about whether the recent rally is sustainable in a market where stock prices in the short run are linked less to the fundamental value of businesses and more to Chinese government policies at a time when they are clashing with U.S. policies.
Chinese Stocks Godfather
I appeared on a panel with former Taiwanese stockbroker Leon Hu, who travels the region as an Asian Tony Robbins known as the “Godfather of the Chinese Stock Market” (ranking a step below the GOD OF STOCKS if only in capitalization). Hu claimed to have predicted every major turning point in the SSE. He insisted valuations are meaningless, which is a more credible statement in China than elsewhere.
He also got points for honesty by telling the audience not to rely on his predictions and for saying that investing is just gambling, so be glad if you break even, news the audience cheered and applauded.
A volatile market full of gamblers should be value- investing heaven. Money managers who emulated Buffett thought they had the Rosetta Stone. Instead, they were laughed at when the market plunged in 2008. Now they question whether value investing can work in an emerging market in which few companies have a long-term track record and if they do, other forces may overwhelm its importance. One of these is whether Obama can repair the U.S. economy and thereby help their own.
My audiences asked over and over how the U.S. could increase its imports from China, even though officials in Beijing are trying to shrink the influence of exports on their economy. People ran trial balloons past me about ways China might boost exports if the U.S. economy remains stagnant, such as state action to undercut other countries’ prices even if they fall, and centralized coordination to shift toward less economically cyclical products.
The people I met thought of Wall Street as full of bankers who used the free market’s invisible hand to pick China’s pockets by swapping valuable goods for worthless U.S. dollars. How, one wanted to know, will the U.S. make amends after being exposed as a giant Ponzi scheme that bankrupted the world?
Many people assumed the U.S. will try to solve its debt burden by igniting what one person called “virulent inflation around the whole world.” After all, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, “A debtor nation does not love its creditor.”
Most people I spoke to were matter-of-fact about that. They viewed it as only natural that people would take advantage of one another in business; politics is business to them. While Americans debate whether Obama has put the U.S. on the road to socialism, the Chinese talk of Obama in terms of opportunities for themselves. They remain optimists about China’s long-term future and the role they have to play.
Cementing that optimism, none other than Buffett himself has just declared China the winner, by comparing its emerging era of ascendancy to the rise of the U.S. after World War II.
Buffett is more humble than he should be, and probably doesn’t understand this, but words like that are magical, coming as they do from the GOD OF STOCKS.
(Alice Schroeder, author of “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” and a senior adviser to Morgan Stanley, is a Bloomberg News columnist. She recently purchased Berkshire Hathaway shares. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
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