Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Would Warren Say?

Postquake Critic Stifled
Online School Photos Bring a Chinese Man A Year in Labor Camp

July 31, 2008

SHANGHAI -- A man who posted pictures on the Internet of schools that collapsed in May's massive earthquake in southwest China has been sent to a labor camp for a year, a human-rights group said, as Chinese authorities move to stifle allegations that shoddy construction exacerbated the disaster's death toll.
—The Wall Street Journal

Aside from the five hours Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger spend answering any and all questions from shareholders around the world, the most remarkable aspect of Warren Buffett’s “Woodstock for Capitalists”—as the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting is known—has to be the fact that very few shareholders ask questions about Berkshire’s actual businesses.

Instead, they ask what Buffett thinks of the stock market, the economy, healthcare, global warming. They ask how Buffett takes care of himself, what books he reads, who his biggest influence was, and whether he has a relationship with Jesus Christ.

To a non-Berkshire shareholder, it might seem Berkshire shareholders spend their days wondering “What Would Warren Say?”

For his part, and to his great credit, Buffett answers everybody straight on—even the question about Jesus Christ. And while he never exactly dodges anything, he does a masterful job deflecting issues that would certainly cause a ruckus in any other shareholder meeting.

One case in point is his handling of a question at this year's meeting about whether he had considered asking Coke, of which Berkshire is a major shareholder and Buffett a former board member, to withdraw sponsorship from the Beijing Olympics.

“I think it’s a mistake deciding which country should be allowed and which country shouldn’t be allowed,” Buffett told shareholders, to applause. “We didn’t let women vote in the US until the 1920s and I would say that was a great human rights violation, and I would have hated to see the US banned from the Olympics prior to 1920.”

Buffett's answer was politically correct and wonderfully so; but it was an answer to a question that hadn't been asked.

The question was not whether China should be “allowed” to participate in the Olympic Games. The question was whether Buffett would send a message to the Chinese government by requesting that Coke withdraw sponsorship of the games.

Such a request would be nothing more than an expression of Warren Buffett’s own conscience, which is hardly a remarkable thing for anybody with his ways and means, and even less remarkable for Warren Buffett.

After all, the world’s richest human being has been expressing his conscience for years, by writing op-ed pieces excoriating U.S. fiscal policy, appearing with Tom Brokaw to plead for economic “fairness,” and testifying before Congress to keep the inheritance tax so that the "lucky sperm club," as he calls the super-rich, pay their share. Buffett shies away from nothing—even the most hot-button social issue in the world: abortion.

But he does shy away from talking about China, and for a reason.

Warren Buffett has a large following in China. His unparalleled investment track record, respect for family-run businesses, and long-term time horizon make him a hero in that country. And Buffett is taking advantage of that hero-worship by spreading Berkshire's message of being the place to sell your family company, because he correctly recognizes that China and the rest of the new industrial powers are key to the future of his company.

So Warren Buffett is not about to throw away that goodwill by getting into a spat on an issue that would otherwise appear to be dear to his heart: human rights.

Still, we wondered while reading the rest of The Wall Street Journal’s chilling account of the stifling of the “postquake critic”: What Would Warren Say?

The man, a local school employee named Liu Shaokun, was detained in late June for allegedly "seriously disturbing social order" and disrupting post-quake reconstruction efforts, according to a report in a local government-run newspaper.

Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group, said Mr. Liu's wife was told last week that he must undergo a year of "re-education through labor." Chinese authorities can detain people for such "re-education" for as long as four years without formal charges or a trial.

What would Warren say? Nothing, probably.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2008 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice. It should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Nor are these comments meant to be a solicitation of business in any way: such inquiries will not be responded to. This content is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


antlord said...


I usually find your posts both enlightening and entertaining, but I am puzzled as to the point of this post. Are you shocked that Warren Buffet has compartmentalized his investment strategy and moral conscience? Are you alarmed that investors are more concerned about the daily habits of their idol than the inner workings of his investments? Does any of this surprise you? Do you think it will surprise your readers? Or are you merely pointing out that Warren is buying Chinese companies and this is the most amusing angle with which to disseminate that rather pedestrian news?


kylemowery said...


As a fellow BRK shareholder and investment professional (buy side analyst), what do you think about organizing a group to stack next year’s question bank with intelligent questions on things that we spend all day considering? If we start a groundswell type of activity with a webpage (or blog) where people can vote on the questions they want to hear or questions they want asked and then stack the queue we could really make the 2009 meeting worthwhile. As you know, there were much better questions asked of HF PMs during other meetings in Omaha over the weekend than at the actual meeting. I’m on board if you are… What say ye?


The Daily Pander said...

Kyle and Jeff:

I'm in on Kyle's suggestion. I'm a BRK holder and would like more BRK questions, less WEB's view on all on things great and small. Particularly I'd like ask what he and CM think is BRK's moat, other than size, from today forward.

Jeff Matthews said...

I like it!

We'll figure out something in the months ahead. Suggestions along Kyle's lines are welcome.


Unknown said...

Ok Jeff, I'll bite.

How many items from China have you bought this month?

How much petroleum have you used today? How much of it was sourced from Saudi Arabia where women aren't even allowed to leave their homes by themselves?

Do you live in a country which holds combatants from a second country in a third country to avoid judicial review from either the first or second country?

We don't have to look too far to see the hypocrisy in our own lives, so is it really news that Mr. Buffett deals with the same issues we all do? The differences are only of scale - not of morality.

Of course, I too am appalled that criticizing the Chinese government in 2008 can still get one sent to a "re-education camp" for a full year. However, in 1976, the Chinese government refused to even acknowledge the occurrence of the deadliest earthquake of the modern era, Tangshan with an estimated 300,000 - 600,000 fatalities, for 3 years! Progress, no?

BlackLab said...

Buffett prefers to buy companies in their entirety.

Given that the Chinese government more or less prohibits the outright purchase of sovereign businesses by foreign buyers - concessions made in conjuction with requirements to join the World Trade Organization notwithstanding -, and the impossibly jingoistic Chinese populace generally frowns upon foreign ownership of anything Chinese - witness the twice failed attempt of Carlyle Group to take a stake in Xugong Group -, I'd say it will be awhile before Buffett owns a piece of China.

Mark B. Spiegel said...

At the very least, Warren could help prevent the oppressed Chinese dissidents from getting too fat, by making sure that his company only advertises DIET Coke.

Anonymous said...

OK, I have a question I'd love to ask "The Oracle": What, in your opinion, is a "value trap" and how do you determine whether companies and equities you intend to purchase are priced as a so-called "value trap" (i.e., moats and financial services firms such as ALD).