Two of my most popular posts on Street Capitalist have been about Li Lu. The first post was: Li Lu: Berkshire Hathaway CIO Candidate? I followed up with a second post, transcribing a lecture that Li gave to Columbia students in 2010 (Li Lu’s 2010 Lecture).
In the first post, I speculated as to whether Li might emerge as one of the Berkshire CIO candidates:
This past weekend was the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A / BRK.B) annual shareholder meeting. At one point during the Q&A, a questioner asked Warren Buffett about the status of Berkshire’s CIO candidates. Charlie Munger remarked that one candidate who he is particular close with was up 200% in 2009 with 0 leverage. Some people think that the person Munger is referring to is Li Lu, a fund manager who turned Munger and Buffett onto BYD.
Li personally owns at least 2% of BYD, which rose 400% in 2009. I don’t know anything about his investments beyond that one position, but I know he is a huge believer in taking concentrated, high conviction positions. If that is the case here, BYD’s spectacular results must have contributed a lot to his returns for 2009 which may make a 200% for the year possible.
Li Lu: Berkshire Hathaway CIO Candidate? (Street Capitalist)
(From left to right: David Sokol of MidAmerican, Warren Buffett, Wang Chuan-Fu of BYD and Li Lu. Photo: David Yellen)
Today, Susan Pulliam has a great article in the WSJ which sheds light on Li Lu, speculating that he might be a CIO candidate. Pulliam managed to interview Charlie Munger and get some of his thoughts on Li Lu:
One of Mr. Li’s human-rights contacts was Jane Olson, the wife of Ronald Olson, a Berkshire director and early partner at a Los Angeles law firm Mr. Munger helped found. Mr. Li began spending time at the Olsons’ weekend home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and on Thanksgiving 2003 met Mr. Munger, whose home is nearby.
Mr. Munger says Mr. Li made an immediate impression. The two shared a “suspicion of reported earnings of finance companies,” Mr. Munger says. “We don’t like the bull—.”
Mr. Munger gave Mr. Li some of his family’s nest egg to invest to open a “value” fund betting on beaten-down stocks.
Two weeks later, Mr. Li says he met again with Mr. Munger to make certain he had heard right. In early 2004, Mr. Li opened a fund, putting in $4 million of his own money and raising an additional $50 million from other investors. Mr. Munger’s family put in $50 million, followed by another $38 million. Part of Mr. Li’s agreement with Mr. Munger was that the fund would be closed to new investors.
Chinese Investor Emerges as Possible Buffett Successor (WSJ)
The company that got people talking about Li Lu, as a potential successor to Buffett is BYD. Most people thought it was strange that Buffett would be investing in an automaker, based out of China of all places. But, I think that one of the allures for early investors in BYD was the fact that it is known as one of the best manufacturers of batteries in the world. Wang Chuan-Fu, BYD’s founder and CEO had to work hard to build his company with limited access to capital and technology. As a result, he fostered a corporate culture that thrived on thriftiness and ingenuity. That’s the kind of corporate culture Berkshire likes to invest in. Pulliam gives us details on Li Lu’s timing on BYD:
Mr. Li’s big hit began in 2002 when he first invested in BYD, then a fledgling Chinese battery company. Its founder came from humble beginnings and started the company in 1995 with $300,000 of borrowed money.
Mr. Li made an initial investment in BYD soon after its initial public offering on the Hong Kong stock exchange. (BYD trades in the U.S. on the Pink Sheets and was recently quoted at $6.90 a share.)
When he opened the fund, he loaded up again on BYD shares, eventually investing a significant share of the $150 million fund with Mr. Munger in BYD, which already was growing quickly and had bought a bankrupt Chinese automaker. “He bought a little early and more later when the stock fell, which is his nature,” Mr. Munger says.
In 2008, Mr. Munger persuaded Mr. Sokol to investigate BYD for Berkshire as well. Mr. Sokol went to China and when he returned, he and Mr. Munger convinced Mr. Buffett to load up on BYD. In September, Berkshire invested $230 million in BYD for a 10% stake in the company.
BYD’s business has been on fire. It now has close to one-third of the global market for lithium-ion batteries, used in cell phones. Its bigger plans involve the electric and hybrid-vehicle business.
One of the interesting aspects of having Li as a CIO candidate is that because of his international focus, particularly on China, he might be able to find the next great wave of global businesses. In his 2010 lecture, Li talks about analyzing BYD by looking at the early history of GM:
Q: I read that when you look at an industry, you look at the most miserable failures of that industry to see whether you will invest in it. Can you talk a bit about that?
Li Lu: It goes back to understanding the business. Once you have that understanding you can extend it to understanding an industry. A certain industry might have characteristics that make it different than others. In certain industries you might have better prospects than others. Find the best of the players in the industry and the worst players. And see how they perform over time. And if the worst players perform reasonably well relative to the great players — that tells you something about the characteristics about the industry. That is not always the case but it is often the case. Certain industries are better than others.
So if you can understand a business inside out you can then eventually extend that to understanding an industry. If you can get that insight, it is enormously beneficial. If you can then concentrate that on a business with superior economics in an industry with superior economics with good management and you get them at the right price — the chances are that you can stay for a very long time.
Q: Did you have any specific example?
Li Lu: I have studied many over the years. As I have said, don’t copy other people’s insights because it doesn’t work. Automobiles are amazing. If you look at the early days it started with several players and concentrated with just a few players that became enormously profitable. Then they became miserable. You then see how the life cycle turns with new automakers in China and India. Everything has a reason. If you want a good idea — look at General Motors from the early days, look every 5 years and see how the performance metrics change. The Graham and Dodd Center should collect all the data and perform some kind of commentary on it…
If you have that data, the amount of insight that would yield would be astonishing. So instead of just accepting the conventional wisdom that the auto business is bad — that is just not true. Or if you say well those guys just unbelievable money machines — that is not true either. So if you can really examine those statistics and understand it that will give you an advantage for analyzing new situations like in China and India. That is really what turns me on. Understanding this gives you a tremendous leg up.
This to me, is one of the advantages in having a CIO candidate that is focused on international opportunities. As nations like China and India develop, they’re bound to naturally mimic the development of Western countries in certain ways. They might actually start to have great businesses that arise out of necessity, “repeating” what’s gone on in America. This is particularly true in areas such as logistics and transportation which become more and more essential as countries develop. In a few years there might be domestic versions of FedEx or Sysco in China and India — if there aren’t already.
Just how much did Li and Buffett make off of BYD?
BYD is a big roll of the dice for Mr. Li. He is an informal adviser to the company and owns about 2.5% of the company.
Mr. Li’s fund’s $40 million investment in BYD is now worth about $400 million. Berkshire’s $230 million investment in 2008 now is worth about $1.5 billion. Messrs. Buffett, Munger, Sokol, Li and Microsoft founder and Berkshire Director Bill Gates plan to visit China and BYD in September.
Pulliam ends the article with Li’s analogy between investing and soccer:
Mr. Li declined to name his fund’s other holdings. Despite this year’s losses, the $600 million fund is up 338% since its late 2004 launch, an annualized return of around 30%, compared to less than 1% for the S&P 500 index.
Mr. Li told investors he took a lesson from watching the World Cup, comparing his investment style to soccer. “You may very well work extremely hard and seldom score,” he says. “But occasionally—very occasionally—you get one or two great chances and you make decisive strikes that really matter.”
Li’s approach to investing is really similar to Buffett’s own advice to wait for the market to give you fat pitches. I think most investors mess up by lacking that kind of patience.
In environments where there aren’t a whole lot of bargains, some value investors will begin to relax their standards in order to participate more in the market’s rallies. This almost always ends in disaster. If you are not disciplined with value investing you can get yourself into tight spots. It’s a strategy that often encourages taking high conviction, concentrated approaches to investing. An investor without discipline might end up with a portfolio of only 8 stocks at really expensive valuations. When the bubble bursts, their portfolio will take a massive hit and usually perform worse than the market indices because of that level concentration.
In his 2010 lecture, Li emphasized the need to know what you don’t know when investing. That might sound a bit like a riddle, but it’s really about acknowledging that you can’t know everything and there are going to be risks that you cannot anticipate. If you accept that idea, you’re always going to be looking for businesses with strong competitive advantages and seek to buy at a discount to intrinsic value. That way you have some protection against those unknown risks. With that intellectual framework and a willingness to employ rigorous analysis, you should be able to identify good investments and profit immensely.