"Mr. Buffett, what is your opinion of the semiconductor industry in India?"
I had to chuckle at that one. I was sitting in an office lobby near the Bombay Stock Exchange today watching Warren Buffett's press conference on television, and I was smugly thinking about how much more I probably know about the guy than most of the members of the India media interviewing him.
Buffett has maintained that he is officially, not officially here in India. He's here for charity work on behalf of the Gates Foundation, but the guy rarely deviates from true form regardless of the environment. If the journo had done even a little bit of homework, she'd have known that the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) would provide the same answer to that question 99,999 times out of 100,000:
"I have no special knowledge in that industry, and I'll stick to areas that I understand better ..."
Cheeseburgers and Pepsi
What may be less predictable about Buffett is how he really feels about one of the world's emerging powerhouses: India. Sure, he has revealed a growing penchant for emerging market deals and he has just made his first foray into the nation with a bread-and-butter insurance deal, but what does he really think about the future here?
I am no expert on the man. But I think I know enough about him to know a bit about what he's thinking when he sees a country like India. Allow me to provide some well-educated guesses.
I am now channeling Mr. Warren Buffett.
Buffett's India checklist
1. A healthy appetite for leverage ... for now
India managed to sneak its way out of the financial crisis relatively quickly. That is partly because the nation and its people never strayed into the same risky behaviors that other developed nations did. This pleases Buffet -- I'm sure.
Though the Indian government carries a rather significant debt balance and runs the regular deficit, large commercial banks such as HDFC (NYSE: HDB ) and ICICI (NYSE: IBN ) maintained relatively decent balance sheets throughout the 2000s and came out the other end pushing relatively strong credit quality ratios. On an individual level, Indians are still quite reticent when it comes to debt. Mortgages aren't that widespread (even among people who can afford them) and credit cards are just coming into force. Buffett would like this. That said, the lingering sense here is that like their Western friends, India's appetite for debt is growing and growing quickly, especially among younger generations.
2. A consumer market ready to explode
Consider this fact: According to McKinsey, the Indian middle class is expected to grow more than 10 times from 50 million people in 2005 to 583 million people by 2025. When you consider the fact that Buffett loves to play in the consumer category, you may be looking at one of the biggest reasons why Buffett is spending more and more time here.
To capitalize, Buffett can easily go the insurance route as insurance penetration is nominal, but he can also indirectly take advantage through his various portfolio companies like Nike (NYSE: NKE ) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) . If we know anything about consumer behavior, we know that as folks begin to rake in the dough, their appetite for branded products begins to grow. For companies like Nike and J&J, India represents a massive opportunity when 500 million new potential customers get added to the mix. Buffett, of course, knows this. He's undoubtedly paying attention to the rise of the mass Indian consumer.
3. Lousy controls and even lousier corporate governance
Corporations do a lousy job avoiding scandal in the states, but investors are in for a new nightmare when they consider many common business practices here. Whether it's executive compensation policies or general auditing competency, India has a looooong way to go to earn itself any kind of market premium and the respect of one Mr. Warren Buffett.
Sure, the U.S. puts up its fair share of Enrons and Worldcoms every few years. But cases like Satyam's (OTC BB: SAYCY.PK) massive real estate fraud are still too common to feel totally confident about casually investing one's money here. It's hard to say whether Satyam can even be trusted today -- post-scandal -- thanks to uncertain judicial enforcement. Fortunately, Buffett never blindly invests his money, which leads me to my last bulleted point.
4. An abundance of smart, risk-taking managers and entrepreneurs
Buffett does two things extremely well. He identifies mismatches between price and value in securities and he identifies human talent. As far as No. 2 goes, I'm guessing that Buffett sees what I see when I look around at companies here: an amazing number of talented, hungry, and reliable corporate founders and managers. In fact, the only way to combat the rather complete lack of corporate and regulatory protections mentioned above is to find a trustworthy steward of capital.
Regardless of the nation (be it India or the U.S.), Buffett is always on the hunt for this individual and as long as he finds it, he's likely to invest anywhere. India is chock-full of enterprising capitalists. My favorite that I've met thus far in India has been Deep Kalra, founder and CEO of travel site Makemytrip.com (Nasdaq: MMYT ) , but there are plenty more that Buffett will be looking at in years to come.
The Foolish bottom line
I'm not privy to Buffett's private line, but I am savvy to his basic thinking and I think I know what he sees here in India. It's a mixture of raw energy, medieval legal and political governance, and explosive potential. To answer the question posed in the title of this article, I absolutely think Buffett is very serious about India. Surely, the man's increasing interaction with the nation is not an accident. Think about it.