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Who Is "China's Warren Buffett"?

By Alex Dumortier, CFA - Dec 11, 2015 at 12:15PM

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Guo Guangchang, the chairman of China's Fosun Group, has modeled Fosun on Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.

U.S. stocks are lower in late morning trading on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.00%) and the S&P 500 (^GSPC -0.16%) down 1.46% and down 1.52%, respectively, at noon EST.

Caixin Online, the portal of the top English language magazine on business and finance in China, reported yesterday that China's top private sector conglomerate, Fosun Group, has been unable to reach its chairman, Guo Guangchang, since midday yesterday.

In August, a Shanghai court found Guo had inappropriate relations with a businessman who was convicted of misuse of funds at state-backed enterprises.

While this matter is obviously of concern (not least to Guo's family), I want to look the comparison between Guo and Warren Buffet -- which he himself entertains, referring to himself a "Chinese disciple" of the Berkshire Hathaway Inc CEO -- based on some of his quotes (for more of the same, see this interview with Leaders Magazine).

Beginnings in business
Both men showed early entrepreneurial aspirations: Just as Buffett built a thriving franchise delivering newspapers when he was a high school student in Washington, D.C. (among other business ventures), Guo sold bread door to door twice a week at his college dormitory at Fudan University.

Guo was driven out of necessity, however; he told Bloomberg: "I had a government subsidy then, but living costs were high." He was earning about 30 yuan a month ($4.80) in 1987. By comparison, Buffett was far ahead of him, earning $175 a month from his delivery route alone in 1946 dollars, "at a time when a grown man felt well paid if he made $3,000 a year for full-time work," according to Buffett's biography, The Snowball.

Focused on the bottom line
No one doubts Buffett's credentials as a hard-driving capitalist. Here's Guo:

First of all, we believe that financial returns are the basis of all investments -- this is clearly the logic of commerce.

Still, it's not all about the Benjamins:

Second, a successful project is not just about financial returns. We also harbor hopes for bigger social values, including the creation of greater value for local communities, our customers, and our collaborative partners.

On the role of insurance at Fosun
Just as insurance has played a critical role in the construction of Berkshire Hathaway (with GEICO, in particular), Guo places it at the heart of Fosun's strategy:

Fosun has now become clearly aware of its identity as a globalized investment group and, therefore, when weighing different approaches, we realize that the "insurance + investment" model of Buffett and Berkshire is even more worthy of our study.

Owning that insurance company means we own [13 billion euros] in insurance assets that we can use for investment ... It's not the first time we have invested in an insurance company. We understand insurance.

On the sources of Buffett's success

I believe that Buffett's success does not lie in his being smarter than others, but rather in the fact that he is dedicated to a long-term, value-based investment discipline. He is also sensitive to the markets, rational and not greedy, and has penetrating insights and demonstrates strong entrepreneurship. Therefore, we have been learning from Buffett's model and attributes, rather than simply replicating what he has done.

But there are more than personal qualities behind Buffett's success:

In particular, Buffett's success is also attributable to a factor that must not be overlooked: He has been steadfastly bullish on America and has always believed in his own country.

That second point is sometimes overlooked. Buffett is the first to say that he is phenomenally lucky to have been born in the United States, and that he has been able to ride (with exceptional skill) the country's extraordinary post-war expansion.

On China's long-term potential
Guo is also lucky to have been born in China at the time that he was, and just as Buffett was (and is) bullish on America, Guo is extremely optimistic about the prospects for China:

Similarly, Fosun is firmly rooted in China, meaning that it is backed by one of the most vibrant economies in the world. As such, China's momentum factor has become a unique strength possessed by Fosun.

However, when [people] look at China from a consumption perspective, there will be nothing but good news: the number of people belonging to the middle class here will be ranked first globally in six years, with a consumption number ranked second globally and set to grow rapidly.

On the greatest areas of opportunity in China

The rapidly emerging middle class has brought about new investment opportunities in three areas. The first is the upgrading of consumption; consumption will represent China's major economic momentum going forward and the branding trend will become even stronger.

It is now the right moment to invest in entry-level luxury products. The second area is experience-based consumption -- those experience-based consumption areas such as tourism, catering, food, movies, television, and entertainment are enjoying huge opportunities for development. Less importantly, personal finance is the third area.

Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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