Dining with Buffett losing its novelty?

By Xie Jun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/14 18:18:39

Chinese entrepreneurs say auctioned lunch with famed businessman worth it; economists remain skeptical

Warren Buffett laughs amid a shareholder meeting. Photo: IC


The price for the annual Warren Buffett charity lunch auction has closed at $2.68 million, down 22 percent from last year. Some Chinese investors who have also paid to dine with the famed investor maintain that the expensive lunch is worth the money. But experts suggest that the bidders are less interested in charitable giving and sharing business ideas and more interested in gaining publicity. They argue that Buffett's investment methods are somewhat outdated for the current time

Lunch with Warren Buffett, a legendary US investor and the world's fourth-richest person, has lost a bit of aura from fans around the globe this year.

According to a Bloomberg report on Saturday, an anonymous bidder had pledged $2.68 million for the privilege of having lunch with the billionaire investor. He had beaten the other 40 competitors in an online auction that concluded on Friday. 

The final bidding price this year has plunged by about 22 percent compared with the $3.46 million winning pledge in 2016. Last year's winning bid tied with the previous record set in 2012, a fact that has been pointed out by several overseas media, including Bloomberg and zerohedge.com.

Since 2000, Buffett's annual auction tradition has witnessed numerous fans placing bids worth millions of dollars in the hope of winning a lunch with the business magnate at New York City's famous steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky. 

Proceeds of the meal go to the Glide Foundation, a charity organization based in San Francisco that helps the homeless.

Among the many bidders hoping to dine with Buffett over the years, several were Chinese. 

In 2006, Chinese investor Duan Yongping bought the chance of eating with Buffett at $620,100. In 2008, Zhao Danyang, general manager of the Pureheart Capital Asia Limited, won the dining bid at $2.11 million. In 2015, Zhu Ye, who runs gaming company Dalian Zeus Entertainment Co, won the opportunity to have lunch with Buffett after he donated about $2.35 million.

Zhao declined to comment on his lunch with Buffett for "some personal reasons", according to an e-mail note his company sent to the Global Times on Monday.

Zhu was unavailable to take interviews due to schedule time constraints, a representative from Dalian Zeus told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Worth buying the lunch?

There has always been suspicion about whether spending extortionate amounts of money on solely buying a lunch with Buffett is worth it. Nonetheless, according to past media reports, the Chinese entrepreneurs who won the famous bid said it was worth the money. 

For example, according to a report published by Beijing-based newspaper China Times in February 2014, Zhao said that he received useful investment advice from Buffett during the lunch, advice that helped him to avoid mistakes in the future.

Shanghai-based news portal thepaper.cn also cited Zhu as saying that he had learned a lot from his longtime idol during the lunch. "Truth is always simple and it's important to hold on to it - I learned that from Buffett," he noted.

Zhu also said that Buffett had been quite persistent throughout his career regarding which industries he wanted to invest in. Buffett's perseverance influenced Zhu to shape his own investment philosophies. "Inspired by him, I will also make my investment directions more focused," he was quoted as saying.

"I got everything I hoped from the lunch. It was worth it and I can't help it if people don't believe me," he remarked.

Yu Fenghui, a financial commentator, told the Global Times on Monday that buyers of the "Buffett lunch" can receive several benefits, learning investment lessons from him is the relatively smaller one of them.

"First, companies that want to participate in charity work can have their ends meet in this activity. Second, the lunch can help bring the companies under the limelight, which is good advertising. Third, the buyers can have lunch with Buffett and get to learn things from him, though I doubt that Buffett would be able to get all his lifelong investment experience off his chest for a rich stranger [in such short time]," he noted.

Gao Liankui, research program director of China and World Economic Governance at Renmin University of China, also said that corporate propaganda may be what truly lies behind those meetings.

"If the companies choose to do TV commercials, they can only get a few seconds of public exposure with the same amount of money they spend on buying a lunch with Buffett, but with so much less publicity," he told the Global Times on Monday.

A general manager of a Jiangsu-based manufacturing firm, on the condition of anonymity, told the Global Times on Tuesday that, if financially capable, he would also consider buying a chance to dine with Buffett, "just for the publicity sake."

Doubts from economists

According to Yu, Buffett's philosophy of long-term investment has helped Buffett himself earn a lot of money in the past.

"This is what made him famous in the world, including China, that is, the philosophy that he has a distinctive, unique set of investment methods which proved successful for some time," he noted.

But Buffett's investment methods are becoming more and more outdated, Yu stressed. "He is a smart investor, but I have to say he is walking off the altar as his investment philosophies have become increasingly questionable in recent years."

"For example, his attitude of repulsion against high-tech stocks has caused him to miss the chance of investing in many prospective tech companies like Google,'' Yu added.

Gao also noted that Buffett's investment methods have several flaws.

"He doesn't understand macroeconomics; he doesn't understand industrial trends or new concepts like environmental protection, high tech and artificial intelligence," he said.

"His investment philosophies were useful before the 1990s, but they sure have problems for the current age," he noted.

According to a report published by Fortune magazine in May, Buffett had started to regret having not invested in tech companies. At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting on May 6, Buffett noted that he was "too dumb to realize what was going to happen" and ''underestimated the success'' of tech companies like Amazon. "That is a different world than what existed in the past," he noted, suggesting he initially never anticipated the profound influence the Internet would have on the business world.

The report also noted that Buffett had started to change his investment mindset recently and that it had paid off. For example, Buffett's buying of Apple Inc's shares has boosted his company's portfolio by about $2 billion in 2017.

Both Gao and Yu also noted that Buffett's long-term investment methods are not fit to be replicated in China, especially for private investors.

"On China's financial markets, where speculation prevails, long-term investment might not be a good choice," Yu noted.


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