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The WSJ has a more full profile of Li Lu (subscription required), the Chinese-born hedge-fund manager in line to become a successor to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:

Mr. Li, 44 years old, has emerged as a leading candidate to run a chunk of Berkshire’s $100 billion portfolio, stemming from a close friendship with Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s 86-year-old vice chairman. In an interview, Mr. Munger revealed that Mr. Li was likely to become one of the top Berkshire investment officials. “In my mind, it’s a foregone conclusion,” Mr. Munger said.

The profile discusses Li Lu’s investment in BYD:

The Chinese-American investor already has made money for Berkshire: He introduced Mr. Munger to BYD Co., a Chinese battery and auto maker, and Berkshire invested. Since 2008, Berkshire’s BYD stake has surged more than six-fold, generating profit of about $1.2 billion, Mr. Buffett says. Mr. Li’s hedge funds have garnered an annualized compound return of 26.4% since 1998, compared to 2.25% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index during the same period.

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.

The test for BYD, one of the largest Chinese car makers, will be whether it can deliver on plans to develop the most effective lithium battery on the market that could become an even bigger source of power in the future. Even more promising is the potential to use the lithium battery to store power from other energy sources like solar and wind.

Says Mr. Munger: “The big lithium battery is a game-changer.”

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.

As impressive as that investment is, the WSJ says that Lu’s record is unremarkable without the investment in BYD:

But hiring Mr. Li could be risky. His big bet on BYD is his only large-scale investing home run. Without the BYD profits, his performance as a hedge-fund manager is unremarkable.

It’s unclear whether he could rack up such profits if managing a large portfolio of Berkshire’s.

What’s more, his strategy of “backing up the truck,” to make large investments and not wavering when the markets turn down could backfire in a prolonged bear market. Despite a 200% return in 2009, he was down 13% at the end of June this year, nearly double the 6.6% drop in the S&P-500 during the period.

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.

Read the article.

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Enoch Ko’s Blog has a superb english translation of Li Lu’s introduction to Poor Charlie’s Almanac. Li Lu’s story is nothing short of awe inspiring. He was born in China, survived 1976 Tangshan earthquake, participated in the Tiananmen Square student protests, and became one of the student leaders before escaping to the US after China cracked down on the movement. He then went on to study at Columbia University, where he was one of the first students to receive three degrees simultaneously: a B.A. in Economics from Columbia College, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School. He is now touted as a potential CIO candidate for Berkshire Hathaway and counts Charlie Munger as an investor in his fund. He’s also the source for Berkshire’s investment in BYD (for more on Li Lu’s methodology, Street Capitalist has a great set of notes from his 2010 lecture to the Columbia Business School).  Here’s the translation:

My Teacher: Charlie Munger

Author:Louis Li

May 21, 2010

Source: “Chinese Entrepreneurs”

Twenty years ago, as a young student coming to the United States, I couldn’t have imagined having a career in investments and would never have thought that I’d be fortunate enough to meet with the contemporary investment guru, Mr. Charlie Munger. In 2004, Mr. Munger became my investment partner and has since become my lifelong mentor and friend — an opportunity I would have never dared to dream about.

I graduated from Columbia University in 1996 and founded my investment company in 1997, thus starting my professional investment career. Till this day, the vast majority of individual investors and institutional investors still follow investment philosophies that are based on “bad theories.” For example, they believe in the efficient market hypothesis, and therefore believe that the volatility of stock prices is equivalent to real risk, and they place a strong emphasis on volatility when they judge your performance. In my view, the biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital. Not only is the mere drop in stock prices not risk, but it is an opportunity. Where else do you look for cheap stocks? But I found that while, on the surface, famous fund managers appear to accept the theories of Buffett and Munger and show great respect for their performance, they are in actual practice the exact opposite because their clients are also the exact opposite to Buffett and Munger. They still accept the theories that say “volatility is risk” and “the market is always right.”

A serendipitous opportunity led me to meet my lifelong mentor and friend, Mr. Charlie Munger.

Charlie and I first met at a mutual friend’s house while I was working on investments in LA after graduating from college. The first impression he gave me was “distant” — he often appeared to be absent-minded to the presence of his conversation partners and was, instead, very focused on his own topics. But this old man spoke succinctly; his words full of wisdom for you to mull over.

Seven years after we’ve known each other, at a Thanksgiving gathering in 2003, we had a long heart-to-heart conversation. I introduced every single company I have invested in, or researched, or am interested in to Charlie and he commented on each one of them. I also asked for his advice on the problems I’ve encountered. Towards the end, he told me that the problems I’ve encountered were practically all the problems of Wall Street. The problem is with the way the Wall Street thinks. Even though Berkshire Hathaway has been such a success, there isn’t any company on Wall Street that truly imitates it. If I continue on this path, my worries will never be eliminated. But if I was willing to give up this path right then, to take a path different from Wall Street, he was willing to invest. This really flattered me.

With Charlie’s help, I completely reorganized the company I founded. The structure was changed into that of the early investment partnerships of Buffett and Munger (note: Buffett and Munger each had partnerships to manage their own investment portfolios) and all the shortcomings of the typical hedge funds were eliminated. Investors who stayed made long-term investment guarantees and we no longer accepted new investors.

Thus I entered another golden period in my investment career. I was no longer restricted by the various limitations of Wall Street. The numbers still fluctuate as before, but eventual result is substantial growth. From the fourth quarter of 2004 to the end of 2009, the new fund returned an annual compound growth rate of 36% after deducting operating costs. From the inception of the fund in January 1998, the fund returned an annual compound growth rate in excess of 29%. In 12 years, the capital grew more than 20 folds.

Buffett said that, despite the countless people he has met in his life, he has never encountered anyone else like Charlie. And in the years that I’ve known Charlie, and was fortunate to be able to intimately understand him, I am also deeply convinced that. Even from all the biographies of people from all ages, I have yet to see anyone similar to him. Charlie is such a unique man — his uniqueness is in his thinking and, also, in his personality.

When Charlie thinks about things, he starts by inverting. To understand how to be happy in life, Charlie will study how to make life miserable; to examine how business become big and strong, Charlie first studies how businesses decline and die; most people care more about how to succeed in the stock market, Charlie is most concerned about why most have failed in the stock market. His way of thinking comes from the saying in the farmer’s philosophy: I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I will never go there.

Charlie constantly collects and researches the notable failures in each and every type of people, business, government, and academia, and arranges the causes of failures into a decision-making checklist for making the right decisions. Because of this, he has avoided major mistakes in his decision making in his life and in his career. The importance of this on the performance of Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway over the past 50 years cannot be emphasized enough.

Charlie’s mind is original and creative, never subject to any restrictions, shackles, or dogmas. He has the curiosity of children and possesses the qualities of a top-notch scientists and their scientific research methods. He has a strong thirst for knowledge throughout his life and is interested in practically all areas. To him, with the right approach, any problem can be understood through self-study, building innovations on the foundation laid by those who came earlier. His thinking radiates out to every corner of business, life, and [areas of] knowledge. In his view, everything in the universe is an interactive whole, and all of human knowledge are just pieces to the study of the comprehensive whole. Only by combining of these knowledge through a latticework of mental models can they become useful in decision-making and in developing the proper understanding of things. So he advocates studying all the truly important theories in all disciplines, and building on this foundation the so-called “worldly wisdom” as a tool for studying the important issues in business and investments.

Charlie’s way of thinking is based on being honest about knowledge. He believes that in this complex and changing world, there will always be limitations to human cognition and understanding, so you must use all the tools at your disposal. And, at the same time, you must constantly collect new verifiable evidences, correcting and updating your knowledge, and knowing what you know and what you don’t know.

But even so, the true insights a person can get in life is still very limited, so correct decision-making must necessarily be confined to your “circle of competence”. A “competence” that has no defined borders cannot be called a true competence. How do you define your own circle of competence? Charlie said, if I want to hold a view, if I cannot refute or disprove this view better than the smartest, most capable, most qualified person on Earth, then I’m not worthy of holding that view. So when Charlie truly holds a certain point of view, his thinking is not only original and unique, but also almost never wrong.

Read the rest of the english translation of Li Lu’s introduction to Poor Charlie’s Almanac.

Hat tip Toby and SD.

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