Asia's Warren Buffett should learn silence is the best call

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am

The HSI will hover between 27,000 and 30,000 in the first quarter, and faces greater downward pressure in the second quarter. In other words the market will be volatile.

Lee Shau-kee,

Yesterday's big stock-picker

Years ago back in Vancouver there was a period when the weatherman was getting it more than usually wrong and someone wrote in to the newspaper to say that a native chief up the coast had a far better record of weather forecasting.

The editor recognised the circulation-boosting qualities of a good contest with a daily news angle and he thus set it up - the official weatherman against the native chief for one month.

The native chief won of course and, when asked how he did it, had a simple answer: 'Stick my head out the window and predict for tomorrow what I see today.'

This rates as no great revelation. As anyone who has lived there knows, there are really only two seasons on the British Columbia coastline - Winter and August - and most years even August is spent under a grey wet cloud. When you see people there with brown skin it's not because they're tanned. It's because they rust.

Lee Shau-kee, Asia's Warren Buffett we styled him, must have learned his forecasting in Vancouver - predict for tomorrow what you see today - and found no reason to modify the technique when applying it to the Hang Seng Index - 'in other words the market will be volatile'.

Way to go, Sir, what a discovery! Did you know that fish swim in water, birds fly in the air and bears fornicate in the woods? They really do. Someone ought to tell the parks board about it some day, the bears, I mean. Can't have that, you know.

I must admit, however, that Mr Lee's first-quarter forecast is a bit more upbeat than the present trend of the market. Let's take the mid-point of 'hover between 27,000 and 30,000'. That mid-point would be 28,500.

Given an average index close in January of 25,500, February and March would have to average 3,000 on the index to achieve a first quarter 'hover' of 28,500 and that 3,000 would be almost 25 per cent up from present levels or, on an annualised basis, well over 100 per cent.

Seems to me then that what we have here is an example not so much of predict-for-tomorrow-what-you-see-today as of be-tomorrow-what-you-are-today.

Let me introduce you to another pundit who apparently doesn't know how to change his call. The market may have gone sour but Lee Shau-kee is still stamping and snorting, so bullish that he has to walk into his office sideways in the morning because his horns won't fit through the door otherwise.

And that's the way it is with most stock market pundits who get a lot of media attention. Mr Big Investment Guru stays rooted to one call, almost always Buy, and sooner or later he proves right at a time when weight of opinion is against him.

This gives him credibility and he attracts followers, more all the time as he continues to say 'Buy' and the market keeps going up, particularly because people like that Buy message more than they do the Sell one.

But no matter how long it continues and no matter how famous our man becomes, sooner or later the market will go the other way and then our man's continued Buy mantra will lose him all the acclaim he earlier won. In fact he'll just be made to look foolish. What we have then is another brilliant comet of the investment business gone round the Sun and back to obscurity.

I've seen it at the top of every bull market in Hong Kong and can offer you a gallery Where-Are-They-Now? names of people who have had to retire from the game with red faces. I've made a fool of myself that way on occasion.

In fact, the only pundit I have seen survive the experience in Asia is 'Dr Doom', Marc Faber, and he managed it because of a consistent career of pessimism. Investors have always wanted to hear him because he offers the contrary view and argues it well. He's been right on his big call about gold, too, come to think of it.

But the 'Buy' prophets, all of them much the same, never seem to last longer than a single cycle.

The people who truly get it right in buying at the right time generally do it quietly and are never quite so sure of themselves.

The real Warren Buffett, for instance, doesn't ago around shouting big calls on the Dow Jones Industrial Average every month or making himself out as an authority on all major currencies and markets across the world. Only Asia's Warren Buffett does that.

I shall thus offer my own piece of advice to this man. It's time to shut up, Sir.