Why Didn’t China Attend the 2019 Berkshire Hathaway Meeting? (Pt 1 of 3)

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The 2019 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha was awesome. As always. But there was a very conspicuous absence of visitors from China this year. The decrease from last year was unmistakable. So what happened?

In 2018, the Berkshire event was likely the most popular “China event” in the USA.. It was crazy. Of the approximately 35,000 people who attended, media estimates I read said 6-8,000 were from China. You could basically hear Mandarin everywhere in Omaha during the weekend. And there were lots of events hosted by Chinese media companies (Tencent, Sina, and others). I ended up running from on panel at 4-5 events – where everything was in Mandarin.

This year was completely different. You certainly could see lots of people from China and I met quite a few that were studying at US universities (especially business schools). But I suspect it was half or maybe a third of last year.

Probably the biggest China event is the US-China Investor Forum, hosted by Yahoo Finance (photo above, video is here). This is part of Yahoo’s exclusive broadcast of the shareholders’ meeting – and the US-China  forum was something Warren Buffett had specified as a requirement for the broadcast. And you have to hand it to the folks at Yahoo Finance (Julia LaRoche, Andy Serwer, Kevin Burke). They did a fantastic job with the event – including having the governor of Nebraska make a surprise appearance. I got to meet fellow panelists Yifei Lu and Lawrence Cunningham, whose books I have read many times. Although, the highlight for me was meeting Thomas Russo, who is an investor I have been teaching about in at Peking University for like 8 years.

But back to my question: Why didn’t China attend the Berkshire event this year? What happened?

I don’t know of any reliable numbers for Chinese attendance. But I have been asking around. The common explanations I get are the following:

Difficulty getting visas.

This is the most common explanation I hear. No idea if it’s true. Certainly in the past months, professors and students have been having visa issues in the USA.

Keeping a lower profile.

I think this is probably true for a lot of companies and media outlets. And maybe why there were fewer China events this year.

The other big China event in the US is CES (Consumer Electronics) in Las Vegas. And when I was there in January, there were about 1,300 Chinese companies presenting and hosting booths. That was down from 1,500 the year before. And that was kind of the big media question. Why are there fewer Chinese companies? The common answer I got was that companies were keeping a lower profile due to the US-China trade sitaution.

Just going somewhere else this year.

This is actually a pretty common phenomenon. Certain things become popular in China (buying homes in Toronto, taking trips to Chiang Mai, etc.) for a while and then something else becomes popular and people shift. You see things wax and wane in popularity frequently (especially if the exchange rates become more favorable somewhere else). Maybe given all the US-China difficulties, people just decided to go somewhere else this year. I think this is probably most of what is going on.

If true, I think the Chinese crowds will be back next year. Especially if Berkshire does some outreach (a good idea).

Anyways, I’m guessing. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

In Part 2 and Part 3, I have written up my notes from the weekend.

Cheers, -jeff

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I write and speak about digital China and Asia’s latest tech trends.

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