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Berkshire Hathaway Inc
When Hu Bin started his blog in early 2008, he was a skinny 22-year-old college dropout with a perpetually skeptical look on his face and little doubt he’d soon be a household name. The previous year the Shanghai Stock Exchange had been flooded by speculators. For a brief period, it was the second-busiest exchange in the world. It was also beginning a dramatic fall ushered in by the global financial crisis. Hu says he considered the market, considered his audience, and sensed it was time to make his mark. “It really started when Premier Wen Jiabao announced a 4 trillion renminbi rescue plan for the economy,” Hu says. “I knew I just needed to be clever and use this chance of high liquidity in the market to make myself famous.”
Now 26, Hu is China’s most popular online market commentator. His blog has gotten more than 400 million visits. His posts are equal parts outlandish and thoughtful, and employ liberal use of bolded, multicolored text and exclamation points. Hu writes under the name Yerongtian—a character from a real estate-themed Hong Kong soap opera—and has been known to pick fights with other commentators, whom he says suffer from a “lack of emotion.” He has posted at least one picture of cats, and multiple pictures of himself wearing sunglasses to help illustrate his opinions. In 2009 the state-run newspaper China Daily listed him (under his alias) among the 10 people in the nation with the most influence on China’s stock market. “Back then,” Hu says of 2008, “any eccentric behavior would attract people’s attention. If you understood this vital point, you could control people’s minds.”
Hu grew up in Kunming, a southwestern city of 6.4 million that’s far from China’s centers of finance. He learned about the stock market, he says, by watching his mother invest in her spare time. She put money into the market in the 1990s, early days for Chinese investment, and lost it all. “Now she invests her money in gold,” Hu says.
He started at Kunming University, intending to study philosophy and Marxism, but quit, thinking he would take up investing himself. “I was interested in psychology,” he says. “I wanted to know why everyone wanted to bet their future on an uncontrollable thing.”
Hu admits that in the early days of his blog, his knowledge of the market was thinner than it is now. He has always, however, understood his audience and how to keep it interested. Hu’s approach to his blog is purposefully bombastic, earning him vocal critics along with followers. In 2009 he got into a spat with another stock commentator, a man named Hou Ning. Hou, at least according to Chinese news reports from the time, holds the record for the longest nickname of any stock commentator in history—“Commander in Chief of the Stock Market Army.” The two made a 1 million yuan (roughly $160,000) bet on the future of the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index, with Hu wagering it would reach 4000 by the end of the year. It didn’t, and Hu didn’t pay, but he got what he wanted out of the rivalry. “Who would have paid attention to me if I had said 3000?” he asks. “Everyone already knew it would reach 3000.” In 2010 he promised to throw himself off one of Shanghai’s tallest buildings if the SSE Composite Index didn’t reach 5800 by the end of the year. It didn’t: Hu is still with us.
Photograph by Ka Xiaoxi
Stunts aside, Hu has spent the last four years working through his thinking on the ups and downs of China’s economy in public, slipping thoughtful essays in between bouts of hyperbole. He spent his early days predicting the rise of the Shanghai Stock Exchange and now foresees its continuing decline. One recent headline: “Doomsday Runs Wild, the Stock Market will likely drop 200 points!!” In another post, he explains that a drop in the market may not be bad. It could give the authorities some space to make reforms without worrying about overheating, and help to attract more foreign investment. “The stock market is not only an economic weather vane,” he writes. “It is a political weather vane.”
Hu says he is not a financial rabble-rouser. Most laypeople, he says, should stay away from investing in individual stocks. The people who read his blog, however, are generally not professionals; retail investors make up the majority of the volume of trading in the Chinese market. According to the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission, there are around 72 million retail investors in China, accounting for three-quarters of the trading on domestic exchanges. And according to China’s state media, the majority of these investors have less than 1 million yuan in the market. It’s a group of people Hu says he understands well, even if it means giving sometimes conflicting advice. He may advise them to stay out of the market, but he knows the irresistible pull of equities on the newly wealthy, particularly in a country where there are few opportunities for investment. In effect, he’s giving advice to people he knows probably shouldn’t be in the market but are going to invest anyway.
“The stock market in the United States is managed by regulations,” Hu says. “The Chinese market is managed by humans. Chinese investors aren’t as mature as American investors, and I write to meet their immediate needs.”
Hu’s interest in the human story behind the market sets him apart from other bloggers, at least in his eyes. “They regard their blogs as livelihood, while I take my blog as my friend and pour my emotions and love into it. The emotion is what connects me to the readers—they feel more attached to my words.” The connection is important in part, says Hu, because Chinese investors have been taught that networking can solve anything. Even in the stock market, relationships are the deciding factor. “When it comes to stock investment, Chinese people always try to get inside information from someone within their social network. Americans like to read through financial statements, but Chinese people like to believe that their stocks go up because they have more inside information than anyone else.”
Today, Hu spends most of his time in Beijing, where he moved in 2009. On a recent Sunday, he is drinking tea at one of Beijing’s most expensive hotels, wearing a tie and a tan Calvin Klein puffy jacket that he does not take off. Instead, he stuffs his hands in his jacket pockets while he talks, looking exactly like what he is—a blogger who’s hit it big, though he’s coy about, financially, how big. His sense of humor is also just slightly out of step with the tie. When asked about online nicknames, he says he’s not aware of any and then, unblinking and serious, says: “I prefer the nickname Batman.”
For all his success, Hu still considers blogging a hobby, not a career. “Fame is vanity,” he says, “while investment asks for real competence.” He’s now in the process of raising money for a private equity fund that, over the next few decades, he hopes to build into something like Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A). Again, he won’t say how much he’s raised. Although his blog posts are currently predicting dark times, Hu has faith that the Chinese market will recover, and he’s optimistic about the market and the future in general. “New Chinese leaders are going to take over, which will offer China economic opportunity in the following 10 years,” he says. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has promised the country will push forward with reforms, something that Hu is excited about. He’s also upbeat about China’s recent leadership transition. Political stability, he says, is a market good. “The opportunity will be mainly in China’s capital market, because it’s still in an initial stage,” he says. “I need to take advantage of this initial stage before everyone realizes there’s a gold mine when the market matures.”