Words from the Sage of Whampoa

Li Ka-shing, like Warren Buffett in the US, is making very interesting pronouncements at his results meetings.

Each year, legendary investor Warren Buffett gives his views on the world at the annual general meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. So prized have these nuggets become that they have even been turned into a book.

Now, Hong Kong legend, Li Ka-shing's sagacity is also being dispensed. Last week, at Hutch's interim results meeting he took questions and his answers were transcribed and sent to the media's fax machines. In this new age of corporate transparency this is obviously the right thing to do. But it also means his interesting remarks can be captured for posterity.

His views on Hong Kong remain sometimes paradoxical. In a positive note, he signaled his loyalty to the city when he noted: "If there are investment opportunities in Hong Kong which can help alleviate the unemployment problem, even if the returns are lower than those possibly generated overseas, we would make that investment."

Contrasted against that, were remarks that suggest he now feels Hong Kong is not what it was, and that its people have gone soft. When asked if he would hire new staff, he replied: "We hire new staff everyday. We should be hiring around a thousand people just in Hong Kong. However, nowadays, a lot of people are discriminatory towards accepting jobs, complaining about salaries being low and work being demanding." This is not the first time the man nicknamed 'Superman' has aired such sentiments.

He is continually irked by the view that he has too much economic power in Hong Kong. He says: "The combined market capitalization of our listed companies in Hong Kong is less than 13% of the total market cap of the Hong Kong stock market, so how can one say we have a monopoly? I started my company from a very small business. I didn't get any help from the previous British-Hong Kong government nor the present SAR government."

Which brings him to the subject of anti-competition laws, of which Hong Kong has none. He says: "Do you want the performance of many companies to be average or do you want some companies to give outstanding performance? When there is already competition, why are laws needed?"

On the subject of 3G, he says he is delighted that no other European telcos seem to be executing their rollouts: "We are happy to have less competition. Imagine CSL [the main Hong Kong mobile competitor] not operating in Hong Kong for a full month."

He says that he is confident 3G will be a success: "Back when we launched Orange, I myself tested the service and in the same way for 3G, I have tested and have confidence too. If you recall, at the time of the sale of Orange, the company was not making profits yet, so we always have to look at the long term."

Overall, he is "cautiously optimistic" on the US, but very bullish on China (although he doesn't want to build powerplants there). He says of China: "90% of business corporations with manufacturing plants in China are making money... there are plenty of opportunities in Mainland China for the manufacturing and services industries."

Then again, his views on China again reveal a paradox. He says Hutch has investments in 41 countries and "our major investments are placed in democratic countries. We like democracy. We invest in countries with good legal systems and public order."

China, of course, has no democracy (and a legal system few have described as 'good') and yet he is very bullish on investing in China. Taken to its logical conclusion, does this mean he likes investing in countries with democracy, with China being the one exception?

And finally, when asked about his future retirement, he answered: "judging from my replies today, I don't think I need to retire." His grateful investors - probably just like Buffett's - no doubt agree.