Barton Biggs: The Sage of China

Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

The first time I ever spoke with Barton Biggs, I was squatting in my sister’s dorm room at Hong Kong University. It was 1994, and I had moved there without a job because it seemed like an exciting place for a young reporter to be. Many of the people I called for interviews would pretend they didn’t hear the Cantonese chatter in the common room, or seem irritated at dealing with an obvious amateur.

Not Biggs. When I got on the phone with Morgan Stanley’s chief global strategist, he began quizzing me: Where was I? Why had I come to Hong Kong? What were my initial impressions? Had I been to the mainland yet? “You have picked the right part of the world to be,” he said. “Every young person should spend time in Asia.”

It was a telling exchange. Just months earlier, Biggs had returned from an eight-day trip to China and famously declared himself to be “tuned in, overfed, and maximum bullish.” That had increased the flow of U.S. investment dollars into Hong Kong at a time when China was a shaky bet. Biggs was not oblivious to the risks of emerging markets—his weekly reports were clear about the need for transparency, stability, and caution when betting on countries like China—but he was also clear about the long-term value of going where the growth would be.

Biggs died on July 14 at the age of 79. While many people know the founder and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asset Management as the man who predicted the bull market for U.S. stocks in the 1980s and the 2000 dot-com bust, I will always think of him as the sage of China. He spent much less time there than many investment gurus, but he fundamentally understood the drivers of global growth: low-cost labor, a strong central government, and ambitious, hard-working people. While he remained openly skeptical about some of the data issued in Beijing, he was far more skeptical about investors like Jim Chanos who were betting against China’s ability to grow. Having traveled worldwide as a global investor for decades, Biggs had learned to test the data that he and others were analyzing with his own due diligence on the ground. Like Warren Buffett, he was an investor driven by both big-picture trends and common sense.

I had the opportunity to speak with Biggs a number of times during my five years at the Wall Street Journal in Asia, and later in New York. I never became an expert on investing or on Asia myself. And yet Biggs was someone who came to an interview with his own questions, as well as answers. Every conversation was an opportunity to augment his own research. Curiosity had taken him well beyond the borders of U.S. investing early in his career, and continued to drive him at Traxis Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded after retiring from Morgan Stanley in 2003.

I’ll never forget one piece of advice he gave me in 1994. While Hong Kong may be a gateway to China, he said, the then-British colony was not the country itself. He suggested I travel up to Beijing and Shanghai to get a better sense of China and its potential. He was right. Because of that constant curiosity and drive to understand what was really going on, his bets were often right, too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.