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Warning that Warren Buffett's Bet on Chinese Copycat BYD Could 'Backfire'

A lengthy "special report" by Reuterstoday warns that Berkshire Hathaway's high-profile investment in BYD, a Chinese electric car maker, could "backfire" on Warren Buffett and his company.

BYD is criticized for "stealing designs from rivals, using those savings to undercut competitors on price and scrimping on safety."

Among other sources, the article quotes from a diplomatic cable "revealed by WikiLeaks and provided to Reuters by a third party." In October of 2009, Guangzhou Consul-General wrote:

"While BYD has certainly achieved a measure of success based on a business approach of copying and then modifying car designs just enough to convince Chinese courts that the company has not infringed on patents, it is far less certain that foreign courts will be as sympathetic."

Reuters notes that while analysts say BYD may be "broadly typical" of Chinese automakers, "even in that context, BYD stands out, and there are questions about whether the company's much-ballyhooed — and oft-delayed — e6 all-electric car will ever make it to the U.S. market."

A BYD America executive tells Reuters that no one can match BYD's "genius" battery technology.

Berkshire's 2008 investment in BYD is now worth around $1 billion, five times what it spent for the stake. That's down, however, from just under $2 billion at the end of 2009.

Reuters suggests that if the deal goes "ultimately sour" it will be a "black mark" for David Sokol, the Berkshire exec who "spearheaded it."

Sokol is widely seen as the lead candidate to eventually take over from Buffett as Berkshire's CEO.

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