Monday, March 18, 2013

Rogers, Street Smarts

If you’re not familiar with Jim Rogers’ Hot Commodities, Adventure Capitalist, or Investment Biker, or if you’re simply a fan of this maverick commodities investor, Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road and in the Markets (Crown Business, 2013) is a fast, if sometimes snarky read. It’s a combination autobiography/critical commentary.

Rogers, an unabashed fan of China, lives in Singapore with his wife and two young daughters, both of whom speak Mandarin. He believes the sun is rising in the East and, doting 70-year-old father that he is, wants his daughters to be on the winning side of the globe. The economic and innovative glory of the United States is to his mind best described in the past tense. He spends several chapters lambasting everything from the outsized national debt to academic tenure.

The highlight of Rogers’ career, at least in popular investing history, was the decade he spent at the Quantum Fund, which he co-founded with George Soros. He had initially intended to retire at the age of thirty-five, but he outlived his goals. At the age of thirty-seven, he was “psychologically prepared for retirement, and would not have stayed on that much longer, but,” he writes, “my decision to go was still not final until, suddenly, everything stopped being fun.” The SEC accused Soros of stock manipulation and offered him the opportunity sign a consent decree, “in which he and the firm admitted no wrongdoing but promised not to do it again.” Why, Rogers asked, sign it, why “let it be construed that we were manipulating the stock? I was taken aback by his answer—‘Because that is what I was doing,’ he said. ‘George,’ I remember telling him, ‘my reputation is worth more to me than a million dollars.’ And I remember just as clearly his answer. ‘Not to me it’s not,’ he said. He said it jokingly, but he meant it.” (p. 55)

If Soros is accused of malfeasance, Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRIC, is derided for ignorance. O’Neill, in a 2001 paper, predicted a shift in global power from the G7 countries to Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Rogers writes: “Of course, he had no idea what he was talking about, and as I have pointed out to him since, speaking to him face-to-face as recently as the year of this writing, clinging to the thesis shows an ignorance of the world that is disconcerting, at best.” Only China is a clear winner, and that was obvious to Rogers as early as 1988. “But backing off the proposition is more than he can do. It is the hobbyhorse that has carried him to the celebrity he enjoys, and he shows no signs of dismounting before riding it into the ground.” (p. 78)

And then there is Alan Greenspan, described as “a mediocre Wall Street economist who was perpetually seeking government employment” and who “had been flitting in and out of Washington for maybe fifteen years when President Reagan in 1987 finally rewarded him for his inadequacy.” (p. 94) Bernanke is dubbed “Greenspan the Younger.” (p. 96) “He knows little about economics or finance, he has no idea how markets work, and the only thing he truly understands about currency is how to print it.” (p. 100)

In between taking whacks at people, educational institutions, and governments and waxing lyrical about his family Rogers imparts the occasional nugget of wisdom. I consider Street Smarts worth reading even though it won’t have a permanent place in my library.

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