Indiana Jones and the China crusade
Jim Rogers, investment guru; co-founder of Quantum Fund with George Soros
The American dollar is a flawed currency and will collapse in value before the end of the decade, taking with it the prosperity of the American nation. Investors should be buying commodities - platinum, lead, wheat, sugar, oil, the sort of assets that haven't been fashionable for a quarter of a century or more. While you're at it, teach your children to speak Mandarin, the coming language of the 21st century. And don't encourage them to do an MBA: "Tell them to be a farmer and do a real job."
Such advice, if given by your regular financial adviser, would probably provoke a complaint to the ombudsman. The speaker, though, is Jim Rogers, a legendary Wall Street name. The Indiana Jones of finance - a nickname earned by virtue of two round the world trips in the name of grass-roots investment research - has become a multimillionaire by backing such views with hard cash.
In 1973, Rogers and George Soros founded Quantum, one of the first and most successful hedge funds. In Britain, the Quantum Fund is best known for making £1bn by selling sterling ahead of Britain's exit from the exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992, but Rogers' contribution came before then. He helped Quantum to return a 4,000% gain in its first 10 years and departed in 1980, staying a year longer than he had intended only because 1979 had been so profitable - he predicted the stock market crash of that year.
The "poor boy from Alabama" whose first job was picking up bottles at baseball games at the age of five, retired at the age of 37 a very wealthy man. He set about managing his own fortune and travelling the world, projects that have become virtually indistinguishable over the years. In the early 90s, Rogers travelled 65,000 miles roving the world by motorbike and related the tale in his first book, Investment Biker. Last year, he completed a second, Adventure Capitalist, which was the result of an even more ambitious journey: a three-year, 150,000 mile journey by custom- built Mercedes across 116 countries with his girlfriend, who became his wife along the way - in Henley-on-Thames, of all places.
Like the earlier book, it is part anecdote - what it's like to eat snake; what happened when he forgot about the bottle of vodka in the boot when trying to enter Saudi Arabia - but the heart is commonsense investment analysis built on firsthand observations. His philosophy is that you learn about a country from talking to brothel owners and black marketeers rather than government ministers.
In conversation, Rogers rattles along in similar style. He punctuates everything with American-style full disclosure of his personal holdings - "I'm short Citibank, incidentally," he will interject into a dissection of the rotten heart of the American stock market - and delights in challenging received wisdom. His central argument is that a new bull market has started that will match the fireworks seen in the dotcom-fuelled stock markets of the late 90s. This time, though, the bull market will be in commodities not shares. Rogers' reasoning is straightforward: raw materials are running out.
"There has been no great oil discovery in the past 35 years," he argues. "The North Sea has peaked. Alaska is in decline. Mexico is in decline. All these great oilfields are in decline. To anybody who thinks I am lying about this, I would ask: where is the oil going to come from?
"Mines deplete. Wells deplete. It's supply. In the 1970s, we had horrible economies around the world, but commodities skyrocketed despite those horrible economies because there was no supply. That is happening again."
How high is high? The nature of all bull markets, he argues, is that prices go higher than anybody would have imagined possible. "Nobody could ever have thought that Cisco could go to $75 [it had been $5 a few years earlier]. Who would have thought in the 1970s that oil could go to $40 a barrel - it was $2 a barrel in the 1960s," he says.
"Sugar in 1966 was 1.4 cents per pound. In 1972 - six years later - sugar was 66 cents. Who could have conceived that? For decades, it had done between one and five cents. If you had said in 1966 that it would go up 47 times they would have made you certifiably insane. But it happened."
Hand in hand with this faith in the value of commodities is a long-term confidence in China, whose appetite for raw materials has already fuelled a strong rise in commodity prices in the past 18 months. All the best capitalists live in communist China, he argues, and overseas Chinese are returning with their capital and expertise. He has employed a Chinese nanny for his one-year-old daughter. Mandarin will be the most important language in his child's lifetime, he thinks.
But even this China bull predicts a major economic slowdown there, with accompanying political unrest, very soon. In this, he is not wholly out of the line with the consensus thinking - City economists are currently debating whether China's landing, after a decade of extraordinary growth, will be hard or soft. Rogers' view is that it will be very hard, but will also represent a golden investment opportunity.
"I remind you of the last two times that China had to cut back an overheated economy," he says. "In the late 80s, it led to Tiananmen Square when things got out of control and the second time was in the mid-90s, when they had to devalue their currency. Sometime this year or next you will see headlines in the Guardian, 'Turmoil in China'. At that point, you buy all the China you can and all the commodities you can because that will be bottom of the consolidation in commodities and consolidation in China."
Buying in the face of prevailing hysteria is a principle that has served Rogers well over the years. Crisis in China - however serious it looks at the time - will merely mark the end of the first leg of this new bull market, he thinks.
"Remember," he enthuses, "that the second leg is wonderful, and the third leg is spectacular. In the fourth leg, there is dancing in the streets and in the fifth leg people are hysterical and everything is skyrocketing every day. We are nowhere near the second leg, much less the third, fourth and fifth legs."
His bearishness on the US dollar is predicated on economic fundamentals, notably the balance of payments. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and Rogers' bogeyman-in-chief, has been printing money on an unprecedented scale and President George Bush has been spending it just as rapidly.
"The US owes the world $8 trillion," he argues. "We are the world's largest debtor nation by a factor of many times and our foreign debts are increasing by $1 trillion every 21 months. That's terrifying.
"People need to understand about this major change in the world and about the demise of the US dollar. The US dollar is going the way that sterling went as it lost its place as the world's reserve currency. I suspect there will be exchange controls in the US in the foreseeable future. It will be a complicated and difficult currency."
Not that Rogers is a fan of many currencies. He says he has stakes in a dozen but has "no confidence in any of them". He expects the euro to fail eventually but holds some anyway because he judges it to be less flawed than the dollar. For the record, his daughter's assets are held in Swiss francs and gold, silver and platinum coins.
Unlike his old partner, Soros, who has devoted part of his vast fortune to opposing Bush's election campaign, Rogers stands wholly outside the political fray. He calls the US-led invasion of Iraq a "horrible, horrendous, unbelievable mistake", but thinks the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, would make his own mistakes. "They wouldn't be politicians if they knew what they were doing," he says, far from flippantly.
The balance of payments, and the looming dollar crisis, make the election result irrelevant, he argues: "Whoever is elected president is going to have serious problems in 2005-06. We Americans are going to suffer."
Born 1942, Alabama
Education Yale; Balliol College, Oxford
Career US army; co-founder, Quantum Fund; professor of finance, Columbia University Graduate School of Business
Family Married to Parker Paige with a daughter
Interests Henley royal regatta
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.