Legendary investor Jim Rogers, who in 1973 founded the Quantum Funds, a prominent family of hedge funds, with then-unknown Hungarian-born financier named George Soros, joined RealVision’s Steve Diggle for a wide-ranging interview where the legendary financier, who moved to Singapore in 2007 with his family because he wanted his children to be immersed in Asian culture, discusses his views on gold, bitcoin, and what makes a good investor – along with his belief that a major correction in financial markets is about to begin.
The interview, which was filmed two weeks ago in Singapore, begins with a discussion of a theme in finance that’s been at the forefront of discussions about the market outlook. Many investors believe that, with volatility at record lows and valuations at record highs, a major shock is imminent. However, these same investors have been burned by uncooperative markets, as an expected selloff has yet to materialize.
Rogers said he stumbled into his first job on Wall Street, but ended up falling in love with it because it allowed him to “follow the world and know about things.”
He added that, over his investing career, Roger's has learned that he has a tendency for his calls to be early. So now when he makes an investment decision, he waits six months before buying.
SD: How do you know the difference between being early and being wrong? Because -
JR: You teach me that, OK? I'd like to know. I'm still trying to learn.
SD: I really don't know, either. I mean, one of the things that has confounded, I think, all of us in this most recent unprecedented rally - I mean, it's not unprecedented in history, but the sort of things that have gone up and the level of volatility we've had that's been unprecedented. The only period that I can compare it to are the late 90s, where just everything in a certain area went up. Now it was almost-- at least in the States, it's almost everything across the board. And there have been plenty of people who've wanted to short the FANGs, to short some of the tech stocks, to short some of these very expensive blue chips. And they've been very badly punched.
And then even in the face of very good mutual fund investors, people with tremendous track records like Grantham Mayo, who have moved to a higher cash position - they've seen massive reductions, because their own investors don't seem inclined to stick around and see how it plays out. So both on a personal and professional level, being early seems to be incredibly painful and destructive to your business.
JR: Sure can.
SD: So if you've got a conviction, do you wait for a change in momentum? Do you use moving averages, which is something that I know people have been used, and I've used something myself, which is to wait until the 5 and 20-day diverge, and that gives you a signal that momentum's coming out of a trade? Or do you just need to size it to a degree which you can be persistent?
JR: Well, I usually - since I know I'm always early, I make a decision and then wait, and just make myself wait a month, six months, whatever it happens to be. And I'm still too early. I'm still too early nearly always, because I make the decision too soon, I realize. So maybe I better start making the decision later in life. Sometimes, you just have to throw in the towel. Especially on the short side, you have no choice. If they're just racing against you all the time, you can sit there and meet the margin calls all day long, but one of the old adages is, never beat a margin call, which you may have heard from old-time traders. If you've got a margin call, just don't meet it, because that means something is very seriously wrong.
SD: Right, that's your stop loss.
JR: Yeah, well, stop losses are usually before a margin call comes. But I want to go back to something you said. You're not as experienced as I am, obviously, because you're not as old as I am, is what I'm saying. But I remember in the early 70s, there was something called the Nifty 50, and they were 50 stocks that everybody - the JP Morgan bought everyday. Didn't matter. Avon, Xerox, IBM - they were stocks that always were eternal growth stocks.
And they just kept - we would short them, and they just kept going up. They never stopped. Polaroid-- that was another. And they just never stopped going up. Everything else stopped going up but those Nifty 50, which would be something like the FANGs today, or maybe in the late 90s, some of the other kinds of stocks. So this has happened before in market history. They eventually crack, there's no question.
And to today, if you look at the S&P 500, for instance, in the US, I think there are only 40 or 45 stocks that are above their 50-day moving average, to use technician's kind of talk. Everything else is in a downtrend. And yet the market is making all-time highs.
SD: And so there's a lack of breadth in the market.
JR: Definitely that lack of breadth. What is that - over 90% of the stocks are in downtrends. 10% are in uptrends, but they're big companies. And since the S&P is capitalization weighted, those 50 stocks, 40 stocks, whatever it is, dragged the average to all-time highs.
Diggles' questions soon veered toward the subject of what makes a good investor. Some believe, Diggle says, that to have conviction, you need to know more than 98% of people who follow a stock.
Rogers said he was never a very disciplined investor, so it’s difficult for him to say how one develops skills like timing and good judgment.
Knowing more than your rivals is a major advantage, he says. But there’s something to be said for judgment that just can’t be taught.
SD: So what was different about your analysis? Had you gone deeper into this company? Because one of the things that you've said on a number of occasions, and I think it's very impactful, is if you want to have conviction, you have to know more than not just 90% of the people, but 98% of the people who follow the stock. Is it that you've gone deeper? You've read the annual report, you've looked at what would now be the 14k. Or was it that you'd seen something with a greater level of skepticism or objectivity which other people had missed?
JR: Well, it's both. If read the annual report, you've done more than 90% of investors. If you read the notes to the annual report, you've done more than nearly everybody, including the CEO of the company. So it is certainly knowing more than other people. But then it takes more than that. You also have to know more, but then you have to figure out what does it mean? Just because you know more, you have to then analyze it.
If 100 people go into a room and hear a presentation, Steve, they'll all come out - most of them will come out with the same view. Seven or eight of those people will come out and say, aha, what this really means is it's going down the tubes, or whatever you come out with. Or seven or eight will come out and say, this is the best thing since sliced bread.
They will realize. They will analyze it and understand it better than the others. It's judgment. I don't know how to teach judgment. I wish I knew how to teach judgment. Facts are wonderful. Knowing more than everybody else is a big, big, big leg up. But then judgment - how you get judgment? And that's certainly what I didn't have. I certainly didn't have timing. Not that I do now, but I have a little better judgment than I used to, and a little better timing than I used to, because I learned to wait.
SD: So your prescription to be an above average investor, to go back to my original question, is be independent-minded, do your work. Don't try and perfect the timing, but if you develop a high enough level of conviction around it, see it through.
JR: Yeah, that's what I always do. And sometimes, I get it right. But I've certainly made plenty of mistakes in my life.
With stock and bond valuations hopelessly inflated, Rogers says investors hoping to lock in the highest risk-adjusted returns should consider buying gold coins. Barring that, gold futures are the next best market. Rogers says trading gold futures is a great strategy for traders because it’s a market where speculators have easy access to leverage.
Furthermore, investors who have time to conduct the due diligence should consider investing in a gold mine – but it needs to be the right gold mine.
SD: Going back to gold, so gold coins -
JR: Gold coins are the best way. And you should have physical possession of some gold coins. After that, gold futures are the best way if you want to make money and you're a good trader. Gold futures, that's where you can get the most leverage of any, unless you can find the right gold mine. But there are hundreds of gold mines. If you're smart enough and have the time to find the right two or three gold mines, then, yeah, then you'll make huge amounts of money in the right to - but, you know, there are hundreds of gold mines.
The conversation soon turned to a discussion of the ETF space, a market about which Rogers has many reservations.
SD: And investors do seem to be becoming more short-term, despite the fact that everything we know tells us that finding good people and backing them for the long-term is the most successful thing you can do. Investors seem to be becoming more and more influenced by very short-term records. And that's one of the things that's savaging the mutual fund industry right now. One of the things that I wanted to touch on is this ETF phenomena. I mean, it's probably the equivalent of the Nifty Fifty of the day, which is buy everything in its weight, don't do any research. Don't take any views. Don't even take a view on a manager let alone a stock, but just own a basket. And a lot of people feel great disquiet about this. I think your commodity index has a few ETFs on it, does it? So perhaps you're not the guy to ask if you're in the ETF industry.
JR: No, no, no, I certainly see what's happening in ETFs. I mean I pay enough attention to know what's going on. First of all, ETFs are very efficient, very easy, very simple. There's no question about that.
Therein lies part of the problem, of course, with ETFs is that they are easy, simple, et cetera and that makes it easy for somebody to say oh, I want to buy Germany, buy the German ETF, and don't even look to see what's in the German ETF or whether it's a good ETF to own. And maybe it should be a terrible ETF, but nobody looks anymore.
So there are excesses developing in the ETF business.
There's no question about that. But don't worry Steve, we're going to have a bear market. And when we have the bear market, a lot of people are going to find that, oh my God, I own an ETF and they collapsed. It went down more than anything else. And the reason it will go down more than anything else is because that's what everybody owns.
And it is this bear market that looms over the market that Rogers is most fearful of as the level of debt that has built across the globe makes a disaster inevitable...
JR: Steve, in America as you know, we've had bear markets every few years.
SD: We used to.
JR: Well done. And Janet Yellen will tell you we're never going to have a bear market again because she's smarter than we are, she's smarter than the markets, and the central bank has things under control now. She publicly stated this. Do not worry. We will not have financial calamities again. Head of the central bank in America has said that out loud officially, Mrs. Yellen-- yeah, Mrs. Yellen.
I happen to have a different view. Now if you believe the American central bank, you shouldn't be talking to me at all. But we've had, we used to have bear markets every several years. We always, always since the beginning of the republic. In my view we will have them again.
And the next one is going to be horrendous, the worst-- you came in the business in '86. It will be the worst in your lifetime, in your financial experience.
And the reason, in 2008 we had a bear market because of too much debt, staggering amounts of debt. Steve, since 2008 the debt has gone through the roof. Every country in the world talks about austerity. Nobody has reduced their debt in the last few years.
Everybody has increased their debt in the last few years. And so the next time we have a bear market, it's going to be horrendous because of this.
Even China-- in 2008, the Chinese had a lot of money saved for a rainy day. It started raining in Singapore. They had a lot of money saved for a rainy day. It started raining.
They started spending and helped save the world. But even China has a lot of debt now.
Like his fellow hedge-fund luminary Ray Dalio, Jim Rogers is a cryptocurrency skeptic. However, his outlook is somewhat more nuanced. While Rogers says he doesn’t know enough about the market to have a view on which coins might prosper and which might die on the vine, he suggested that people shouldn’t assume that bitcoin will dominate the market forever.
After all, Rogers says, most people have never heard of the company that invented the automobile – it disappeared long ago, he said. There once were hundreds of companies manufacturing cars around the world. Now, he says, there are only 25.
SD: Well, there's been plenty of commentary on cryptocurrencies or cybercurrencies on RealVision and in the mainstream. We're trading them. it's an extraordinary financial experiment. If you're a libertarian, I guess you mind find it inspiring that this has happened with absolutely no regulation. But where do we go with these things? Are you a true believer?
JR: Well, Steve--
SD: Are you an enormous skeptic?
JR: I don't own one, nor am I short one. So I am neutral in that sense. I do know that there are over 2,000 now in just a few years. And anything that booms like that usually has a reason - there's reason for skepticism. You do know that some of them are already zero.
I think the Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday maybe that 30% of the ones that have been launched in the last year or two are at zero because they have not traded. Now, there are some that have been skyrocketing. They've gone up 30 or 40, 100 times. So if you own the ones that have gone up 30 times, you think these are wonderful. If you own the ones that have gone to zero - or some have already gone bankrupt.
Somebody offered me a lot of them recently. And while I was doing my homework, it turned out to be a sham, a fraud. Fortunately, I was doing my homework so I never got around to taking them.
There's no question that the world has money problems. There's no question that all of our lives are being changed by the internet. My kids will never go to a bank when they're adults. My kids will never go to a post office.
They may rarely go to a doctor when they're adults. And so money's going to change on the internet too.
Which one? I don't know. You've heard of IBM in the computer business? IBM did not invent computers. The company that invented computers you never heard of, likewise with automobiles. I mean, there were hundreds of automobile companies 100 years ago. There are only 25 now.
Rogers, who chafes at being called a contrarian, says one sure-fire strategy for strong investing returns is investing in assets that are "hated" by the broader investing community, for example his Russian-stock investments are making all time highs, he said.
SD: I want to turn to a few specific sectors now rather than the general outlook of the world. It's clear that you're very concerned about that, though not so concerned that you want to actually be fighting it with aggressive shorts right now. One thing that you've spoken about in the past and one thing that we are exposed to is agriculture. It's an area that's generating quite a lot of comment. But from our experience, very few people have actually done anything about it. Very few pension funds, very few individuals have exposure to it. It's hard to get through the stock market. There are very few agriculture companies, certainly on land-owning companies. You can get exposure through the food industry. But you became very positive about the agriculture a while ago. Where are you know on that?
JR: I'm extremely bullish on agriculture. That hasn't made me any money yet. Well it has a little bit because one of my largest shareholdings - a large - well, it's not one of my largest, but I am a director of a Russian fertilizer company which is making all-time highs or near all-time highs, which is pretty astonishing given that it's Russia and everybody hates Russia, as you well know. In fact I'm startled that all of my Russian stocks making all-time highs.
And this is a hated market. So it's something I have learned. If you buy something that's hated, chances are you're going to make a lot of money down the road.
In one of his last questions, Diggle pointed out that Rogers, who began working on Wall Street during the first half of the twentieth century, has often expressed a disdain for young people working in finance.
Diggle says he first noticed this about Rogers while reading a piece he wrote for Barron’s Magazine in the late 1980s.
Rogers says he doesn’t trust young people for one simple reason: They’re often cocky. But the Darwinian nature of Wall Street quickly separates the wheat from the chaff, making those who survive far more tolerable.
SD: I think you have something against guys in their 20s because the first time I became aware of you as an investor was a Barron's article written in the summer of 1987, and it's a very impressive article. I was very young on Wall Street. And there was this guy, Jim Rogers, and they said, what do are you bearish on, Jim? And you said, the world. There are all these 20-something guys that are thinking that they deserve six figures just because they work on Wall Street and they know how to buy stocks. And three, four months later, you turned out to be absolutely right.
But as a 20-something at the time, I thought you were being very unfair on 20-something guys. Now that I'm 53, I share your view of these 20-year-old guys. You've got to stay away from them.
JR: Well, but see, you made it. You survived. You're a 26-year-old or 20-year-old who made it and survived, and so it's OK. Many of them don't and don't know why. They make a lot of money. They don't know why they made money.
So they don't know why they lose money. They don't know what happened.
You, at least, something happened. You're still here. You still have a job. You're still in the investment world.
SD: I'm self-employed like you.
Rogers has recently been vocal about his bearish outlook on the markets. In an interview during the summer, he claimed that the largest financial crisis of his lifetime is still to come.
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