The outrageous story of a group of financiers from a poor and damp island on the outer rim of Europe, who created a private company that became the biggest military and political power in all of India
Peter Schiff predicted a collapse of the U.S. financial system. The bust-up he didn’t foresee was the one that made mincemeat of investors who took his advice in 2008.
Mr. Schiff’s Darien, Conn., broker-dealer firm, Euro Pacific Capital Inc., advised its clients to bet that the dollar would weaken significantly and that foreign stocks would outpace their U.S. peers. Instead, the dollar advanced against most currencies, magnifying the losses from foreign stocks Mr. Schiff steered his investors into.
Investors open accounts at Euro Pacific to take advantage of Mr. Schiff’s investment advice, which generally involves shunning investments in dollars. Individual returns can vary. Some investors may like gold-mining stocks, while others prefer energy-focused stocks.
Most had one thing in common last year: heavy losses. A number of investors said their Euro Pacific portfolios lost 50% or more in 2008, worse than the 38% drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index last year. People familiar with the firm say that hardly any securities recommended by Euro Pacific brokers gained ground in 2008.
Such losses came as something of a surprise. Mr. Schiff’s prescient call for the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the weakening of the financial system helped him gain fame as an economic guru and savvy investor who promised shelter from the financial storm.
In his 2007 book, “Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse,” he recommends that investors pile into gold, commodities and overseas stocks that spit out steady dividends.
When global markets were soaring, many Euro Pacific investors’ accounts experienced strong performance. For several years, investors saw returns in excess of 20% a year as foreign stocks and commodities surged, according to people familiar with the firm.
In 2008, investors nervous about the state of the U.S. economy who were impressed by Mr. Schiff’s track record poured money into Euro Pacific, nearly doubling the number of accounts to 16,000. But many did so at the worst time possible, much like investors who piled into Internet stocks as the dot-com bubble peaked.
Mr. Schiff, 45 years old, says the downturn in his strategy is a short-term setback. He argues that it is only a matter of time before the dollar collapses, pressured by massive government bailouts, triggering outsize returns for his investors.
“I think the dollar is going to get destroyed,” he says. Investors with the staying power to wait out what he sees as a temporary phase of irrational confidence in the dollar will reap huge rewards, he argues.
Mr. Schiff is still riding high on his housing-market call. This week, he spoke at a global competitiveness conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alongside former heads of state, prime ministers and American gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps. He is the subject of more than 3,000 YouTube videos, including one called “Peter Schiff Was Right.”
His admirers even created Web sites supporting a possible run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Mr. Schiff, who was economic adviser to Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2008, says he has no plans to run for the Senate but “anything’s possible.”
Critics say Mr. Schiff’s strategy is much riskier and more aggressive than many investors realize. David Yeske, managing director of Yeske Buie, a Vienna, Va., money manager, says Mr. Schiff’s investment strategy was a focused bet on a single outcome, rather than risk management for investors looking to protect assets from an economic collapse. “He’s a speculator; he thinks he can see the future,” says Mr. Yeske, former chairman of the Financial Planning Association. “That’s not really risk control.”
One of Mr. Schiff’s biggest forecasts was that many overseas economies would “decouple” from the U.S., gaining strength even as the American economy struggled. Instead, overseas stock markets plunged as much or more than U.S. stocks in 2008 as the global economy skidded. Prices for commodities also tanked, torpedoing another favorite investment theme of Mr. Schiff’s. After last year’s losses, his firm has about $845 million in assets.
Early last year, Richard De Gennaro, a retired Harvard University librarian, put $100,000, about 15% of his assets, into a Euro Pacific account that included Canadian Oil Sands Trust, which focuses on crude-oil projects in Canada, and the India Capital Growth Fund, which holds investments in companies that do business in India.
Both investments took big hits in 2008, compounded by the fact that the Canadian dollar and the Indian rupee fell 18% and 19%, respectively, against the U.S. dollar. The 83-year-old retiree’s account is now worth about $37,000, a 63% plunge. Mr. Schiff “goes around saying that he was right,” says Mr. De Gennaro. “He was right about one thing and wrong about everything else.”
Among investors who turned to Mr. Schiff’s firm just as his strategy began to falter, Brian Kullberg, a design engineer in Portland, Ore., says he started to worry about the state of the U.S. economy in early 2008. He put $70,000 into a Euro Pacific account, hoping it would benefit as the U.S. economy and the dollar weakened. By late January 2009, his investment had shrunk to about $25,000.
“It’s curious,” says one longtime client of Mr. Schiff’s who works in finance. “His thesis of how things are going to collapse and crumble and fall apart isn’t effectively executed in [my] account.” The account, which is largely invested in gold, mining and infrastructure stocks from Canada to Australia, was down roughly 35% last year, the client estimates. The Australian dollar weakened 19% against the U.S. dollar in 2008.
Mr. Schiff says one year’s poor performance doesn’t prove he was wrong. He has admitted in notes to clients that his investment thesis hasn’t performed as expected, particularly with respect to the U.S. dollar. But he holds fast to his convictions and has been telling investors to scoop up a number of depressed stocks.
Some clients are inclined to agree. “The decoupling he talked about has not happened,” says Barbara Hearst, a clothing entrepreneur who splits her time between Charleston, S.C., and Bridgehampton, N.Y., and has invested with Mr. Schiff since 2000. But “longer term or medium term, I don’t discount what Peter says.”
Oct.31 — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, scientific advisor at Universa Investments, discusses the factors causing global fragility, hidden liabilities in global markets, and what he sees as safe trades in the current market. He speaks with Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker on “Bloomberg Markets.”
They sold their principles a long time ago.
Before going to the White House, Donald Trump demanded that the Fed raise interest rates despite high unemployment and low inflation. Now he’s demanding rate cuts, even though the unemployment rate is much lower and inflation at least a bit higher. To be fair, there is a real economic argument for rate cuts as insurance against a possible slowdown. But it’s clear that Trump’s motives are and always have been purely political: he wanted the Fed to hurt President Obama, and now he wants it to boost his own reelection chances.
It’s not surprising, then, that Trump is also trying to stuff the Federal Reserve Board with political allies. What may seem surprising is that many of his would-be appointees, like Stephen Moore and now Judy Shelton, have long records of supporting the gold standard or something like it. This should put them at odds with his efforts to politicize the Fed. After all, one of the supposed points of a gold standard is to remove any hint of politics from monetary policy. And with gold prices rising lately, gold standard advocates should be calling for the Fed to raise rates, not lower them.
But of course both Moore and Shelton have endorsed Trump’s demand for rate cuts. This creates a dual puzzle: Why does Trump want these people, and why are they so willing to cater to his wishes?
Well, I think there’s a simple answer to both sides of the puzzle, which involves the reason some economic commentators (not sure if they deserve to be called “economists”) become goldbugs in the first place. What I’d suggest is that it usually has less to do with conviction than with cynical careerism. And this in turn means that goldbugs are, in general, the kind of people who can be counted on to do Trump’s bidding, never mind what they may have said in the past.
Let me start with what might seem like a trivial question, but which is, I believe, crucial: What does it take to build a successful career as a mainstream economist?
The truth is that it’s not at all easy. Parroting orthodox views definitely won’t do it; you have to be technically proficient, and to have a really good career you must be seen as making important new contributions — innovative ways to think about economic issues and/or innovative ways to bring data to bear on those issues. And the truth is that not many people can pull this off: it requires a combination of deep knowledge of previous research and the ability to think differently. You have to both understand the box and be able to think outside it.
I don’t want to romanticize the mainstream economics profession, which suffers from multiple sins. Male economists like me are only beginning to comprehend the depths of the profession’s sexism. There’s far too much dominance by an old-boy network of economists with PhDs from a handful of elite institutions. (And yes, I’ve been a beneficiary of these sins.) Many good ideas have been effectively blocked by ideology — even now, for example, it’s hard to publish anything with a Keynesian flavor in top journals. And there’s still an overvaluation of mathematical razzle-dazzle relative to real insight.
But even for people who can check off all the right identity boxes, climbing the ladder of success in mainstream economics is tough. And here’s the thing: for those who can’t or won’t make that climb, there are other ladders. Heterodoxy can itself be a careerist move, as long as it’s an approved, orthodox sort of heterodoxy.
Everyone loves the idea of brave, independent thinkers whose brilliant insights are rejected by a hidebound establishment, only to be vindicated in the end. And such people do exist, in economics as in other fields. Someone like Hyman Minsky, with his theory of financial instability, was, in fact, ignored by almost everyone in the mainstream until the 2008 crisis sent everyone scurrying off to read his work.
But the sad truth is that the great majority of people who reject mainstream economics do so because they don’t understand it; and a fair number of these people don’t understand it because their salary depends on their not understanding it.
Which brings me to the gold standard.
There is overwhelming consensus among professional economists that a return to the gold standard would be a bad idea. That’s not supposition: Chicago’s Booth School, which surveys a broad bipartisan group of economists on various topics, found literally zero support for the gold standard.
The events of the past dozen years have only reinforced that consensus. After all, the price of gold soared from 2007 to 2011; if gold-standard ideology had any truth to it, that would have been a harbinger of runaway inflation, and the Fed should have been raising interest rates to keep the dollar’s gold value constant. In fact, inflation never materialized, and an interest rate hike in the face of surging unemployment would have been a disaster.Thank God we weren’t on the gold standardCreditFederal Reserve of St. Louis
So why did gold soar? The main answer seems to be plunging returns on other assets, especially bonds, which were the product of a depressed world economy. What this means is that in practice pegging the dollar to gold would mean systematically raising interest rates when the economy slumps. Not exactly a recipe for stability.
Why, then, does goldbuggery persist? Well, some billionaires — such as Robert Mercer, also a big Trump supporter — have a thing about gold. I’m not entirely sure why, although I suspect that it’s just a plutocratic version of the Fox News syndrome — the angry old white guy ranting about big-government types inflating away his hard-earned wealth to give it away to Those People. And these billionaires give a lot of money to libertarianish think tanks that peddle gold standard derp.
Now imagine yourself as a conservative who writes about economics, but who doesn’t have the technical proficiency and originality needed to get a good job in academia, an economic policy institution like the Fed, or a serious think tank. Well, becoming a vocal gold-standard advocate opens a whole different set of doors. You’ll have a much fancier and more lucrative career, get invited to a lot more stuff, than you would if you stayed with the professional consensus.
What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that gold-standard advocacy is a lot like climate change denial: There are big personal and financial rewards for an “expert” willing to say what a few billionaires want to hear, precisely because no serious expert agrees. In the climate arena, we know that essentially all climate deniers are on the fossil-fuel take. There may be some true believers in the monetary magic of gold, but it’s hard to tell; what we do know is that prominent goldbugs do very well relative to where their careers would be if they didn’t buy into this particular area of derp.
And that, in turn, brings us back to Trump.
Why would Trump expect goldbugs to abandon their principles and back his demands to fire up the printing presses? Why is he, in fact, apparently finding it easy to get goldbugs willing to turn their backs on everything they claimed to believe?
The answer, I’d submit, is that it was never about principles in the first place. Many, perhaps most prominent goldbugs advocate a gold standard not out of conviction but out of ambition; they sold their principles a long time ago. So selling those pretend principles yet again in order to get a nice Trump-sponsored job is no big deal.
It’s cynicism and careerism all the way down.