If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?
Why didn't you move your cash out of that money market fund and into municipal bonds earlier this year when interest rates began to plummet? You could have locked in a 14 percent, tax-free interest rate.
And why didn't you know the stock market was going to soar early this fall?
Why didn't you play the over-the-counter market in Spokane in early August and buy some mining stocks such as Pegasus Gold (then selling for $2.85 a share), Consolidated Cinola ($2.35 a share) or Thunder Mountain (55 cents a share)? Read this and weep: by the end of August, both Pegasus and Consolidated sold for more than $6 a share, and Thunder Mountain fetched 85 cents a share.
You didn't know all that because you weren't listening. Washington financial advisers were trumpeting all that advice, and more. Which might lead one to ask, If they're so smart, why aren't they rich? Some of them are, some of them were, and some of them are going to be. As in any horse race, the trick is knowing on whom to bet.
Once, only movie stars retained financial advisers. Then, sports figures and television anchors began hiring people to manage their money. Now, financial experts consult with ordinary folks.At the same time, anyone with $15 and hope can buy a best-selling book to explain how to prosper in the "coming depression." For another $150 or so, the authors of those books will send you newsletters chock-full of breathless inside advice on stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals and pork bellies.
But there is advice and there is advice. "The current [stock] market is badly overreacting to the tax bill and interest rate drop," wrote Washington-based money wizard Douglas Casey in his September newsletter. "Don't be fooled. The fundamentals haven't changed. American industry is on the ropes. " And in last month's newsletter, as the market boom continued, Casey remained skeptical: "STOCK MARKET EXPLOSION: HERALDING THE GREATER DEPRESSION," read his headline.
During the last several years, 36-year-old Casey has become rich by publishing, with the help of his mentor, Robert "Looking Out For No. 1" Ringer, two best-selling books titled Crisis Investing and, most recently, Strategic Investing. Casey writes and recommends with a brashness that would appall Andrew Carnegie, who once advised young men to never speculate, to never endorse beyond their cash surplus, and to put all their eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.
As far as Casey is concerned, the world belongs to the gunslingers who speculate and diversify investments, but his track record illustrates the hit-and-miss nature of being a financial expert in volatile times. Three years ago, writing in Crisis Investing, Casey warned with some accuracy that the United States was entering a depression and that real estate prices would nosedive. But he also said the "true price of gold" should be $3,300 an ounce and predicted the Dow Jones Average would fall to at least 300 points in the "not-too-distant future."
Two days before the market's Dow Jones average set a new record last month, closing at 1,065, Casey was still bucking the bullish tide.
"No one has a crystal ball," he said, "but I think the market is going to go lower, I don't think it's over yet. I may be wrong, but if I am, I've only missed an opportunity." If he's right, you see, he avoided disaster.
Casey says he intends to start buying stocks in a couple of years because he thinks the market "will explode later in the '80s." That's because he thinks the government will inflate the money supply quickly, causing inflation to return "with a vengeance," and "people will panic into the stock market because it'll be the cheapest thing around."
The cheapest things around these days are the so-called penny mining stocks issued by gold and silver companies. One of the experts in the field is 31-year-old Darrell Brookstein, who was introduced to the market three years ago by his friend, Douglas Casey. Today, Brookstein and Casey's Silver Spring firm, Penny Mining Prospector, trades between $20,000 and $100,000 a day. Much of the business is done with the Spokane over-the-counter market because that's where the mining action is -- the largest silver-producing region in the world is Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho.
Even at a penny a share, this is big business. A penny rise in price means you've doubled your money. And Brookstein only handles clients willing to put $15,000 up front; his firm charges a commission of between 5 and 9 1/2 percent.
Brookstein says, "What you're doing is making a bet on the price of gold and silver. It's highly speculative and highly leveraged. In the last two years, we were buying at the end of a bear market, which I believe ended in late June. So anyone who bought up to late June either had no gain or was losing. Since then, we've been in a bull market, and I have clients who came with me between June and August who have already more than doubled their money."
It was Brookstein's mid-August newsletter that recommended buying Pegasus Gold, Consolidated Cinola and Thunder Mountain. His most spectacular performer was "a little stock I picked up in November of last year at three cents a share called Gold Resources." At last check, it was selling at 12 cents per share.
Casey, Brookstein and their comrades in kamikaze capitalism can be as spectacularly wrong as they are right. Florida investment adviser Joseph Granville has earned both praise and damnation from the stock market community -- praise for his precision in predicting the Dow Jones industrial average tops and bottoms during much of 1980 and 1981, damnation for predicting the collapse of the stock market on Sept. 28, 1981, and for the effect his prophecies have on investors.
For his part, Granville once suggested he deserved a Nobel Prize in economics. If there were a similar prize for geologists, he wouldn't stand a chance: He foresaw a major earthquake in Los Angeles on April 10, 1981, an erroneous prediction that led a rival investment adviser, Glen King Parker of Ft. Lauderdale, to sneer and invite subscribers of his newsletter to attend a "pre-earthquake" dinner at Los Angeles' posh L'Ermitage Restaurant on April 9 for a $1,000 fee.
Financial experts are as good as their most recent advice, and if an expert's last tip paid off, a client is likely to make another bet. Consider the spectacular case of Floyd Resley and his brother, owners of a retail and wholesale tire business in Hagerstown, Md. Six years ago their stock broker, Charles W. Marmon of First Georgetown Securities, called to tout the start-up of a new company called Digital Switch.
The story of Digital Switch is something of a local legend among brokers. In 1976, Marmon and a fellow broker, Harry E. Hagerty Jr., heard about a couple of engineers working on a switching device that would modernize the way telephone calls are handled. They founded Digital Switch and began raising funds by calling clients such as the Resleys.
"He said it was supposed to be a breakthrough in digital switching for phone companies," remembers Floyd Resley of his first call on the subject from Marmon. "We knew him, and it sounded like a good idea, and we just kept putting more money in it gradually as it went along."
But the going at first was not so great. Hagerty and Marmon ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission and -- two years into the project but still without a product -- the engineers and the moneymen parted ways. Four years after Marmon had called Resley, the company still had no product and was facing bankruptcy.
"I never thought I'd get out of it," recalls Resley. "There was no way you could sell it, the only thing you could do is hope the thing made it."
In the summer of 1979, a new chief executive officer, Reynolds Sachs, was hired. Sachs had the unenviable task of trying to prepare the public offering of stock in a company with no product but plenty of problems. Thanks to a chance encounter in a bar near the American Stock Exchange, Sachs met a stranger who passed him along to a family member at Allen & Co., an investment firm that provided enough capital to carry Digital Switch until the SEC approved the sale of stock in August of 1980.
One broker described the company's prospectus, which disclosed both Digital Switch's shaky past and risky future, as "the nastiest document I've ever seen." A college business school used the prospectus as an example of how to do everything wrong in starting a company. The stock, offered a $5 a share, dropped to $2 a share.
Meanwhile, because the Resley brothers listened to their broker (who also happened to be a principal founder of Digital Switch), they were stuck with 60,000 shares.
Then, this year, Digital Switch developed a product and the orders began rolling in. About a month ago, it sold at more than $38 per share. Holding stock with his brother valued at almost $2.3 million, Floyd Resley says, "I didn't think it would ever make it. You only hit one in a lifetime."
Of course, when your stock increases 10 times in value, you may only need one such hit in your lifetime, and it is to the commodity markets that action-loving speculators turn in hopes of such profits.
"Most people don't make money in commodities," admits commodities broker Allen Werneck, "but the winners are big winners."
Werneck, 37, worked for seven years as a broker for Conticommodity Services in Washington before opening his own office affiliated with Refco, a commodities brokerage firm in Chicago. Today he manages about 150 personal accounts that he usually trades as a block. "We kind of all flame and fall together," he says.
Some financial pundits, including Douglas Casey, consider commodities undervalued these days, and Werneck agrees, noting it's only the second year in his 10 in the business that he's not made money overall for his clients.
"I had about three really good consecutive years until late 1980," he recalls with obvious fondness. "We paid out about $8.75 million in profits between 1978 and 1980 on investments of about $3.5 million."
That was largely thanks to a week dollar, and Werneck's clients bet on the strength of foreign currencies. All but one got out in time.
"I don't know why," recalls Werneck, "but I was out of the office one day for awhile. The markets were virtually up the limit each day. I was long [betting the market would continue to go up against the dollar] for a lot of my clients, and it looked like it would go quite a bit higher. But for some reason, I just decided not to be greedy and take the money...
"I had one large client who traded for himself who I called who was out of the country. He elected not to get out because I really didn't have any good reason -- I was just playing a hunch. The next day, I don't know why, but the markets went down the limit. I didn't get back in, and the next morning, the dollar started getting stronger and stronger, and then Jimmy Carter announced his defense of the dollar. The one client who didn't get out lost about $500,000 in about one minute."
Whether it is platinum, commodities, stocks or real estate, history teaches that, as Harvey Baskin puts it, "timing is more important than being right."
Baskin -- who recently founded a Washington-based company that is a national exchange for federally insured certificates of deposit for banks around the country -- says the difficulty with investment advisers is "that people who do it very well get out of it very soon and deal only with their own money. It's almost a self-defeating profession. And someone may know about stocks or about tax shelters, but it's very difficult to find someone who knows about the whole ball game who hasn't said, 'To hell with this and other people's problems.'"
Most investment advisers have their own way of determining the timing of investments. So-called fundamental analysts try to determine the correct value of a stock on the basis of a general economic review of the company. Technical analysts contend the market has a life of its own that leads to swings up or down. And the kamikaze capitalists look for, as Casey once put it, "blood running in the streets."
The current king of the hill in the timing department is G. Stanley Berge, managing director of the brokerage firm Tucker Anthony in Providence, R.I. On Aug. 9, with the stock market still in the doldrums and the Dow Jones industrial average settled at 784, Berge got bullish and predicted in his weekly news-letter, Stock Market Over-view, that "a very explosive up move" was about to occur. Days later, the Dow shot 82 points in one week. Money magazine asked him how he did it.
"To understand the stock market," explained 63-year-old Berge, "you have to stand on your head for a few minutes every morning. The time to buy is when things seem to be going to hell in a hand basket."