Position: Investor, author and media commentator
Whether you aware of it or not you’ve probably seen and heard Jim Rogers. He’s a favourite with financial reporters because he’s free with matter-of-fact opinions that can, at times, be controversial. But don’t be fooled by his light Southern drawl and natty bow tie, he is not your standard investment commentator.
Much has been written about Jim Rogers who famously retired at 37 after co-founding the incredibly successful Quantum Fund with George Soros. He’s been round the world twice; the first time taking a motorbike behind the Iron Curtain in the late eighties and the second in a custom-made Mercedes at the turn of the millennium. In 2007 he announced his move to Asia on his basis that this is the century of China, and Singapore is the best place to raise his children to speak both Mandarin and English.
A previous miscommunication has given me a glimpse of man who has very little tolerance for any perceived laziness. So I’m not really surprised we end up arranging to do the interview during his daily two-hour exercise bike session. I turn up at his house at the dedicated time and it’s not what I expect from a successful investment banker. They usually trumpet wealth, gaudiness and bad taste but I discover a relatively modest abode that’s peppered with loving family portraits and children’s paraphernalia.
Jim arrives a little bleary eyed, he’s just back from a 10-day business trip taking in London, Mauritius and New York to a name a few places, and admits to a bad case of jetlag. Nonetheless, he’s warm, open and charming and it seems any awkwardness about the earlier email exchange has been forgotten.
So what was it that attracted a man from a small town in Alabama to the cutthroat world of Wall Street? “I needed a summer job because I didn’t have any money and I went to an interview being hosted at my university for a Wall Street firm called Dominick and Dominick. I really liked the guy. I knew nothing about Wall Street. I knew it was in New York. I knew something bad had happened in 1929, but I had no idea. I didn’t know there was a difference between a stock and a bond.
“I ended up working for him for the summer and fell in love because Wall Street is a place where if you figure out what’s happening in the world you can make a lot of money. And my passion was, and is, what’s going on in the world.”
At the end of that summer Jim headed off to Oxford University in England to study philosophy, politics and economics and after a two-year “waste of time” stint in the army because of the US draft, Jim, aged 27, went back to Wall Street. Ten years later he retired.
Shortly after his return to Wall Street in 1968 he began working with now legendary hedge fund manager George Soros at Arnhold and S. Bleichroder. Although a change in legislation meant that “if we wanted to continue what we were doing we had to leave [the firm]. The solution was to start our own company. There were two of us and a little secretary. Looking back I was quite naïve but at the time it seemed like a great thing to do. I’ve since read about guys who start companies in their garage and that’s really what we were doing. We were having fun and it turned out to be reasonably successful.”
I’m not sure if Jim is genuinely overly modest but he peppers the interview with self-deprecating quips and in this case “reasonably” is a gross understatement. The Quantum Fund, which he formed with Soros in 1973, famously gained 4200 per cent in a decade, while the S&P 500 rose less than 47 per cent during the same time. Although Soros rarely comments on his colleague he said in an interview on CCTV, “He was, in fact, a wonderful security analyst. He worked tremendously fast. He did the work of eight people so we had a very successful partnership but he did not want another seven people working next to him so we had to part company.”
“I was 37,” remembers Jim, “I had a little bit of money and I decided to quit and take off around the world on a motorcycle. It took me several years to fulfil that dream because in those days it was the Cold War and it was absurd to think that one could drive across the Soviet Union on a motorcycle. So I set out trying to get permission to drive around the world. The two main stumbling blocks were China and the Soviet Union who wouldn’t even listen.
“I’d write letters, knock on doors. It was such an absurd thought that really nobody would listen. In 1981 the fact that an American capitalist wanted to drive across China and Soviet Union was madness. When I met a guy in the Soviet Union who ultimately gave me permission, he said, ‘Why would you want to do that? Out there in Siberia there is the tiger.’ I thought he meant the animal, but the Russian word for deep thick forest sounds similar to the English word for tiger. He had never been there but that was the image of Siberia that even the Russians had. Even he thought it was an insane idea because Siberia was unknown and desolate. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I figured if you want to see the world you’ve got to go across the Soviet Union, and across China.”
At the same time as trying to secure signatures and visa permissions for the trip, Jim began teaching at Columbia Business School. “It was a pure accident,” he says, “because I wanted to learn how to play squash.” At the time he was living near Columbia University and in those days you couldn’t get into the gym unless you were a student or staff. So when he a professor asked him to teach a course there he replied, “OK I’ll teach one course, one semester, but what I want in return is lifetime access to the Columbia gym.
“To my astonishment he called up a few days later and said, ‘done’. I was stuck, so I did it having no clue about business school or teaching or anything and it was so much fun. In those days they evaluated the course and professors so I was called into the dean’s office after the course was over. I’d worked these kids’ asses off and they were all complaining about how much work was required. I failed a guy, which nobody ever did. But when I read the evaluations I sat there and cried, nobody had ever said such nice things about me. The dean was smarter than I was and could see I’d fallen in love with doing it so I taught some more because it was a lot of fun.”
Jim then set off on his Guinness World Record-making journey and wrote about his experiences in the book Investment Biker: Around the World with Jim Rogers. When I ask whether he was looking at investment opportunities all the way round he’s quick to clarify, “No, no, no,” he pants. “I was going around the world to go around the world, it had nothing to do with investment opportunity. However given the nature of who I am, if I see something great happening I’m going to do something. I was there for the adventure; I was there to survive the adventure. Yes I wanted to see the world, yes I wanted to know about the world, yes I loved meeting new people, trying new food, but I was there for the adventure. It was tertiary that the investments came along.”
He also reproaches himself for not taking advantage of a major investment opportunity he saw on that first circumnavigation.
“When I first went to China in ’84, I was scared to death. I’d read all the propaganda describing the place as filled with horrible red Chinese, [who were] bloodthirsty and murder women and children, so I was really scared to death. But I saw that these people wanted to be successful, they wanted the same thing for their children that other people want. I realised that the Chinese had a long history of entrepreneurship, capitalism and a long history of being very good at it. At the time, even though I was ‘somewhat cosmopolitan, somewhat international’, I too was deluded by Western world propaganda that had been drummed into me since I was born.
“I could see what was happening on the ground [in China] and a little research and homework made me realise that China was the only country that I knew of in world history that had a long history of entrepreneurship and capitalism. They had been unbelievably successful at times; they’d been catastrophic at times too. I mean, the UK was great once; Egypt was great once; Rome was great once but China had been great three or four times in its history and catastrophic three or four times.
“If I had any brains I would have moved to China in the eighties. I saw what was happening, I spread it far and wide. Did I do anything? No, I was hopeless and useless so that was a mistake. If I’d been really smart in 1964 I would have gone to China and learnt Chinese instead of going to Oxford. I had a phenomenal time at Oxford; they were two of the best years of my life. But if I had been really smart I would have gone to Asia, to China but I just did what everybody else did, even when I came back.”
Less than a decade after returning from the journey for which Time magazine dubbed him “the Indiana Jones of finance”, Jim began making plans to repeat his round the world trip. “The concept of the millennium came up and I said, well nobody’s been around the world at the turn of the millennium or if they did they didn’t put it on the internet, nobody [has] documented it. So I thought I’m going to do it again and this time I’m going to do it properly and document the world at the turn of the millennium, so I had it in my poor pathetic brain that I’d do it again. I’d done it on a motorcycle so I didn’t want to do that again so I thought I’d do it in a car, a convertible.”
Again he published a book about his travels: Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip. And it was only after that second trip that Jim “became a bull on China,” and in 2007 sold his US$16 million townhouse in New York to move the family to Singapore.
To close the interview I ask him why he freely talks to the press in a time when many investors are cagey and often only conduct interviews alongside a retentive public relations rep. “I was an aspiring investor and I was always amazed at how many people would talk to me or give me the time of day and answer my questions.
“I try to help people, just as people who were older and more successful and knowledgeable gave me the time of day. I don’t get anything out of it obviously; I don’t have a job, I’m not trying to raise money. I’m not looking for investors. In my mind it’s part of my social obligation. It’s my way of giving back.”
I believe him, and if you judge Jim purely on the decade of his working career, you’d be a fool not to listen to his advice. Of course we don’t know what investment success he has had privately but Jim comes across as charming with a tremendous passion for knowledge and an ‘investopaedic’ understanding of global history. I won’t pass on any of the investment tips he shared with me as you can hear them in the interviews he regularly agrees to. Instead I leave you with the thought that Jim is one of the few investors who has truly travelled the world and any information he does share is based on his own experience and research.
Jim’s tips for success
Study philosophy and history. Philosophy will teach you to think and question everything. And if you study history, which I studied at Yale, you will learn that the world is always changing. Everything you think is true right now is not going to be true in 2027. Whatever people thought in 1912 was totally different in 1927. That’s one of the great advantages of studying history. If you’re going to be successful in anything you need to know that things are going to change. Be curious and sceptical. If you’re curious and sceptical you’re an independent thinker. You’ve got to be persistent; you’ve got to persevere. The world is full of smart people who are not successful. The world is full of beautiful people who are not successful. The world is full of talented people who are not successful, educated people who are not successful. The people who are successful in life are the ones who persist and persevere.