Personal Finance May 2009

Why I Fired My Broker

With his 401(k) in ruins, our correspondent visits investment gurus, hedge fund managers, and a freakish Arizona survivalist with one question in mind: How can the ordinary investor recover?
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THE WAY I SEE IT, it’s all a con game,” Cody Lundin was saying. “What I mean is that Wall Street has always been an illusion. Now it’s an illusion that’s crumbling. Wall Street is like someone who’s having heart trouble. It’s in constant need of resuscitation, but after a while, it just doesn’t work anymore. People think that Bernard Madoff was unique, that he was an illusion, but he’s just an extension of the same illusion, the same con game. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to have any debt. When you have debt, you become part of this illusion, and sometimes you get trapped by it.”

We were standing outside in a foot of snow in the mountains above Prescott, Arizona. Lundin was arguing so cogently against the American culture of easy credit, in tones far more thoughtful than one hears on cable television, that I forgot for a moment that he wasn’t wearing shoes, or socks. He was standing in the snow barefoot. Also, in shorts.

“It’s all about regulating core body temperature.” For long hikes in the snow, he wears three pairs of socks, without shoes. He suggested I try this.

Other things Lundin asked me to try include making fire with sticks, eating mice—“a free source of protein in survival scenarios”—and living without electricity for a week to “see where it hurts.” Lundin himself eats mice and rats he traps at his off-the-grid passive-solar house in the wilderness, because “why waste free protein?”

Lundin is a freak; twin blond braids fall from his bandanna-covered head, giving him the appearance of a stoner Viking. But in the event that the economy crumbles, and civilization with it, I would appoint him my financial adviser. He is my favorite survivalist, the author of a book on getting by in the wilderness and another on urban preparedness, and a teacher of primitive-living skills. Survivalist, of course, has ugly political connotations. A long time ago, I visited a place called Elohim City, on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, that was home to a group of white supremacists. Their racism was repulsive, and their anti-Semitism wasn’t too pleasant, either. But I was impressed with one aspect of their lifestyle. On a tour, they showed me a vast storeroom filled with beans. Pinto beans, lima beans, all sorts of beans, vacuum-packed in garbage-can-size vats. Three years of food, for when the revolution comes. I knew, of course, that I didn’t need three years of beans in my house, but I took the lesson: it’s not the worst thing in the world to have a couple of weeks of food and water on hand, just in case a natural or man-made emergency is more than FEMA can handle.

Lundin is not a racist; in fact, he’s an Obama supporter, and he resents the racist associations attached to survivalism. Nor does he wish for the grid to go down. He says he enjoys electricity and indoor plumbing. He tends to think, though, that civilization is a thin film, and that in times of economic distress, it’s smart to be prepared for the day when Safeway runs out of milk. “This isn’t something I hope for. But what if the illusion does really crumble, and we have to move as a society to something else?”

I asked Cody how he invests his money. “I don’t believe in the intangible economy; I believe in the tangible economy. When I have extra money, I buy tools, food, or land. I like to be able to see what I’m buying. And I really don’t like debt, so I’d rather not have certain things than be in debt to anyone. I just feel better knowing that I don’t owe money, and I feel good knowing that I can take care of myself. That’s the American way, to be able to be self-reliant.”

For the record, I don’t think the grid is buckling under the weight of consumer debt or the mistakes of AIG. But we’re in a strange moment in American history when a mouse-eating barefoot survivalist in the mountains of Arizona makes more sense than the chief investment strategist of Merrill Lynch.

“People need a plan, they need skills, and they need supplies. What would happen if the ATMs stopped working for a couple of days? People would panic. But you won’t panic if you’re prepared to ride out a disturbance.”

Even out West, he says, people in the cities are unequipped to go for more than a day or two on their own. The Mormons, who are strongly encouraged by their church to keep a year’s supply of food in their homes, are an exception. “I know some people who say that if things go to hell, they’re just going to go to some Mormon’s house and steal all his shit. But that’s not right.”

“Also, many Mormons keep guns.”

“Yeah, there’s that.”

The curious thing about listening to Cody Lundin is that in his ideas I heard echoes of ideas I’ve been hearing from people very much dependent on the financial grid. Bill Gross, the founder of Pimco, the world’s leading bond trader (and, according to a September 2008 ranking by Forbes, America’s 227th-richest person), suggested that thrift—not mouse-eating thrift, but more moderate forms of thrift—is quickly becoming the norm, as a result of society’s massive over-leveraging.

“Risk-taking went over the edge,” he told me. “We are inventing something new. We’re very afraid. We know from the Depression that people who lived through it didn’t change their mentality for the rest of their lives. They were sewing their socks. They refused to take a lot of chances. My sense is that it will take 10 or 20 years to find that spark of risk-taking in people again.”

When I told Seth Klarman, one of the country’s leading value investors, about my visit with Cody Lundin, he said, “It’s always smart to prepare for disaster. In investing, that means holding disaster insurance. In your personal life, it makes sense to have inexpensive disaster protection, so come what may, you’re ready for any eventuality. I like to store some extra bottled water in the basement, but my wife thinks it’s too much clutter. I told her I’d share my water with her anyway.”

While I’d choose Cody Lundin to serve as my off-the-grid adviser, I would choose Seth Klarman as my on-the-grid adviser, if only he were taking clients.

Klarman was hired out of Harvard Business School to manage a $27 million fund that, as of early this year, had grown to $14 billion. He is also the author of one of the more expensive books in the world, Margin of Safety. An out-of-print guide to value investing, it sells for as much as $2,500 per copy on the Web.

Klarman is an acolyte of Ben Graham, the original value investor. Value investors—Warren Buffett is the most famous—seek out distressed, underappreciated assets, buy them, and wait until the rest of the world realizes that they’re worth something.

“The overwhelming majority of people are comfortable with consensus, but successful investors tend to have a contrarian bent,” Klarman said over lunch one day in an empty Boston restaurant. “Successful investors like stocks better when they’re going down. When you go to a department store or a supermarket, you like to buy merchandise on sale, but it doesn’t work that way in the stock market. In the stock market, people panic when stocks are going down, so they like them less when they should like them more. When prices go down, you shouldn’t panic, but it’s hard to control your emotions when you’re overextended, when you see your net worth drop in half and you worry that you won’t have enough money to pay for your kids’ college.”

One theme of Margin of Safety is that people like me aren’t equipped to be investors. “No one knows what he’s doing unless he’s a full-time professional,” he said. “As in many professions, full-time experts have an enormous advantage. Investing is highly sophisticated and nuanced. The average person would have an incredibly hard time competing.”

I asked Klarman if he wasn’t working against his own financial interest by arguing that average people aren’t qualified to be investors.

“Most people on Wall Street do well enough,” he said. “It’s regrettable that anyone would want a client to take risks beyond what the client could handle.”

He agreed with Robert Soros that the financial-services industry treats the small investor not as a client but as a source of ready cash. “The average person can’t really trust anybody. They can’t trust a broker, because the broker is interested in churning commissions. They can’t trust a mutual fund, because the mutual fund is interested in gathering a lot of assets and keeping them. And now it’s even worse because even the most sophisticated people have no idea what’s going on.”

After 15 years of pabulum, I was enjoying, in a perverse sort of way, receiving straight talk from masters of finance.

“Everybody these days is a just-in-time investor. People say, ‘I’m going to leave my money in the market as long as possible, and then pull it out of the market just before I have to write the tuition check.’ But I think we’re seeing that the day you need to pull it out of the market, the market might be down 50 percent. It’s critical not to be greedy. Avoid leverage and don’t invest money that you can’t stand to lose.”

“I haven’t leveraged myself,” I said.

He asked me if I had a mortgage. Yes. He then asked me if the amount of money I had invested in the stock market was greater than the amount I owed on my mortgage—could I liquidate what remained of my portfolio to pay off my mortgage? I could.

“So you are leveraged. Why are you keeping your money in the market?”

“Because—”

“It’s because you think you’re going to make more money in the market than you’re paying in interest on your mortgage.”

“Yup.”

“Well, are you?”

“Uhh, no. But I’m getting the mortgage-interest deduction.”

“Yes, the interest is deductible. But if you had capital gains in the market, you’d pay taxes on those. In the aftermath of this financial crisis, I think everyone needs to look deep within themselves and ask how they want to live their lives. Do they want to live close to the edge, or do they want stability? In my view, people should have a year or two of living expenses in cash if possible, and they shouldn’t use leverage anywhere in their lives.”

“But if I dump my portfolio now, I make my losses real.”

“How are you going to feel if the market drops another 50 percent?”

Klarman went on, “Here’s how to know if you have the makeup to be an investor. How would you handle the following situation? Let’s say you own a Procter & Gamble in your portfolio and the stock price goes down by half. Do you like it better? If it falls in half, do you reinvest dividends? Do you take cash out of savings to buy more? If you have the confidence to do that, then you’re an investor. If you don’t, you’re not an investor, you’re a speculator, and you shouldn’t be in the stock market in the first place.”

Several years ago, I went to a party at a hedge-fund manager’s loft in Lower Manhattan. The elevator opened directly into the loft, which was as big as Mussolini’s office. An Austin Powers bed was parked to one side.

I left the party with a friend of mine, David Segal, who is now a business reporter at The New York Times. As we walked to the subway, he said, “You know, we should get one of those hedge funds.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Where do we get one?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we can find one on the street. But we need one.”

“Yes, we do.”

When I think back on that conversation, I realize that it represents for me the apex of hedge-fund mania. Which is to say, when two reporters realize they should get into the hedge-fund business, it might be somewhat late to get into the hedge-fund business.

Seth Klarman is right. I’m not an investor. Very few people in America actually are. I never had the knowledge or the time to master the stock market. I thought I knew how to manage the danger, which is why I invested to a disproportionate degree in the Dow 30. I’ve learned, however, that it’s quite possible to ride the Dow 30 a far way along the risk curve. And I’ve learned another thing: I once believed that a buy-and-hold strategy would make me rich. This was a mistaken belief. “The economy comes in cycles,” Robert Soros said. “If you believe that the economy is not cyclical, then buy-and-hold is for you.” He taught me a Wall Street expression: “An investment is a trade gone bad.”

Though the past six months of my financial life have been marked mainly by paralysis, I have, in fact, made a couple of decisions. I’ve decided to deplete the world’s supply of gold by two ounces. (Attention all Atlantic-reading burglars: it’s not in my house.) You’ll be pleased to know that the price of gold fell $70 the week after I bought.

And my wife and I have decided to fire our Merrill Lynch financial adviser. We’re not firing him because we realized that his company couldn’t manage its own money, much less ours, and we’re not firing him for his bad advice. I was the one, after all, who pulled the trigger on the purchase of 100 shares of AIG. (It would have been good of him to warn us about what was coming, but that would have necessitated him knowing what was coming.) We’re also not firing him because his research chief wants us to elongate our already too-long time horizon. And we’re not firing him because John Thain, his former CEO, spent the fees we paid his company on a $35,000 commode. We’re firing him mainly because he fired us. He never said he was firing us. He just stopped calling. Eventually, I stopped calling him. I got the message.

Our main job now is finding someone to advise us. This is a very difficult task.

I asked Bill Gross what he thought I should do. He was somewhat dyspeptic. “The system is rigged,” he said. “It’s difficult for the average investor to even conceptualize what we’re talking about. For this reason, I think financial advisers are still worthwhile, but the average investor can no longer pay them what they felt they were worth. You should find someone who isn’t overpromising or overcharging.”

This search is made more difficult because we don’t have enough money to make ourselves interesting to most of the best advisers, and the typical adviser is not sufficiently independent-minded to be effective.

“There’s enormous pressure to provide conventional advice,” Klarman explained, “and tremendous pressure against providing unconventional advice. Advisers only recommend what’s conventionally palatable. They tend to say 60 percent stocks, 40 percent bonds, and they’re not likely to move away from that, no matter how extreme valuations are. They’re not likely to move away from it when the market is really high, or really low. A big part of the problem is that there isn’t a perfect answer to any of this. No one can tell you how to allocate your assets 100 percent of the time. The average investor is not getting Warren Buffett to look at his portfolio; he’s getting a printout from a computer model.”

Unconventionality makes me nervous, but less so than conformity. I’m finished with conformity. In picking an adviser, I’m also looking for someone who is unleveraged; someone who is putting his own money into the investments he’s recommending; and someone who can explain to me in a few sentences, in language easily understood by earthlings, his philosophy of investing.

Despite everything, I’m not overly pessimistic. I’m long on America, as my friends on Wall Street might say. I believe that equities will grow in value. I expect the Dow to return to 9,000, or 10,000, if not sooner, then later. And when it does, if I’m not already out, I might just get out. I’m not enjoying this particular ride.

I no longer expect to get rich. It makes me happy to realize this. It also makes it easier to give more money to charity. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what led all of us to believe that we could regularly expect double-digit annual returns on our money, for doing no work. Maybe this attitude will cause me to miss the next great run-up. No matter. I’ll take 3 or 4 percent gains a year, or 1 or 2, if necessary. I’ll keep more cash on hand. I’ll keep a two-week supply of meals-ready-to-eat, bottled water, and lanterns in my basement. If things get bad, I’ll take my family and drive west, to find Cody Lundin. And if the bottom truly falls out, I’ll find a Mormon and ask him, politely, if he’ll share.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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