By Tim Morrison
Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009 As co-founder (with George Soros) of the hugely successful Quantum Fund, investment guru Jim Rogers had made enough money by 1980 to retire at age 37. Since then, he has spent his time jaunting around the world, writing books on his travels and investment advice with names like Adventure Capitalism and Investment Biker. In 2007 he moved to Singapore to get a front-row seat at Asia’s economic boom and also saw the launch of tradeable securities tied to a commodities index he created. His newest book, A Gift to My Children, is a compendium of advice — financial and otherwise — to his two young daughters. Rogers spoke to TIME about the book, why the Obama Administration can’t fix the economy and why he still thinks commodities are the best investment for the future. You have a lot of advice in your new book for your daughters, on money, education, travel, dating. Do you have any advice for boys? Well, my first advice to my daughters was to be careful of boys, and to be leery of boys, having been a boy myself. For the most part my advice for the boys is the same — be careful of girls. Be careful of people of the other sex. Be careful of wild promises. Just like on Wall Street. Let’s talk about Wall Street. Is there anything the government should be doing to fix the economic crisis? No, the government can’t fix the crisis. Everything the government’s tried for the past two years has been wrong. That’s why the crisis continues. The idea that you can solve a problem of too much debt and too much consumption with more debt and more consumption is ludicrous on its face. What they should have done is just let everybody go bankrupt, let the bankruptcy courts reorganize everything. The Japanese tried this approach of propping up zombie banks and zombie companies; it did not work. And it’s not going to work in America either. Do you think there’s anything to the argument that it’s just politically impossible to let all these companies go down? That it’d throw so many people out of work that it’d cause social turmoil? They’ll be out of work anyway, you know? In a way I don’t understand the logic. Whatever they’re doing, it’s not saving the day. We have the highest unemployment we’ve had in the U.S. in a few decades and it’s getting worse. You mention a few times the famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” What period are we rhyming with now? Is this an echo of the Great Depression or is there something else that would be more apt? The Great Depression started out with a stock market bubble that burst in 1929, as the world was going into a nice recession. Then the government started making mistakes. They passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, they raised taxes, they became very protectionist, and the next thing you know we had the Great Depression. In Europe they made solvent banks take over insolvent banks with the result that both [kinds of] banks failed. This has all been done before. History is — I don’t like saying it, but it’s repeating itself. Governments are making the same old mistakes. The market is up from its lows and the most recent unemployment numbers are slightly better; what do you say to people who say, ‘Well, we’re nearing bottom on this’? I think we’ve seen a bottom. I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom. If America’s determining its policy on whether the stock market is up for a month, America’s in worse shape than I’d realized. We could have a rally for who knows, six months, a year, we could have a rally for a while after having had the kind of collapse we did. In the ’30s the stock market rallied frequently. But in the end it was still the Great Depression. You normally say that you believe commodities are a better bet, but do you think now with asset prices pushed so far down that it’s a good time to start looking for undervalued stocks? Sure. Some companies are going to be screaming “buy” these days. In the 1930s there were people who made fortunes. If you’re willing and able to do the homework I’m sure you’ll find some great opportunities. But the only area of the world economy I know of where the fundamentals are improving are commodities. Many farmers cannot get loans for fertilizer now. The inventories of food are the lowest they’ve been in decades. Nobody can get a loan to open a mine, so it’s going to be at least 15 years before you’re going to see any new mines opening up. The world’s known oil reserves are in decline. All of what’s going on in the world is improving the supply fundamentals for commodities. And I don’t see that that’s true anywhere else. If the world economy is going to improve, commodities are going to be the best place to be; if the world economy doesn’t improve, commodities are going to be the best place to be. China has $2 trillion in U.S. debt. Do you think at some point these countries are just gong to say, “We’re done? We’re not going to keep underwriting your debt?” If so, what happens then? It’s not just China. It’s our own people who are starting to say, “Why would I buy something that’s being printed as fast as you possibly can print it, why would I buy something where debts are getting higher and higher by the hour, and interest rates are at historic lows?” Let’s not pick on the Chinese here. The reason I focused on China is you’ve said that the 21st century is going to be the Chinese century; you’re teaching your daughters Mandarin. Yes, well, we can pick on China, but remember, the largest creditor nations in the world are in Asia now — it’s China, it’s Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore — all the money is here. Even if the Chinese continue to buy, somebody’s going to stop buying that stuff. If I was the Chinese I wouldn’t buy it. I’m waiting to sell it short at the right time. Do you think this crisis is just going to solidify the advantages of China and these other Asian and Southeast Asian economies? Well, again, throughout history, the center of the world has shifted to where the capital is, where the assets are. You don’t see any period in history where things are shifting to the debtors, and America’s the largest debtor nation in the history of the world. Unless something’s different this time, unless the world’s changed very very dramatically, the center of the influence, the center of power, the center of the earth, the center of the globe, is going to be shifting towards Asia, because that’s where all the money is. Have you ever heard of anybody saying, “Let’s go to where all of the debtors are”? It just doesn’t happen that way.