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The Spanish conqueror of Peru, Francisco Pizarro, battles with the last Inca king of Peru, Atahualpa.Time Life Pictures / Mansell / Getty Images
Time Life Pictures Contributor
The Spanish conqueror of Peru, Francisco Pizarro, battles with the last Inca king of Peru, Atahualpa.Time Life Pictures / Mansell / Getty Images

Look to Prop Joe, not Soros, for sound investment advice

Investors are like religious acolytes in their devotion to gurus and soothsayers.

Investors are like religious acolytes in their devotion to gurus and soothsayers. The vultures follow Wilbur Ross, the value-seekers follow Carl Icahn, the fundamentalists follow the great Buffett, bond bulls kneel before Jeff Grundlach. All of these, and many more besides, claim to have unlocked the secret of turning cheap stocks and bonds into big money makers, just like medieval alchemists who persuaded kings they could turn base metal to gold.

George Soros, one of the best known and perhaps most speculative of these gurus, broke ranks at Davos last week, however, and admitted that neither he, nor anyone else in the world, understands markets at all. So we are essentially throwing darts at a dartboard when we decide which companies or derivatives to back.

His admission reminded me of Atahualpa, the last king of the Incas, who naively told the conquistadors that the sun and moon gods didn't actually talk to him when he disappeared behind the altar. Rather, he confided, the veil of mysticism was created by his noble forefathers to convince the people to follow their orders.

What followed for Atahualpa was pretty brutal and pretty final, as it was for the Inca empire.

Mr Soros, like Atahualpa, was telling the truth. But neither admission was very helpful to either of their causes.

The fact that markets are fundamentally broken and that nobody knows what is going on has been obvious since at least 2008.

And this is nothing new. We are reminded of it at least once a decade when we are plunged into the inevitable years of decline after a spectacular crash caused, most often, by a group of investors exploiting the most recently discovered complex investment product or flaw in regulation.

So to admit that we are ultimately clueless as to how to command the markets does nothing more than rub salt in the wounds of millions of investors who had put their faith and life savings behind Mr Soros and his like for years.

What Mr Soros should be doing is promoting a style of investing to be adopted by everyone from the lowliest pensioner to the wealthiest investment bank that is easy to understand and simple to execute.

The main problem Mr Soros highlighted in his speech was the preponderance of markets to focus on complex derivatives and other products that seem designed to obfuscate and hide true value. The now infamous mortgage-backed derivatives that sparked the whole crisis spring to mind but there are many more of them.

"We have introduced synthetic instruments, invented derivatives where we don't fully understand the effect they have," he said.

Demos, the United Kingdom think tank, reported in 2010 that despite the lessons we apparently learnt in the 2008 market collapse some US$52 billion (Dh191bn) worth of complex derivatives were still being sold annually and that total losses from all such products had reached $113bn. We have in fact learnt nothing, it seems.

Mr Soros says we need to enter a new phase of market activity, but the problem is, he added, nobody knows what that phase is.

In actual fact what the market needs to do is pretty clear. Markets need to remember their actual purpose, which is to help companies raise money to do business and make a profit to pay back the people who lent them the money in the first place with a bit of interest. It is the basic rule of banking and markets and anything more complex is an attempt to make two and two add up to five. It never will.

To help them return to this old-school style of investing, investors need a simpler guru than Mr Soros or any of his popular cohorts. Someone who truly understands the basics of market economics and the consequences of getting it wrong.

My pick would be Prop Joe, a much beloved character from the HBO television series The Wire.

Prop Joe is the owner of an electrical goods repair shop and a prominent gang leader in the Baltimore, Maryland underworld.

He survives longer than many of his counterparts for his unique abilities as a middle man with a keen business mind in contrast to Mr Soros, who has published hundreds of thousands of words on the ins and outs of market economics yet still basks in self-confessed ignorance.

Prop Joe's economic law boils down to just seven words that if followed strictly will, I believe, restore the global economy to normality and save us all from ruin.

"Buy for a dollar, sell for two". And that is all you need to know about markets.

 

jdoran@thenational.ae

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