The Mao of markets
If he weren't an investment advisor, he could have easily have been a movie star. Good looks, a sense of drama and a penchant for playing to the gallery would have stood him in good stead there.
Yet Marc Faber thinks he would probably have chosen to become a university professor of economic history. Or perhaps a curator. You can't take the curator desire lightly, coming as it does from a man who has converted one of his houses in Hong Kong into a museum of Mao memorabilia.
For many years, he assiduously collected thousands of Mao posters (at 20 cents each, now they cost $150!), Mao badges, hundreds of Mao busts, caps, jackets, hammer-and-sickle pins, porcelain paintings and books. He estimates his collection of Mao badges to be around 3,50,000 pieces.
So what is the Mao of markets? The Swiss-born, Hong Kong-based doctor in economics thinks it is a deep understanding of economy drawn from classical masters like Adam Smith and David Ricardo; an appreciation of economic dynamics as outlined by Joseph Schumpeter, sensitisation to the process of development picked up from friend Charles Kindleberger and an awareness of history drawn from Fernand Braudel and Will Durant. All these, put in in the right measure — the exact measure is a secret — allow you to "profiteer" from the markets.
No wonder, then, short run for this investment manager means 10 years and long run is 100. That is, if you are lucky. It can even go up to 200 years. He looks at the 30-odd year Kondratief cycles with as much intensity as much as a conventional fund manager looks at intra-day volatility in the equity markets. Not surprisingly, none of his calls seem to have ever gone wrong. Wait for a minimum of 10 years to catch him on the wrong foot.
The lunch with Faber had been planned well in advance, but some last-minute engagements — he was in India only for a day and a half — meant that the formal interview, scheduled by some of my colleagues with him, was combined with the Lunch with BS.
So there we were at the Masala Kraft, the fusion food restaurant at the Taj, Mumbai, a team of four — one looking for an exclusive India markets story, another for innovative investment strategies, yet another for a general world-view — each pulling Faber in his own direction. Getting a consensus on food proved even more difficult and what emerged was a bit of a hotch-potch lunch.
Faber doesn't come across as a foodie. He was certainly more enthusiastic and decisive about what he wanted to drink: Kingfisher — his favourite Indian brand of beer (need one say more about which is his favourite international brand) — instructing the waiter that he would like some head on his beer. For him beer is staple, wine and brandy is occasional and whisky, never.
He lights up a Marlboro Lights, flips through the menu and quickly decides on shahi raan (roast lamb) with rice — the first dish listed on the menu. The waiter suggests that it will go better with naan. Faber agrees.
The rest of us work on an assorted menu of fish (pomfret curry), lamb (rogan josh) and chicken (murgh kalimirch). As an afterthought — prodded by the waiter — we ask for a dal. As if to restore the balance, we ask for platter of seafood as starters.
Using the time-tested technique to get a fund manager into the right mood, we query him about his right calls. Hadn't he warned his clients to cash out before Black Monday hit Wall Street in 1987? Yes, indeed he had, he said, warming to his subject.
His clients made a fortune when he forecast, not predicted (please note the difference), the burst in the Japanese bubble in 1990. This was his first major call after he ventured out on his own and set up Marc Faber Ltd which acts as an investment advisor, fund manager and broker/dealer. Before that, for 12 years, he was the managing director of Drexel Burnham Lambert (HK) Ltd when the firm was the junk-bond king of Wall Street.
And as if to show that he hadn't lost his golden touch, he points out that he foresaw the Asia-Pacific financial crises of 1997/98. Closer home, Faber is quick to point out that while the whole world is excited about the India story today, he was hot on India two years ago, when no one else was.
He is, however, very unhappy with the government in India. "India would do much better if there were no government. There is a difference between good rules and regulations and bad rules and regulations. India has managed to have the worst rules and regulations in the whole world. In the Bible it is said that you will not be judged for the good that you have done but for the good that you could have done. On that score, the Indian government scores very low marks," he says.
Passing judgements and predicting markets with an astrologer's authority and a thespian's style, Faber reels out his right calls around the globe. So what is the next big one? George Bush will lose the next election, he says, sounding more like our own Bejan Daruwalla.
On financial markets? "The market is smelling financial assets are less desirable than physical assets." "I want to buy aluminium but since I can't, the next best thing that I will do is to buy Hindalco. Paper stocks will not be in favour."
Another doom prediction from the person known the world over as Dr Doom. The sobriquet doesn't seem inappropriate. "I don't care. It doesn't make any difference to me."
But such calls, or forecasts of markets or currencies tanking don't add up to an investment record, do they? What is his investment track record? Sipping his beer, he knocks some imaginary ash off his cigarette and goes into a deep, almost meditative, reverie.
It turns out that the head of Marc Faber Ltd is a firm believer in the power of the compound interest rate. "Some of my investments are good and some are bad. All I can say is that had I kept all my money in bank deposits from the day I started earning in 1970, it would have given me more returns. Nothing is more powerful than compounded interest rates."
The second Kingfisher is certainly working. Time to get up close and personal. Other than markets and Mao, what is he passionate about? Women, he replies, and all of us forget about the food and sit up. "It's all chemistry," he elaborates, "You see someone, like her and then...." Shanghai is his forbidden city because his wife, forever worried about his escapades, spies on him.
In this venture, Faber reckons, it helps not be in a fancy car. The 57-year-old Faber prefers to stalk the streets of Hong Kong on either of his vintage bicycles or one of his four bikes. He has two BMWs, one Kawasaki and one Suzuki. "I don't have a private jet but I don't regret it. I earn enough money to take care of myself," he says.
What is his net worth? He would not answer. How much tax does he pay? Nope, not telling. Like all good market men, Faber clearly knows the value of silence too.