Jim Rogers Interview by Flag Theory
When you leave or enter (Changi Airport, Singapore’s front door – you do it in class. As a citizen, a permanent resident, or even a foreigner on work pass (such as an entrepass) you simply scan your passport, give a thumbprint and walk on through. Zero human interaction. No hassles. No pat downs. No body scans. Pure Class.
Should you want to buy a gift, grab a meal, or even go for a swim, your options are open.
“I can tell you that when you fly into a New York airport, you are flying into a third world airport” – Jim Rogers
Contrast this to JFK airport. Dirty, slow, and painful. Getting through customs and immigration always takes longer than it should – and then you have to re-enter and go through domestic security once again if you have a connecting flight.
For a 24 hour journey from Singapore to New York covering over 9000 miles, I went through 1 x-ray machine at the gate in Singapore.
For a 1-hour puddle hopper flight from New York to Boston, I had to talk to an immigration officer, then I had to go through customs and speak with a customs officer, and then I had to exit and then re-enter, I had to go through security. I had to talk to 3 different TSA officers, and then get patted down by a TSA officer.
Americans in Asia
However, before I left Singapore, I visited with Jim Rogers, who if you don’t know – has accomplished a good deal during his lifetime.
Despite his accolades and accomplishments, he has an incredibly humble manner – observing local customs, even when he certainly doesn’t have to, in the comfort of his own home.
We exchanged business cards with both hands, and when a Chinese cameraman arrived, he didn’t say “Howdy” but rather, welcomed him with “Ni Hao”.
I asked him if I could record and transcribe our conversation to share with my tribe (i.e. you the good reader) and he politely obliged. This is what we talked about:
You’re a man that’s accomplished an incredible amount, you’ve seen the world several times over, the only person to have broken the bank, you are a millionaire many times over – was there ever a time when you’ve thought to yourself – “OK now I’ve Made it.”
Well, if you know how much money you have, you probably don’t have enough money. I don’t know how much money I have so I guess I’m somewhat satisfied. I never bothered to count it up. I don’t need a lot of money. I still have some of the same old clothes I wore in college. I never owned more than one house at one time. Don’t own a plane, don’t have a boat. I just wanted to buy my freedom. Now I’ve got these two little girls, and as long as I have enough to take care of them, I guess I’ve made it. I don’t wear gold chains or diamond rings, I don’t even have a watch. I guess I’m satisfied.
1976 when you were running the Quantum Fund with Soros. You broke the bank. What was that like for you?
I’ve had a lot of exhilarating moments in my life. I loved what I was doing and I was totally consumed with what I was doing. Every time there was a triumph it was that much more exhilarating. It was an ongoing triumph for a decade, constantly working and that’s all I wanted to do. Every time I saw a triumph I was very pleased. Didn’t have time to stop because I was moving on to other situations, moving on to other I’ve had other exhilarating periods in my life too, such as these little girls.
It’s hard to tell using current exhilaration as a measure, having these girls is pure ecstasy 24/7 it was Pure ecstasy driving around the world, surviving and not getting killed or maimed. Perhaps if there was any way to measure, who knows what would be the best. I’ve certainly had some set backs in my life, but I’ve had a few successes.
The title of your last book is Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road and in the Markets. What’s something that allowed you to predict the global changes of markets. What is something in your life that you feel has made you feel “street smart”?
Good question, wish I knew, I’d bottle it. Growing up in backwoods of Alabama, I realized what real life was like. Then the contrast of going to Yale and Oxford, learning a bit about the world and heading to Wall Street and I learned pretty quickly there is a lot of unreality. I’m sure I’m not the only person from a small rural town to go to Wall Street. I’m sure there have been many. I don’t know what it was from my background that made me skeptical and curious and the ability to reject the crowd. I guess the ability to think independently and reject the crowd may be the best thing.
There was a person that recently worked for me that if you told her the sky was blue- she would say – “yea, the sky is blue” she wouldn’t look out the window and check independently.
You have to be tough enough to question everything. There are a lot of people in the world . Something in my background told me to question everything. That’s if you want to be successful in anything – football, music, writing, whatever – it’s important to think for yourself.
You predicted that the 21st century would be the rise of Asia, you really put your money where your mouth is. I’m speaking to you from your wonderful house in Singapore, and you’ve moved your entire family out here. What were there other places in the world that you looked at before you decided on Singapore?
We wanted to be in a Chinese-speaking city. So we looked at China [Laughs] however, the ones where we wanted to live were too polluted. I couldn’t see any reason to live in a city with pollution. I guess in retrospect we could have wound up in Vancouver or Bangkok – as there are plenty of Chinese speakers there. However, we wound up living in Singapore and we are very pleased.
What do you enjoy about living here in Asia?
My kids love living in Singapore, they like their schools. My wife loves it here. There is great education, great healthcare – very easy to live in Singapore. I lived in New York for 2 decades, I very much enjoyed it. Nothing works, hard to get anything done. Whereas in Singapore everything works and it’s easy to get things done. It is a lot easier to live here. New York is very exciting, but it’s not easy. However Singapore is plenty of exciting for me. Since I’m convinced that the 21st century is the century of Asia, I hope I’m preparing my kids by knowing Asia, and by speaking mandarin. Speaking mandarin will not make them successful. There are lots of people speaking Chinese and English, but at least if they are working in a restaurant, they will be the maître d’, and not the dishwasher. My ten year old recently won nationwide contest as best mandarin speaker in the school system. We were more stunned than proud. We were in a room with hundreds of Chinese, 2 Caucasians, and one Caucasian girl – and the little girl won.
In the past 50 years, Singapore has become one of the most important cities in the world. Why was this able to occur?
The people who built Singapore were unique, and at the right place at the right time, with the right attitudes. Dr. Goh Looking back on it, was pure genius. He has long since gone and I don’t know if those guys who built Singapore would be able to get a job here now because they were scrappy, driven people but they grew up with no money, no anything. The British pulled out and said that’s the end of Singapore. These guys didn’t know any better, so they started doing whatever they had to do, and the rest they say is history. The Chinese have a saying, in 3 generations, you go from rags to rags. Turns out many cultures have that saying, I don’t know what’s going to happen, as we are only in second generation now in Singapore – if the Chinese are right, careful of the next generation. The scrappy guys who built Singapore might not be able to get a job, you know, Singapore is very impressed by Oxford degrees, Ivy league degrees, etc. Well I have an Oxford degree and an ivy league degree and I’m not as impressed by them as they are. They have enough momentum, enough things going for them that certainly, the second generation is fine. Even if they start fowling up that, even if screw up, I’d rather be here than a lot of countries I can name, and that’s why we are here.
The Singapore government is small, and the Chinese government is huge. Both have been successful in pulling millions out of poverty. Where does the duality lie?
Singapore’s key was a high rate of savings and investing. Extremely high rates of savings and investing and giving people incentives to invest in Singapore. And it worked. It was a swamp with few assets, other than cheap labor and the port. They emphasized education, hard work and savings.
In China, savings and investment were crucial, some would say they were scared to death, so they saved for the future. Once you have savings you can invest. And also lots of cheap labor. There weren’t lots of incentives at first, but pretty quickly the Chinese recognized that they had to attract outside capital and labor. The Chinese had the advantage as there was a huge overseas Chinese population, who became successful, educated and smart – so many of those overseas Chinese were encouraged to come back with their money, with their expertise.
While Singapore was trying to attract anyone they could, China attracted its own outside sources of capital and expertise i.e. the overseas Chinese. In some regards their expertise was more or less the same. It was outside capital, outside expertise and therefore high rates of savings and investing and cheap labor.
Now the Singaporeans did that consciously. Dr. Goh (Dr. Goh Keng Swee) knew he didn’t have any choice, Lee Kuan Yew had the brains to go along with it. With the Chinese it just happened naturally. If you were Chinese ethnic, if you were 3rd generation Chinese, and didn’t speak Chinese – living anywhere you pick, say Berlin – China would still welcome you back. That may have been a chauvinistic, or maybe even a racist type of thing but it worked. These guys flooded back with their money and their expertise. Remember, it was only 30 years between 1939 and 1979 when they started this, but the Chinese worldwide remembered China, and remembered capitalism, many of them fled because communism didn’t work. But the new system did work and they had many similarities on how they worked.
The first time I came to Singapore a few decades ago, I was told that the savings rate was 40%, then I found out that CPF and the government forced people to do that. And whether they did that out of brilliance or luck it doesn’t matter because it worked, it worked in spades. It was a conscious decision by somebody that savings had to be high in order to successful.
You predicted in Adventure Capitalist that Japan would do well in the short term and not in the medium and long-term. You’ve been right so far, how do you feel that things will work out, being a debtor nation.
Very badly – they will look back in 20 years and say that was the deathblow for japan. No country in history has been successful in the long term debasing the currency. Its never worked, that I know of, in the long term.
He is running up those debts. They have a decline in population, they are doing nothing about that. They need babies or immigration or declining standard of living. They’ve defacto opted for declining standard of living, because they won’t have babies and they won’t let in immigrants. On top of that, they are debasing the currency.
Abe’s got 3 arrows to shoot, but he’s got one bullet, and he shot it – at the wrong target. Mr. Abe will be remembered as having ruined Japan.
America is the largest debtor nation in the history of the world and it’s getting worst. Most people aren’t even addressing the problem or even understand why it’s a problem. In 1918 the UK was the richest, most powerful country in the world. There was no number two. Within 1 generation there was chaos and within 2 they were bankrupt. America is going the same way.
There is a shift every 3rd generations; we are in the 2nd or maybe 3rd in heading towards bankruptcy ourselves. This has never worked in the history of the world. You don’t solve the problem of two much spending with more debt and more consumption.
You gave some suggestions the US could do to turn it around: bringing the troops home, changing the culture of litigation and tort pervasive in society, making the tax code simpler – and taxing consumption instead of savings. Do you have any hope for these things happening?
Absolutely not [laughs] I laugh because yeah, with all of those things, it’s so impossible. There are staggering lobbies in favor of the litigation culture, there are staggering lobbies in favor of the education system and the tax system. There are essentially no people with lobbying power on the other side, and even if you have smart lobbyists they are overwhelmed by the others.
You’ve been quoted as saying “pick any decade over the last 50 years. 1960, 1970, all the way through the millennium. the conventional wisdom that existed at the start of the decade was shattered over the following ten or fifteen years.” What is some conventional wisdom of this decade that you feel will be shattered by 2020 or 2025?
Look out the window – anything you want! America is the most powerful country of the world. Europe is the shining beacon on the hill. Massive amounts of people want to immigrate to the US and Europe for instance.
Post offices will disappear in the next 15 years, that’s inconceivable to most people. Even banks as we know them will disappear as we know them. My kids may never go to a post office or a bank when they are adults. There are many many things that will change over the next 15 years. The financial types will be in serious trouble, the ivy league schools, many of them will shatter. Many things will change as we look to the future. And even if I’m wrong about every one of those, there are going to be other dramatic, far reaching changes, and if nothing else, just look back in history. Pick any year, and see what everybody thought in that year and then look ahead 10, 15 years and essentially nothing was the same.
Having lived through many different historical events, seen the birth of widespread computing, the internet, do you feel that technology is growing at a faster rate – that it is growing at an exponential or even logarithmic scale, as opposed to a linear scale?
Well the difference in 1900 and 1915 – certainly not linear, it’s geometric if not a rocket ship. As far as technology – when the radio came, when electricity came, when the steam engine came, these things made staggering changes in the world. I think there are studies that say yes, technological change in these years is faster than others. I don’t know how you measure that. I know that the UK went from essentially nothing in 1820 to in 1835 they had 2/3rd of all the machines in the world. Whereas in the 1820s no one thought much about the UK except they had defeated Napoleon. But that didn’t lead to riches or gigantic industrial revolution happening in the UK instead of in Germany or Japan or even America. Yes, it is an easy, facile type of statement, and we are experiencing staggering changes, as I’ve said – my kids will never go to a post office, which would be inconceivable over the past couple hundreds of years, or a bank which would have been inconceivable over the past several thousands of years. However, fortunately or unfortunately, the world has always seen dramatic changes.
Are you optimistic this will have a positive change or do you see it could also have a negative change?
Both, will have staggering wars, technology will kill a lot more people, destroy a lot more capital, will destroy countries and societies. At the same time it will cause birth and rebirth to plenty others. Was the atom bomb good or bad – certainly if you were Japanese you didn’t think it was very good. But on the other hand if you were TVA – Tennessee valley authority you thought it was spectacular. It’s both. The machine gun. Noble when he invented dynamite, he said “this will bring peace to the world” because no one will want to kill each other; the consequences will be horrible. He was wrong, they figured out ways how to kill even more people. So, it’s some of both.
- The world is undergoing massive changes, in 10 or 15 years, the landscape may look completely different.
- Asia is on the rise. Asia is the epicenter of emerging markets. Whether it is Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma or the Philippines, the opportunities are rampant.