Friday, September 28, 2012
The Windmills of Your Mind, remains as enchanting as ever.
Relatively speaking, my life has been ordinary, whereas Tommy's has been both enigmatic and exciting. At least comparatively-speaking for 1968. Then, it was the statesmen, politicians, writers and actors were envied, emulated and placed upon pedestals. Tommy, on the other hand, was a secretive financier. Arbitrage. Foreign Exchange. Private Geneva-based Swiss Banks with numbered accounts. A rarefied world not only unknown to, but obscure and unheard of, by most. He was rich and lived very well indeed. Tailored suits, finest restaurants, art auctions, a large house in the middle of the city with an interior compound complete with full-time butler, expensive cars, thrilling but patrician passtimes (polo, gliding etc.) the secluded beach house. How rich? According to the police, briefing the lovely insurance investigator (played by the lovely Faye Dunaway in a performance only outdone by Chinatown), he was divorced (wife got the kids) and worth... wait for it... FOUR MILLION BUCKS!!! Messrs. Soros, Simons, Griffin and Cohen would be laughing in their beards should they chance upon Tommy and his feeble net worth now! And yet, despite that money, and his hobbies, that didn't stop him from getting bored.
But that was more than forty years ago. And during the intervening time, Tommy's fine tastes have, without exclusion, been popularized and lifestyle replicated by all who can, and even surpassed in material terms (Tommy never 'flew private' and had no insecure nouveau riche desire for 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 square feet of gold-leafed, mirrored vulgarity or a ridiculuous oversized stinkpot. In fact, HIS beach pad was a an elevated platform set amidst the isolated dunes. During this intervening time, we have seen hot wars and cold wars, double-digit inflation, high double-digit interest rates - both at the long and short ends, recession, the deepest of bear markets and the most exhuberant of bull runs. Market Crashes lasting months, a week, a day, or just hours. We have endured scarcity and swam in plenty. Suffered quadrupling of our energy staples in short times, and seen it diminish in price by 75%. We've witnessed leaders assasinated like ducks from a blind, airplanes flown into buildings, not to mention several nuclear accidents and meltdowns. We seen arbitrage, foreign exchange, and finance go from being mysterious to a place in our society where every newly-minted Ivy MBA doing an analyst stint at an IB or management Consultancy wants to be Hedge Fund Manager. Statesmen, it would seem, are no longer 'de rigeur', nor the envy of the educated and aspirational class. Oh, and did I mention that we've seen 'inflation'?
Yes, amongst all the volatility and tectonic change, inflation has been (along with environmental degradation, technological innovation) one of the few constants. Tommy Crown probably would have done alright. Some fine Art. Prime Real Estate - both city and beachfront. A portfolio of Blue Chip Stocks. Some Precious Metals. Oh yes, Tommy's net worth if he stayed the course, wasn't leveraged (in the wrong place(s), at the wrong time(s)), would easily be worth a few hundred million (excluding what he stole in the bank heists). Yes, he probably has a large outstanding capital gains bill, but I trust Tommy structured his affairs to the best of his interests.
When one looks back, the defining characteristic has been inflation. How unimaginably small his "rich" was. How cheap things were and how generalized inflation - sometimes pernicious, sometimes benign, occasionally dormant, but always visible in the long run. But rarely if ever in a straight line, and never with a certainty that would encourage anyone to extrememely lever-up to express this process in a trade, or an all allocation outside the most longest of runs. All the while, society, trade, life has not collapsed and returned to barter or descended into Mad Max or Orlovian chaos. The debasement of money while seemingly certain, has not been and likely will not be, mirrored over shorter horizons. It is a slow-burn - not a napalm firestorm. You will read this tomorrow, next week, next month, next year even, and the changes excepting a few oddities -are likely to remain under the perceptive radar, though this is not the rhetoric of the fear-mongering gold bugs (whose asset it must be pointed out is expensive to everything in every currency). This slow burn effect should make one wary of the imminent hyper-inflative doomsday trade, however compelling the demagogic arguments may appear to buy gold on margin or why silver prices will go to $80/oz this year or some other exponentially higher number next year.
Make no mistake. When I am Tommy's imputed age, I will likely be worth hundreds of millions of dollars too. But forty years is long long time, and there will be untold and unpredictable wiggles and squiggles enroute that make the concentrated doomsday trade dubious and highly-suboptimal at best, and a royal waste of bluster for its heralding trumpeters.