Saturday, April 16, 2011

Richest Billionaires Must Also Be Biggest Losers

It sounds ironic. People who worked their lifetime to become some of the richest billionaires must have some good quality in their characters to ensure their success. But some how once the richest billonaires reach their pinnacles, their fortunes inevitably begin to decline, despite of their best efforts and intentions to keep growing their stakes to something even bigger.

But it is also absolutely true! The richest billionaires are also the biggest losers.

I am not just talking about the financial crisis of 2008, in which probably most people lose money anyway. I am talking about it as a generally true fact, like in the last ten years. In 1999, Bill Gates was the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $90B. Remember that was in terms of 1998 US dollars, when gold was $288 an ounce by the year end. So Bill Gates was worth 313 million ounces of gold then. Warren Buffet's $36B would have been worth 125 million ounces of gold at the time.

By 2005, Bill Gates was worth $46.5B, Warren Buffet was worth $44B, and Carlos Slim of Mexico was worth $23.8B. In terms of gold, which was $437/oz (end of 2004), Gates was worth 106.4M ounces, Buffet was worth 100.7M ounces, and Slim was 54.5M ounces. Gates was only 1/3 as rich as he was in 1999. Mr. Bill Gates probably wished that he had sold his company in 1999 and staked away his fortune in gold bars at a secret location.

By today, after the market plummet in 2008 and then an incredible recovery in 2009 and 2010, let's check the score again. Carlos Slim is worth $74B, Gates is worth $53B, and Buffet is worth $47B. Gold was $1422/oz at the end of 2010. So in terms of gold, these three richest billionaires are worth 52M ounces, 39.4M ounces and 35.2M ounces, respectively. The combined fortune of all three is only worth 40% of what Bill Gates alone was worth in 1999.

These two charts track the top billionaire's networth in US$ and in gold ounces, in last 10 years:

It's really surprising. Warren Buffet is known to be the world's most successful value based investor, with all the good characters of investment success: patient, determined, diligent. He had the track record of consistently gaining about 40% each year, in his investment career spanning over 4 decades. But in the last 10 years, his fortune barely gained anything even in terms of the depreciation US dollars.

In terms of gold ounces, or real purchasing power term, Warren Buffet lost more than HALF of his fortune in the last ten years. He lost that much fortune despite of all his personal DD efforts working 12 hours a day, and a team of hundreds of the world's best financial geniuses working with him. All these time and energy spent trying to make the best investment decisions for the world's most respected investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, and they still lose money?

Warren Buffet is famously know for his despise of gold, which he doesn't understand:

Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.

That famous gold quotation sounds reasonable with me and I actually agree with him. An ounce of gold is forever just an ounce of gold. It doesn't grow. Gold is only worth what it costs to extract an ounce of gold from the ground. That certainly is worth a lot of money but it is not growing. Gold is merely a storage of value, not a growth of value. So gold is really not an investment.

But Warren Buffet could well have digged a hole 10 years ago and buried all his fortune in gold bars. His stake would not have grown had he done that, but his fortune at least would not have shrunken like it happened. In the last ten years Warren Buffet diligently managed his investment firm, trying to find valuable companies to buy, selling any asset that seems to cost him money, his giant investment kindom accumulates huge amount of profits and dividends, allowing him to buy up more assets. But despite of all these, his net fortune is barely flatline in US dollar terms, and shrunk to barely 1/4 where he once was, in terms of gold ounces.

Why top billionaires must necessarily once day become top losers? It's not because these rich people have grown too old to think rationally, but simply because they have become too big to grow. Young Warren Buffet could buy a six-pack soda for 25 cents and then sold each can separately, and make an instant 20% gain in an afternoon. Senior Warren Buffet, with his net fortune worth $47B, would now have to buy 18 billion of six-pack sodas for $2.50 each, and find a giant beach with 108 billion thirsty people to vendor individual cans of soda to them for 50 cents each, to grow his fortune 20%.

The world does not have a beach that big. The world is a small place. The universe has a finite size. Persistent growth is not possible in a finite world. When you hit a certain size, you simply can not grow any more. Rapid growth is only possible when you are small. Warren Buffet once purchased a lot of silver bullions, about 1/3 of what the whole world had to offer. It costed only 2% of his fortune. But he could not keep even just 2% of his fortune in physical silver. He was forced to sell his silver.

To the average Joe investors, it's pleasant to know that you can beat the billionaires easily. You can easily make more money than billionaires do, in making the kind of investment decisions that billionaires could not make: Warren Buffet could not buy silver, but an average Joe can walk into a coin store and purchase a couple hundred ounces any time. Had you bought physical silver a mere two and a half years ago, your fortune has more than quadrupled from your initial investment, an investment gain that few of the world's billionaires could achieved.

I pitched physical tellurium investment a few years ago when tellurium was $40 a pound, today it's nearly $500 per kilogram, with the price surged 50% in just the last two months, marching with certainty towards gold price as I predicted. Had I pitched tellurium investment to Mr. Warren Buffet, he would have brushed me away as if I told him to vendor soda packs on the beaches. Folks like him are too big to be concerned in such narrow markets, but an average Joe Six-Pack could have bought six buckets of tellurium for less than 10 grands, and make himself a millionaire in a few short years.

It's great to be a small investor since you have many great opportunities to easily grow much bigger. Those opportunities are not available to billionaires. I notice that Mr. Jim Rogers, my most respected commodity investment guru, pitched silver and my favorite palladium to his audiences since early 2009. The annual global production of silver is only 600M ounces. After industry demand is meet, there is no more than 100M available to investors, or $1B in early 2009 silver price. Palladium's annual global production is slightly over 6M ounces. There is no palladium left for investors after industry demand is meet. But even if there are some palladium ounces available, there are probably no more than 500K ounces per year available to investors. At early 2009 prices, the market liquidity of silver and palladium was $1.1B and $0.1B respectively. If you bought either metal at the lows, your money would have quadrupled by now. But I don't think Jim Roger's fortune had quadrupled during the same time. Mr. Jim Rogers himself is probably too rich for those two narrow precious metal market. Both silver and palladium and excellent investment opportunities for the average Joes, and un-available to billionaires. Jim Rogers could not buy the metals himself that he urged people to buy.

So, do NOT listen to the world's top billionaires. You should be inspired by the stories how they accumulated their fortune, and their general philosophy of the society and of life in the world. But do NOT listen to top billionaires as far as investment decision goes. They have now become irrelevant losers while you are the winners. You need to listen to the small guys like me and other Seeking Alpha authors, and then do your own thinking. Warren Buffet would not tell you to buy gold, silver, palladium and he probably doesn't know what is tellurium. I will tell you to buy tellurium, buy palladium, and other investment opportunities meant for the small guys. At the end of days the billionaires are proven wrong, and small people like me are proven right.

Full Disclosure: I am heavily invested in physical palladium and silver, and related mining companies, but otherwise have no specific positions related to the discussion of this article.