Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) — Barton Biggs has some offbeat advice for the rich: Insure yourself against war and disaster by buying a remote farm or ranch and stocking it with “seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc.”
The “etc.” must mean guns.
“A few rounds over the approaching brigands’ heads would probably be a compelling persuader that there are easier farms to pillage,” he writes in his new book, “Wealth, War and Wisdom.”
Biggs is no paranoid survivalist. He was chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley before leaving in 2003 to form hedge fund Traxis Partners. He doesn’t lock and load until the last page of this smart look at how World War II warped share prices, gutted wealth and remains a warning to investors. His message: Listen to markets, learn from history and prepare for the worst.
“Wealth, War and Wisdom” fills a void. Library shelves are packed with volumes on World War II. The history of stock markets also has been ably recorded, notably in Robert Sobel’s “The Big Board.” Yet how many books track the intersection of the two?
The “wisdom” in the alliterative title refers to the spooky way markets can foreshadow the future. Biggs became fascinated with this phenomenon after discovering by chance that equity markets sensed major turning points in the war.
The British stock market bottomed out in late June 1940 and started rising again before the truly grim days of the Battle of Britain in July to October, when the Germans were splintering London with bombs and preparing to invade the U.K.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plumbed “an epic bottom” in late April and early May of 1942, then began climbing well before the U.S. victory in the Battle of Midway in June turned the tide against the Japanese.
Berlin shares “peaked at the high-water mark of the German attack on Russia just before the advance German patrols actually saw the spires of Moscow in early December of 1941.”
“Those were the three great momentum changes of World War II — although at the time, no one except the stock markets recognized them as such.”
Biggs isn’t suggesting that Mr. Market is infallible: He can get “panicky and crazy in the heat of the moment,” he says. Over the long haul, though, markets display what James Surowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds.”
Like giant voting machines, they aggregate the judgments of individuals acting independently into a collective assessment. Biggs stress-tests this theory against events that shook nations from the Depression through the Korean War, which he calls “the last battle of World War II.”
Biggs has read widely and thought deeply. He has a pleasing conversational style, an eye for memorable anecdotes and a weakness for Winston Churchill’s quips. His book works as a brisk refresher course.
What really packs a wallop, though, is his combination of military history, market action, maps and charts. It’s one thing to say that the London market scraped bottom before the Battle of Britain. It’s another to show it.
In May and June 1940, some 338,000 British and French troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk by a flotilla of fishing boats, tugs, barges, yachts and river steamers. The French and Belgian armies had collapsed; the Dutch had surrendered. Britain stood alone, as bombs shattered London and the Nazis prepared to invade. Yet stocks rallied.
Mankind endures “an episode of great wealth destruction” at least once every century, Biggs reminds us. So the wealthy should prepare to ride out a disaster, be it a tsunami, a market meltdown or Islamic terrorists with a dirty bomb.
The rich get complacent, assuming they will have time “to extricate themselves and their wealth” when trouble comes, Biggs says. The rich are mistaken, as the Holocaust proves.
“Events move much faster than anyone expects,” he says, “and the barbarians are on top of you before you can escape.”
“Wealth, War and Wisdom” is from Wiley (358 pages, $29.95, 15.99 pounds).
(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this review: James Pressley in Brussels at [email protected]
Last Updated: January 29, 2008 19:36 EST