Uncivilized Investing

Uncivilized times call for uncivilized investments.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner in crime at Berkshire Hathaway, told CNBC recently, “I think gold is a great thing to sew into your garments if you’re a Jewish family in Vienna in 1939, but I think civilized people don’t buy gold. They invest in productive businesses.”

In a way, Munger is correct. Gold is uncivilized in the sense that it functions best when civilization functions worst. The more uncivilized a society becomes, the more civilized gold becomes.

So the easiest way to dismiss this statement is to say that maybe it’s 1939 again and maybe this time “we’re all Jewish families in Vienna.” But let’s not let Charlie off the hook so easily. Instead, let’s “unpack it,” in the words of our tutors at St John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To ‘unpack it’ we need to focus on two key words in Charlie’s statement: “productive” and “civilized.”

Charlie might be right if the world were, indeed, civilized. But maybe the modern world isn’t as civilized as he thinks. Part of what made the world so uncivilized in 1939 was unsound money. The abandonment of the classical gold standard in 1914 made the expansion of the Warfare state possible. The equally unsound system that emerged from World War I — including the Treaty of Versailles — virtually guaranteed that monetary and fiscal instability would lead to political instability. Radical parties like the Nazis flourished.

Gold, on the other hand, is sound money. You are not buying it for a capital gain. You are buying it, by our reckoning, as a way of preserving purchasing power. You extract paper from the fiat money system and turn it into something (bullion) you can later exchange for whatever currency emerges when the financial system becomes more civilized.

Interestingly, for more than a decade Berkshire has underperformed gold — the investment asset Buffett recently called “forever unproductive.”

Rolling 10-Year Investment Return on Gold vs. Rolling 10-Year Investment Return on Berkshire Hathaway

Since 1997, Berkshire’s shares have declined relative to this forever unproductive asset. The nearby chart depicts the trailing 10-year return of gold since 2007. Thus, the first data point on this chart shows the return an investor would have received from buying gold or Berkshire Hathaway in 1997. Moving across the chart to the right shows subsequent 10-year time frames. Bottom line: Based on a 10-year holding period, there has not been a single moment since late 1997 what an investor would have been better off buying Berkshire Hathaway instead of gold.

No wonder Charlie is so cranky!

This lengthy underperformance by Berkshire may explain Buffett’s and Munger’s very vocal and public hostility toward gold. Or maybe that’s just a function of both men living most of their adult lives in an era where the monetary system was not disintegrating. They are unable to imagine it.

But the chart above isn’t an indictment of the investment acumen of Buffett and Munger. It’s an indictment of the world’s fiat monetary system! A civilized society with civilized people has sound money. An economy with sound money has price stability. This stability allows for long-term planning and investment. This stability rewards investors for identifying which businesses are the most productive and efficient users of shareholder capital.

For these exact reasons, William McKinley campaigned for President in 1896 and again in 1900 as a champion of the gold standard. He won…twice. But just 12 years after his assassination in 1901, the Era of Incivility began: The Federal Reserve came into being. Just 20 years after that, FDR confiscated all privately held gold. And 38 years after that, Nixon cut the dollar’s last remaining ties to gold, thereby establishing today’s very uncivilized “fiat money” system.

William McKinley Campaign Poster

In an uncivilized society, where the value of your labor is stolen through inflation (made possible by an unsound money system) long-term planning and investment become much more difficult, if not impossible.

If you accept that we live in civilized monetary times where productive labor is actually rewarded, your brain has been tranquilized by the Big Lie of our times. Munger wants you right where you are. The less you think about how uncivilized the current monetary system is, the less likely you are to question it or disrupt it (which would be inconvenient for Charlie).

But if you live an era that subverts accurate valuation of productive businesses — an era that subverts the productivity of the economy itself by encouraging debt and consumption, owning gold seems prudent, not wacky.

Uncivilized times call for uncivilized investments.


Dan Denning
for The Daily Reckoning