So what do you do if you don't trust the stock market, got burned in real estate and are scared stiff that the American financial system has just begun to show its mortal wounds?
For James U. Blanchard III, the answer is simple: In the 1990s, cash will be king, queen and ace combined.Since Blanchard is best known as a longtime, if long-frustrated, advocate of precious metals (his memoirs were titled "Confessions of a Gold Bug"), does this means that he has switched from gold to green?
Well, not exactly. Blanchard has become so disillusioned by the dollar's decline over the past six years that he thinks smart Americans should be exchanging their greenbacks and taking advantage of the new availability in this country of insured deposits for stronger foreign currencies.
Before getting to Blanchard's precise strategies, a little background may be helpful. Blanchard has never been the typical gold bug - a humorless, committed fanatic convinced that the world is heading straight for perdition but that gold will inevitably double each year along the way. (The fact that this scenario has been the investment flop of the past decade just makes its most heated adherents even grumpier.)
Blanchard is an affable, 48-year-old New Orleans gentleman who has spent nearly half his life in a wheelchair (the result of a youthful automobile accident) but has somehow found time for just about everything, except self-pity. He has been a successful publisher and investment-conference organizer, and with notable shrewdness sold his coin business to GE Capital 21/2 years ago for $23 million.
That was the event that focused his personal attention. Figuring he had more than enough gold and silver already, though still believing that their day would ultimately return, he thought he would play it safe by put-ting most of his windfall into U.S. Treasury bills - theoretically, the safest investment a fellow could find.
Then, as the dollar's value continued to tumble internationally, Blanchard came to the painful realization that he had actually lost at least 30 percent of his world purchasing power.
Figuring that even Americans who didn't have $23 million must be faced with the same problem, Blanchard turned his mind to a coordinated plan for safe investing in stronger currencies. The result will soon be appearing in a $95, 150-page report, "The Cash Book: Safety and High Yield," but he gave this column an exclusive preview.
Blanchard's first assumption is that U.S. Treasury bills yielding in the 7 percent range are a notably poor deal when inflation alone is running so close to that rate. He sees far better returns abroad, particularly in the German mark. His personal cash portfolio is now 50 percent in short-term German government securities, which he figures currently offer a real, after-inflation return around 41/2 percent; 25 percent in a mix of similar securities issued by Britain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and the balance in U.S. government issues.
Americans have traditionally been shy of foreign-currency commitments, and not just for reasons of unfamiliarity. U.S. bankers and brokers discouraged non-dollar accounts for small investors. Now, however, Blanchard has located a handful of U.S. banks that offer FDIC-insured accounts denominated in as many as 26 overseas currencies; at least one, the Mark Twain Bank in St. Louis, will handle accounts as small as $10,000.
The obvious question, which I put to Blanchard, is: What happens if the dollar turns around and starts getting strong again - in which case the saver who stayed in greenbacks would come out ahead of those who changed their money? "I think the dollar will rally 15 percent short-term," he told me, "but in the long run the U.S. can't escape greater inflation and a deteriorating currency. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve Board are absolutely scared to death about this bank crisis."
Blanchard hasn't given up entirely on precious metals; he sees specific bargains in coins like the 19th century $20 gold double eagles, selling around $515, but he thinks holders will have to be patient. Meanwhile, this old devotee of "hard money" is now singing the praises of paper - as long as it wasn't printed here.