Finance History Inheritance Literature

Monsieur De Norpois’ bad advice

Since the 19th century, investors were faced with the choice between different asset classes. Psychologically, people prefer a fixed income: in their eyes, this stock does not fluctuate in value. Unfortunately they are brutally wrong. A very juicy portrait of a doubtful investor and a bad advisor is given in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Probably the most important novel of the 20th century, it is like a treatise in a poem, or better many treatises, including a small one on investments.

The second volume of this majestic work is In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs). In this book the Narrator receives an inheritance, after the death of his aunt Léonie. His father, a diplomat, consults his friend, colleague and role-model Marquis de Norpois, a very experienced diplomat, that considers himself also the best of judges in art, literature, and investments of course.

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

English consols yielded from 2 to 3%, depending on the emission, whereas Russian bonds, considered less safe, guaranteed a 4% fixed income. Not much, but those were times of gold standard, deflation and low interest rates (sounds familiar?)

More than three thousand pages later, at the end of the sixth volume The Fugitive (Albertine disparue), the Narrator has spent much money for his beloved Albertine. The affair is over (no spoiler), and he finds himself quite in lack of argent. This sad consideration follows:

But time had passed; the wisest judgments of the previous generation had been proved unwise by this generation, as had occurred in the past to M. Thiers who had said that railways could never prove successful. The stocks of which M. de Norpois had said to us: “even if your income from them is nothing very great, you may be certain of never losing any of your capital,” were, more often than not, those which had declined most in value.

A World War and revolutions across the globe provoked devaluations of bonds that seemed impossible in the previous years. French investors in particular lost gargantuan sums of money on Russian bonds that were repudiated by the new Soviet Union. The matter is still not solved after more than a century!

Whereas in 1996 The Chicago Tribune wrote emphatically (1):

For nearly eight decades Russia’s Imperial Bonds decorated European bathrooms and children’s playrooms as colorful but worthless wallpaper.

Sometimes the bonds surfaced at antique stores or as curios in the flea markets of Europe.

When Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks unilaterally declared the debt on the czarist bonds null and void in 1918 they were rendered worthless.

This week, however, French families were rummaging through attics in a frantic search for the once-useless certificates their great-grandparents might have bought, then tossed into a dark corner in disgust.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed Tuesday to repay a nominal value of between $80 and $100 for each of the 4 million czarist bonds believed to remain in circulation in France or to have survived the European wallpaper fad, for a total payout of around $400 million

Many descendants of the bondholders are still looking for money today (2):

Around 400,000 people are seeking 30 billion euros from Russia in payments for the bonds issued by the tsarist government (…)

Between 1880 and 1917 French citizens bought a total of 30 million Russian bonds. In January 1918 the head of the new revolutionary government Vladimir Lenin refused to pay off the bonds.

However, in the mid-1990s Russia signed an agreement with France over the Romanov government’s debts and paid Paris 330 million euros. Moscow asserts that the issue is over and there are no grounds to discuss any new payments.

Meanwhile, descendants of the original bond owners argue that this sum should be 100 times bigger.

Well, M. de Norpois’ advise did not prove very useful indeed. Today most investors make the same mistake: accepting low interest rates from Sovereign Issuers that are politically unstable, or in a constant economic recession. There is a sort of blindness in fixed income by investors. Most think that fixed income is risk free, but the risk is still there, many risks indeed: currency devaluation, inflation rise, interest rates rise, default.

The SEC itself seems to agree that investors’ awareness of bond risks is quite low:

Interest rate risk, a bulletin by the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy of the SEC

The only real rentier investment is the investment at technological frontier. Proust mentions railroads, that was high tech in the 1800s and old story in the next century. Every century has its own railroad: we will talk about this in a next post.