Blind Spots and Wisdom of City Man

One of the issues raised again by Niall Ferguson’s absorbing new biography of Siegmund Warburg is why someone regarded, rightly, as “the most important City figure of the postwar period” should have had such an apparent blind spot about the growth and profit potential of investment management as a business.

Peter Stormonth Darling, the chairman of Mercury Asset Management, the business that grew out of S.G.Warburg’s Investment Department, records in his memoirs how his first instruction on being told to take charge of this backwater in the bank was to “get rid of it”. In 1979 the business was offered to two rival banks, Flemings and Lazards, at a giveaway price of £10m. They were, Ferguson concludes, incontrovertibly, “foolish not to buy at the absurdly low price Warburg asked”.

Even allowing for inflation, the £10m asking price stands in striking contrast to the £3.1 billion for which the business was eventually sold to Merrill Lynch 18 years later. (A few years after failing to offload it, Warburgs floated the business on the London market as a largely independent business). More extraordinary still is that MAM’s exit price in 1997 was more than three and a half times that at which S.G. Warburg had itself been sold, somewhat ignominiously, just three years earlier.

As blind spots go, this therefore was something of a corker, not quite on a par with IBM’s decision to throw the keys of the PC revolution to Microsoft and others, but notable nonetheless. Yet Warburg’s decision was, as Ferguson makes clear, entirely consistent both with his own temperament and aspirations in business, and with the prevailing attitude in the City at the time towards investment management.

Warburg died in 1982, just as the great late 20th century bull market was getting under way, and four years before Big Bang changed the rules of the game in the City for good. While others, including Stormonth Darling, could see the way that investment management was already developing into a profitable business in its own right on the far side of the Atlantic, Warburg never seems to have deviated from his lifelong view that investment management was a second rate activity barely worthy of a high-minded financier’s time.

A number of factors can be detected behind this reluctance. One was Warburg’s strongly held conviction that what he wanted his business to be was an “haute banque” in the grand Continental tradition, a private bank which delivered first class advice and services to its corporate clients and acted throughout with the highest possible standards of efficiency and integrity. Relationship building with big hitters in business and Government, in his vision, was a high calling that invariably took precedence, in both social and moral terms, over the grubbier business of generating transactions for short term profit.

Managing client investment portfolios, an activity which absorbed a fair deal of management time and little (in those days) of profit, was an even lower priority. It did not help that Warburg himself had virtually no interest in accumulating personal wealth and retained an inveterate distaste for the stock market. Those who spent their time in market speculation, in his view, were among the lowest forms of business life, right down there with journalists and economists. There was no deeper insult in the Warburg vocabulary than to describe someone as a “Boersianer”. 

As one of his colleagues observed, Warburg was a “capitalist by fate” who “despised money making for its own sake”. His own record as an investor was, perhaps unsurprisingly, mediocre. Deeply risk-averse, and ascetic in his personal habits, he lived well, but without ostentation, and died a much less wealthy man than many of his more money-oriented contemporaries.

When he gave investment advice to others, the results, says Ferguson, were sometimes “wholly inadequate”, as in the early 1970s, when despite identifying the roots of the inflation that was about to plunge the Western world into a deep recession, he could come up with nothing better as an investment strategy than a 50-50 allocation to equities and Government bonds. Yet this was also the man whose brilliant mind just a few years later helped to pioneer the index-linked Government bond, a simple but invaluable innovation.

Another besetting personal characteristic was a lifelong inclination to pessimism. His own experience, he noted once, was “that if one expects miraculous results from investment management, this is the best way to do badly…..In the long run the most favourable achievements are obtained on the basis of modest anticipations and by way of policies which rather err on the side of being solid and pedestrian than original”.

Ironically, of course, there is a lot of wisdom in that observation, although it has taken three decades of academic research to confirm quite how soundly based it is. While there is still plenty of money to be made in investment management, it definitely helps to believe in the triumph of hope over experience. Siegmund Warburg, a Jew who had fled from Nazi Germany in 1934, was neither temperamentally nor intellectually inclined to think that way.