After 35 years of stockbroking for some of the biggest houses and investors in Australia and the UK, the Secret Broker is regaling Stockhead readers with his colourful war stories — from the trading floor to the dealer’s desk.
When we first arrived in Australia, me and Mrs. B used to love singing along to the Skyhooks song, “All my friends are getting married”.
Now, 30 odd years later we are singing “All our friends are getting buried”. We’re getting to that age where you start to question your own mortality.
It’s not so much the real oldies that are dying, but the slightly older friends who, being in their late 60s and early 70s, could have looked after themselves a bit better.
I’ve known many a man who has had a heart attack, survived it, promised to change their ways and three months later they are back to their old habits.
When we were kids, having a grandparent in their 70s was quite rare and if someone made it into their 80s it was seen as a miracle of nature to have such good genes.
Everyone was curious as to what they ate (no meat?) or drank (tea only?), to reach such a ripe old age.
Now it’s all about what medication they are on. Who rattles the most when waddling around the golf course.
In the broking industry, I’ve witnessed a few early deaths, where the drinkers and smokers never seemed to have an off button and as their lives fell apart, their diets only got worse.
Nothing like an old broker, propping up the bar pissed, with a whisky in one hand and a beer in the other hand, telling you tales of the old days and how it used to be, before heading outside for a smoke.
My first encounter of how a broking career was not the healthiest of occupations was when one of my old bosses died of a heart attack one weekend.
Alan Grice was 51, smoked at his desk (those were the days) and always insisted on having double butter and Branston pickle in his two morning breakfast corn beef rolls. Oh, and three sugars in his coffee.
We said goodbye to him on the Friday and by Monday all of his desk belongings were placed in a cardboard box and left at reception for the widow to pick up.
This is when I started to realise that possessions were not that important, especially after you pass away. As Steve Jobs would say: “You don’t want to be the richest person in the graveyard.”
Or, as my old (then still breathing) bosses would say after one of the traders had hit him up just before bonus time and threatened to leave for another firm, “the graveyards are full of indispensable traders like you son. Now eff off’.
Own, or owned?
The very first time that someone pointed out to me what possessions really mean in life was an old client of the first broking firm I worked for.
The firm had sent me around to his office to collect a signature and a share certificate from him.
In those days you needed a signed transfer form (called a Talisman) and a certificate that matched the minimum amount of shares sold. My job was to collect these and take them downstairs to Margaret in equity settlements.
When I got to his office, a polite lady appeared at the door and asked if I would like a cup of tea whilst she sorted out my request.
To hers and my surprise, I was ushered into the client’s office, proper bone china cup and saucer in hand, and asked to sit down.
This immaculately dressed gentleman then asked me the name of the company (British Oxygen) and went over to a cabinet, opened the second drawer and finger shuffled through it till he found it.
I asked him to sign the transfer form and he stapled the certificate to the back of it, so he knew the form.
I said thank you and told him how impressed I was with his filing system, having all the certificates in one cabinet and within easy reach.
He chuckled and said “Oh no old boy, that is just for the A to B certificates. All the others are in the room next door.”
When he showed me, I almost fainted.
He then sat me down again and gave me some sage words of advice.
He explained to me how over his lifetime he had invested all his spare income into listed companies, as they were liquid investments and paid him dividends.
He told me that he lived modestly and with as few possessions as he needed. No holiday homes needed as he would stay in the best hotel suites in the world.
No collections of paintings on the walls and no fancy cars in the garage. Just share certificates, stored in 15 filing cabinets.
The reason he told me he was selling his British Oxygen shares was to pay for his QE2 cruise around the world and as he was staying in their top suite, he needed to ‘tickle out some funds’.
But it was the very last words that he said as he was showing me out that have stuck with me for life.
He shook my hand and said ‘just remember that possessions possess’. And with that I had time to think as I walked around the streets and back to the office, to try to understand what he really meant.
Less is more… more or less
His words had the desired effect. Years later, I would explain to my clients when comparing equities to property. I would tell them that ‘possessions possess’ and that ‘a good blue chip share would beat property investments any time’.
“With a house,” I would say, “you have to furnish it, insure it, cut the lawns every Sunday and constantly maintain it to keep its value. And if it’s an investment property, you have to find a tenant.”
Now, on the other hand, with a good share… “They don’t need insuring, a new roof every 10 years, are highly liquid (you can’t sell your bathroom to raise a quick 10 grand) and you don’t need to find a tenant, as they send you a dividend every six months.”
That’s why a good over 55s village was appealing to me when I was in my 30s. (Er, kidding. Can’t stand the people.)
But everything is taken care of – no cutting lawns or hedges, no need to clear the leaves out of the pool after a windy day.
Just ask anyone who has recently downsized about how much ‘stuff’ they had to get rid of. Things which have sat in the garage for 20 years or old, inherited 50-piece dinner sets.
See the relief on their faces as they explain how some of their possessions have now all gone and the ‘kids these days aren’t interested in them anymore and neither are we’.
When you look at these rock stars selling their back catalogues, you can see why.
Tom Petty died suddenly and for two years his wife and children fought over the idea of releasing a ‘best of album’. Had he been cashed up, then all they could fight over was his liquid wealth, not his legacy.
As Oprah Winfrey says: “You can have anything you want, if you are willing to give up everything you have.”
Not the wine cellar though, because as Jobs would tell everyone: “The most important thing is to enjoy your life – to be happy – it’s all that matters.”
And it’s also a liquid investment!
Feel free to contact him with your best stock tips and ideas.