Old School Macro

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my father’s career. If you were to remind him, however, he probably wouldn’t realize it. He’s not one to keep count. He’s probably never had the time to look back and reflect either as I’ve only ever seen him press forward. His journey began out of necessity, at the youthful age of fourteen, when most boys are busy playing sports or chasing after girls. He had time for neither and was stoic about it.

My sweet old grandpa was an auditor in the army and only earned a meagre sum. As the second eldest of eleven children, my father decided to give up his education to support the family. This was the first of many big decisions he would take in his life. He promptly left school and took up a training job with his maternal uncle to learn the basics of jewelry making.

He started working on his own when he turned eighteen, using just a few gold bracelets that my grandmother had given him worth around $1,000 at the time as start-up money. A few years later, he would leave Pakistan for United Arab Emirates. He wanted to make an honest living and achieving that in Pakistan was becoming increasingly difficult as the society was on the precipice of a multi-decade moral decline.

During 1971, while Pakistan was being split into two, Saeed Jewelers began operations in the UAE. My father worked hard at establishing his new business and kept sending money home to fund the education for his five younger brothers and to pay for the weddings of his four sisters. Those remittances entered a secular bull-market and his parents were eventually able to move to a comfortable new home.

By the time my father turned thirty in 1979, he had already made his first mil. This despite having his net worth sliced in half during the 1973 oil crisis. He was a wholesaler of gold bullion at the time and he had received a large amount of post-dated cheques as payment. He was also surprised to receive a call from his mother that his father’s health had deteriorated suddenly. Instead of using the cheques as a security deposit to repurchase gold (which he always did as he preferred not to speculate on the price) he rushed to Pakistan to be with his ailing father. Upon his arrival, the gold price doubled in reaction to the oil embargo which was put in place by the Arab oil exporters as a pained response to America’s involvement in the Yom Kippur war.

He was only 24 and this was his severest blow yet – just as he was beginning to make his mark as an entrepreneur. But instead of mulling over what he could’ve should’ve done; he was stoic about it. I was discovering this to be a consistent theme throughout his life. It should come as no surprise that he has been an important role model for me. We all find inspiration from the stories of others, and when that story is seen playing out live at home the impact can be that much more powerful.

Over the span of fifty years now, my father has dabbled in many ventures: jewelery, textiles, property, chemicals, commodity trading, agriculture, airlines and movies to name just a few. He has faced several serious setbacks and even had his fair share spectacular failures; but, in aggregate, he was extremely successful in compounding capital over the long-term. He is the original global macro investor, an original thinker and the ultimate contrarian.

Allow me to highlight some of his “trades”:

My father didn’t have a university degree but he had the vision to fly to a village in Italy to learn specific jewelry design techniques. He had travelled half-way around the world when most people in the region hadn’t even thought of travelling to a neighbouring country. In the 70’s information flow in the Arab world was pretty slow and not many people would travel. He soon discovered that the price of silver was 50% higher in Bahrain than it was in the UAE and most traders were oblivious of this fact. He would fly to Bahrain bi-weekly (about a one hour flight) to take advantage of this price differential. In our modern day world of Flash Boys and high-frequency trading, this would be termed an “arbitrage”. He rode this trend for 2 years and reaped substantial gains before others caught on.

During the fall of 1980, the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Large scores of people fled the country as the public was terrified. Land prices collapsed. Fighting natural human tendency to panic during times of extreme uncertainty (the war would last 8 years), my father bought land cheaply. His friends told him he was crazy for buying into an illiquid asset at the time but they would be proven wrong. He would repeat this exercise only a decade later when the Gulf War threatened regional security again.

I was born in 1984 – basically my dad received a long OTM call option.

In the 90’s he invested in a garments factory in UAE. He had some well-known international brand names that were his clients so order books were filled with medium-term quotas under trade agreements. However, as the WTO talks unfolded he foresaw that he would not be able to compete with China. He swiftly sold out of the business while he still had some of the international contracts in place, knowing he would be unable to exit once those agreements expired. He decided to cut his losses short.

As we entered the new millennium, Pakistan was still dealing with a major political change and there was much ambiguity around what the future had in store. Meanwhile, America was about to strike Afghanistan which only added to the macro complexity. My father began making plans to return to his homeland and fulfill his one dream. He saw the rising demand for food around the world and decided to purchase large tracts of farm land across the country. This was not only a prudent investment but an emotional one as well.

My father is a man of Nature and he loves maintaining his beautiful garden. As he gently observes the earth explode into different colors, I’ve never seen him enjoy anything more. It connects him to God. He can’t help but marvel at His creation. He has spent many mornings surveying the plants around our house and the flowers at his feet. The blossoming buds remind him of his youth. The trees remind him of his own roots. The scented plants retell his life’s story. The thorns are evidence of all the sacrifices he has made. The fruits he plucks are the blessings of his family. The withering flowers are a testament to nothing ever being permanent. Everything is loaned to us – even this life.

My father imagined living in a farmhouse where he could raise cattle, produce crops, and build a botanical garden. The intent was not to erect a fortress of solitude but to create a little paradise on earth for his aging parents and extended family members. He also wanted to construct a civic centre just beside it to serve the under-privileged. He is now living his dream. Meanwhile, his call on agriculture was terrific and the value of his farm holdings is already up thirty-fold.

I have often wondered about what set my father apart during those formative years. What was the reason behind his outstanding long-term success?

For starters, he was born in 1949, on the 25th of July, a Leo (the fifth sign of the zodiac) which is symbolized by the lion. They are known to be quite an ambitious lot with an overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility to those around them. They are extremely strong-willed and courageous; they know exactly what they want and how to go after it with all their might and heart. On the whole, they have the incredible fortitude to work hard toward long-range goals and to persevere through any major obstacles that come along the way. I’m not sure where I stand on astrology but that to me seems like an apt description of my dear father. But I don’t think his success can simply be explained away by a constellation of stars lining up. I feel what set him apart was the content of his character. And, unfortunately for me this is not something that can be passed on smoothly through genes.

According to George Santayana, our character is an omen of our destiny, and the more integrity we have and keep, the simpler and nobler that destiny is likely to be. My father did not just spend his life toiling away at a financial goal, he busied himself forming ideals and bringing them to birth. Even though he was very young, he had the resolve to take a stand when circumstances demand it. He had the ability to look into his deeper self and find a belief so powerful “it would give to a straw the weight of a mountain, and to foxes the strength of lions”, to borrow a verse from Allama Iqbal. His experience of trial and suffering strengthened his soul and inspired his ambition. But what I think differentiated him the most was that he had the astonishing capacity to match his self-confidence with the humility required to understand and appreciate God’s will.

He didn’t demand success; he merely accepted it as an offering – if that was part of the Divine plan – for his pure intentions and sincere effort. He always made sure that he satisfied his end of the bargain. The rest he left up to the Heavens. In this manner, he was never disillusioned, and even the failures along his path seemed like a gift sent from above. He never licked his wounds even after enduring fierce battles. He understood, as Rumi said, that the wound is the place where Light enters you.

He’s a tough act to follow. But I still aim to be my father’s most profitable trade.

The gardener’s job is to feed the plants,
With skin-bags full of water.
The Lord commands the fruits and flowers to grow,
It is up to Him, whether He chooses to or not.

– Mian Muhammad Baksh

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