Outside the Box

Who is the real “Marco Polo”?

Who is “Marco Polo”? As recently revealed, my real name is Rob Marstrand. In the past there were various reasons that I preferred anonymity, but they no longer apply. Markets are fairly quiet at the moment. So today I’d like to take a little time to explain who I am, and why I’ve set up OfWealth.

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First of all I’ll be clear about one thing. I don’t especially like it when people talk about themselves. But I reckon I owe it to you, my valued readers, to know who is writing to you. It’s a matter of trust. So here goes.

I was born in south east England in the early 1970s and grew up in a rural setting on the outskirts of a small village. In many ways it was an ideal environment for a young boy. Green fields, no wars with the continental neighbours (for a change), and as much mud as I could eat.

Dad had a small business renting out farm machinery and doing contract work on farms. He worked extremely hard and I helped him out during school holidays, once I was old enough. He paid me minimum wage.

After secondary school I went to university in a town in the north east of England. The place had the whole picture postcard package: a 900 year old cathedral and a castle perched on a hill above a river, quiet cloisters, medieval alleys, plenty of pubs.

The distance from home was only 300-odd miles, but the culture was completely new. These were tough people from an industrial region in decline. They spoke a distinct dialect of English, with a very strong accent, that took me many months to understand. My travels had begun.

As the end of my time there approached, in the early 1990s, I realised I needed to find a job. Agriculture wasn’t really an option by then, as my family didn’t own a farm and the sector was suffering – especially the contracting business.

So it was time to head for that great magnet of international commerce that is London. I joined an investment bank called S.G. Warburg as a graduate trainee. It was 1993.

At that time “Warburgs” was the leading investment bank in Europe, even though the culture was relatively low profile. They didn’t even have the company name above the door of the office building.

Long story short, the sector went through a massive consolidation over the next decade and more. Warburgs had about 5,000 employees when I joined. By the early 2000s it had been subsumed into a Swiss-American giant known as UBS, with 80,000 employees and the dubious claim of having the largest bank balance sheet in the world. UBS had grown to become the largest wealth manager in the world, the number one stock trader by volume, and the second largest currency trader.

In the late 1990s I moved into the bank’s global strategy team, working out of offices in London and Zurich, Switzerland.

In the late 1990s I moved into the bank’s global strategy team, working out of offices in London and Zurich, Switzerland. It was a small team in big bank, working with top management – Chairman, CEO, CFO, divisional heads – on the bank’s strategy.

There was a big buzz about tech stocks and the US was booming at that time. The name of the game was grabbing global market share. “Go forth and grow” came the instruction from on high. It was interesting and varied work, albeit high pressure and often extremely complex. Senior investment bankers in London and New York aren’t known for their patience, and the Swiss are sticklers for detail, to say the least.

I worked with people across all the bank’s businesses in all parts of the world – from asset management in Tokyo, to currency trading in London, to wealth management in Zurich, to stock trading in New York. Practically no one else in the industry had (or has) this kind of broad access to so much of it. Most people work in the same narrow area for their whole careers. I struck lucky to do something so interesting and varied.

The bottom line: I saw the very best and the very worst of this industry in action. Warts and all.

The bottom line: I saw the very best and the very worst of this industry in action. Warts and all.

Along the way I decided to set my career sights on Asia. After working on a project on how to break into mainland China I was posted to Hong Kong in 2002. The idea was to put the plan into action, and also work on the bank’s strategy across the region. It was tough but rewarding work in an exciting and high growth region. I still miss it in some ways, although perhaps not the 3 a.m. conference calls with colleagues in New York and London.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the world, something dangerous was happening. I’d returned to London in mid-2005, as my first kid was on the way (I now have two). My wife’s family lived in Argentina, and mine in England, so the logistics of living in Asia with kids were going to be far too complex.

By 2005 and 2006 it was obvious that the financial industry was in a bubble. Balance sheets had expanded, leverage was ridiculously high, real estate was booming (I counted 15 huge cranes from my office window alone, each for a massive new office block). All the in-house talk was of leveraged private equity and hedge funds – and of course sub-prime mortgages.

Financial alchemy magically turned the equivalent of rusting junk iron into supposedly shiny gold. The banking industry was, literally, living on borrowed time.

When HSBC was the first bank to admit to a multi-billion dollar loss from US sub-prime mortgage lending, in early 2007, I reckoned that time was up. So I started plotting my escape.

To be honest I didn’t realise quite just how bad it would get. When all was said and done, UBS had gone bust twice over – before it was bailed out. I expected it to get bad, but I certainly didn’t expect the sheer catastrophe that was the global financial crisis.

In any case – financial crisis or not – being back in Europe was dull compared with Asia. I’d got used to getting things done in a growth environment. By comparison, head office was nothing but stifling bureaucracy and petty politics. It was time for a complete change.

I also didn’t like the way Britain had changed over the years. Too many petty rules and regulations…too many taxes…too crowded…too expensive…too much rain (okay, that last one was nothing new…).

Because of my family connection to Argentina I’d got to know that country on visits, and I liked what I saw. So we emigrated in 2008 to Buenos Aires, and have been here ever since. This is now my permanent home.

Of course Argentina is no economic or financial paradise. Decades of populism, military dictatorship, failed economic policies, hyperinflations, debt defaults, and just about every kind of financial crisis you can think of have kept the place on a permanent back foot.

If you want to know how politics can ruin an economy – or how to survive the stupidity of politicians through thick and thin – then Argentina is a great place to start.

But what better place to understand financial crises and the likely future trajectory of Europe and the USA? After all, Argentina was once one of the richest countries in the world. If you want to know how politics can ruin an economy – or how to survive the stupidity of politicians through thick and thin – then Argentina is a great place to start.

When I moved here I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just thought I’d take a chance. Soon afterwards I met Bill Bonner, founder of Agora Inc., a hugely successful and privately owned publisher of investment newsletters, based in Baltimore in the USA. He persuaded me to join a project called Bonner & Partners Family Office.

Bill was trying to work out how to pass on his wealth to future generations without it being frittered away, or dooming his kids to personal ruin from a sudden and substantial inheritance. Bill’s an American, but lived in France for a long time, has a ranch in Argentina, and businesses in many countries around the world.

Being a publisher, Bill decided to invite other wealthy families to sign up, and share what he learned along the way. Most of them came from the US and Europe. I joined as the Chief Investment Strategist, working closely with Bill, his eldest son Will, and a team of other experts. Organising the family, and holding it together, is just as important as getting the money side worked out.

Bill and his family are wonderful people. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to work with them, and also to meet many of the other families that signed up to the project. But I’ve also wanted to work independently for a long time.

That’s why I set up OfWealth. It also means I can share my ideas and experience with a wider audience, and not just an exclusive group of the mega-wealthy. If you’re middle class or mega rich the principles of investment are the same. The idea is to keep and build wealth over time, with a sensible and rigorous investment strategy.

I’ve learnt a lot from my 15 years in international investment banking and wealth management, my five years working with the Bonners and other wealthy families, and my own experience as a private investor. I’d like you to benefit from what I’ve learnt along the way – both the profit opportunities and the pitfalls.

I can’t promise to get everything right all the time. No one does in this game. But I do make one absolutely concrete promise. Everything I recommend will be unbiased and honest.

So now you know a little more about the real “Marco Polo”. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

Stay tuned OfWealthers,

Rob Marstrand


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Rob is the founder of OfWealth, a service that aims to explain to private investors, in simple terms, how to maximise their investment success in world markets. Before that he spent 15 years working for investment bank UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager and stock trader with headquarters in Switzerland. During that time he was based in London, Zurich and Hong Kong and worked in many countries, especially throughout Asia. After that he was Chief Investment Strategist for the Bonner & Partners Family Office for four years, a project set up by Agora founder Bill Bonner that focuses on successful inter-generational wealth transfer and long term investment. Rob has lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the past eight years, which is the perfect place to learn about financial crises.