George Soros was 13 when the Nazis invaded his homeland of Hungary. As a Jew, he was forced to adopt a false identity and live separately from his parents in Budapest. Instead of being traumatised by the experience, though, he found the danger exhilarating. “It was high adventure,” he says, “like living through Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Sixty-five years later, he still thrives on danger. He famously made $1 billion on Black Wednesday by shorting the pound, earning him the label of “the man who broke the Bank of England”. Last year, as the world tipped into financial chaos, Mr Soros pocketed another $1.1 billion by correctly predicting the downturn. “I’m an expert in crises,” he says.
The man who has a phobia about maths has made his name as the philosopher king of economics – his book The Crash of 2008, out in paper-back next week, has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1944 he has believed in what he calls “reflexivity” – the idea that people base their decisions on their own perception of a situation rather than on the reality.
He has applied this both to investment and to politics: his skill has been to predict moments of seismic change by identifying a disjunction between perception and reality.
When everyone else was convinced that the markets would automatically correct themselves, the 78-year-old “old fogey”, as he calls himself, was one of the few warning of recession. He put all his chips on “the Barack guy” early on when all around him were still gunning for Hillary Clinton. It’s almost as if he has been waiting for the Great Recession for the past ten years. When we ask whether he prefers booms or busts, he replies: “I have to admit that actually I flourish, I’m more stimulated by the bust.”
This recession, he explains, is a “once-in-a-lifetime event”, particularly in Britain. “This is a crisis unlike any other. It’s a total collapse of the financial system with tremendous implications for everyday life. On previous occasions when you had a crisis that was threatening the system the authorities intervened and did whatever was necessary to protect the system. This time they failed.”
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The financial oracle does not know how long it will last. “That depends on how it’s handled. Allowing Lehman Brothers to fail was the game-changing event. That’s when the financial crisis went over the brink.” We could end up with a depression. “Unless we handle it well then I think we would. The size of the problem is actually bigger than in the 1930s.”
The problem in Britain, he believes, is in many ways worse than in America or Germany. “American memory is seared by the Depression, the German memory is seared by hyperinfla-tion but Britain has a pretty serious problem in many ways worse than America because the financial sector looms bigger and the overvaluation of real estate is bigger than in America.”