It was 1934. John Templeton had graduated from Yale and arrived, a fresh-faced Rhodes scholar, at Balliol. Ready to tackle the world, he breezed into his first tutor meeting.
“[H]is tutor asked him what he intended to read during his time at the school. Sir John looked at the tutor and quite plainly told him that he was going to read ‘business’. The tutor recoiled in horror and said, “Oh, no, no, no. We do not do that sort of thing here. You will be reading law.”
So he read law. Then he made money for fifty years as one of the most successful investors of the twentieth century, before returning to Oxford and endowing a college to teach business.
The tutor, who remains nameless in the book, would have been amused to have known that such a brief discussion had led to such a profound outcome, no doubt jollying up University thinking on the subject of business, and making the environment fertile for Mr Saïd (even then, there was a vigorous Oxford debate, of course).
Although Sir John is no longer with us — he died in 2008 — his legacy is present in the publishing house that has reissued this book in a new edition. The Templeton Touch was originally published by Doubleday in 1983, and was half and half investment advice and religious contemplation, against the advice of author William Proctor.
Proctor’s new preface makes clear that Sir John had the final say on the words — it’s still an authorised biography issued by the authorizing press — but in this edition the religious section has been replaced by a revealing series of mini-essays, by nineteen Sir John admirers. Mostly professional investors themselves, they include Oxonian Guy Spier (Brasenose, 1984) who runs the very successful Aquamarine Fund from a Zurich base and US legend and one-time Presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
The nineteen essays are all revealing in subtly different ways, both about Sir John and their respective authors. The dangers of hero-worship and hagiography are mostly absent, but unavoidably there is the tone — and this runs through the first half of the book like a wildfire — of trying to divine the secret that might unlock untold wealth.
Accordingly, Proctor’s voice is the gingerbread prose of the self-improvement book. It gets tiring, and is why plenty of people don’t like books like this. But look beyond the format and what’s left is truly fascinating, particularly in light of the recent world financial fiasco.
In other words, the saving grace of the book is actually Sir John, whose life story can’t fail to impress. Born and raised in Winchester, Tennessee — hardly an academic centre — he learned business from his father and ideas from his highly educated mother. He was precocious: he sold fireworks to classmates aged 8, having bought them mail-order at low prices; he part-financed his undergraduate tuition at Yale with poker winnings and of course became a Rhodes scholar.
Reiterated in a hundred ways through the book is that he was incredibly clever, and that in addition, he applied himself far beyond the you expect for a high achiever, even at the level of Rhodes Scholars. Although you can turn this into a formula — (a) be curious; (b) don’t waste a second; (c) keep working! — the fact is that Sir John was as particular in his make-up as his successor, legendary Nebraskan investor Warren Buffett.
First, he was far ahead of his time in diversifying risk by investing globally, not just domestically. Second, he was a contrarian, value investor: he looked for bargains and sought to buy them at the maximal point of depressed sentiment and price. It’s easier to comprehend than to do. Just try it for yourself and you’ll see.
The story actually becomes more interesting when it touches on the assertion in the title: that Sir John’s touch was not the destructive one of Midas, and thus that the true clue to worldly success is to be otherworldly. This paradox was experienced very keenly by the generation who came of age in the Great Depression of the 1930s — as did Sir John. He experienced the inheritance of Victorian discipline and probity to the economic miracle of the US economy after the Second World War, while never forgetting the value of a dollar. His thriftiness was legendary. In this sense Sir John was a man of his time, and the narrative often strays fruitfully into cultural and intellectual history.
Never forget the ur-source in this genre of writing, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937). I take it as illustrative, for the purposes of this review, that Hill lived from 1883-1970, and was born in Wise County Virginia, dying in South Carolina. Templeton, meanwhile, was born in Tennessee in 1913, and although becoming a British citizen later by virtue of moving to the Bahamas, was perfectly straightforward in his American identity, as in so much else.
In both narratives we get overlapping testimony to the need for relentless curiosity in all matters, and an equally relentless personal discipline. In both narratives we get an intensely American philosophy of success premised on a red-blooded belief in progress, with negative thoughts consciously and actively banished. While in both cases the pay-off is to ‘grow rich’, in the crass sense of making a pile of money, the reality is that no secret is offered, no silver bullet. What is offered is hard work, thrift, generosity towards others, and decency in all affairs. The fact that Hill’s book sold over 20 million copies is more to do with the tantalizing title, “…and grow rich,” than what it actually offers.
If you studied history at Oxford, there is another book that springs readily to mind at this juncture: English historian R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926).
Funny that Tawney (1880-1962) was just three years older than Hill and also attended, like Templeton, Balliol. It would be fun to imagine sitting them down in the SCR for tea and conversation.
As a reminder, Religion and the Rise explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tawney, notes his Wiki entry, “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.
Both Hill and Templeton would have said bosh to that. They would have told Tawney to wise up and stop thinking negative thoughts. Beyond the apparent disagreement, however, they were stumbling around on common ground. What Tawney observed, with misgiving, Hill and Templeton proclaimed with a drum-roll. Where he saw subordination, they saw complementariness. Where Tawney, in that characteristically English way, worried about the effects of capitalism, Hill and Templeton saw unparalleled good, and unlimited progress.
Hill was influenced by the new-thought movement while Templeton inherited his mother’s Presbyterianism mixed up with the Unity movement – panentheism that claimed to take the best bits of all religions and blend them into an idealistic, progressive gospel that promised individual salvation on earth, if you followed the rules.
Interestingly, Templeton believed that intuition and prayer are a basic source of knowledge and reality, in addition to revealed authority from, say, the Bible and the Koran. In practice, ‘in addition’ allowed him and many others like him to jettison theological precision and refocus on what was around them — and, of course, investing. The results were self-evident. You do well by doing good; a giddying spiral of positive feedback. Templeton says, as one of his pieces of advice: “If you begin with prayer, you can think more clearly and make fewer stupid mistakes” (p155).
It sounds almost repulsively utilitarian, and yet in essence very little different to the Oxford Today cover story of Trinity 2012, when a Buddhist divine and an Oxford don evinced the case that meditation helps cure depression, whether it has deeper spiritual meaning or not.
A religious life means disciplined living, even if a disciplined life need not necessarily lead to religion.
As for the Oxford college that Sir John endowed in 1983, subsequently merging in July 2007 with Green College, it describes itself today as “friendly, informal, outward-looking, and future-focused.” This was not the Oxford Sir John encountered as a young man, but to a significant degree it was a vision he still nurtured for his alma mater. I’m sure Oxford is the better for it.