Peter Schiff predicted a collapse of the U.S. financial system. The bust-up he didn't foresee was the one that made mincemeat of investors who took his advice in 2008.
Mr. Schiff's Darien, Conn., broker-dealer firm, Euro Pacific Capital Inc., advised its clients to bet that the dollar would weaken significantly and that foreign stocks would outpace their U.S. peers. Instead, the dollar advanced against most currencies, magnifying the losses from foreign stocks Mr. Schiff steered his investors into.
Investors open accounts at Euro Pacific to take advantage of Mr. Schiff's investment advice, which generally involves shunning investments in dollars. Individual returns can vary. Some investors may like gold-mining stocks, while others prefer energy-focused stocks.
Most had one thing in common last year: heavy losses. A number of investors said their Euro Pacific portfolios lost 50% or more in 2008, worse than the 38% drop in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index last year. People familiar with the firm say that hardly any securities recommended by Euro Pacific brokers gained ground in 2008.
Such losses came as something of a surprise. Mr. Schiff's prescient call for the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the weakening of the financial system helped him gain fame as an economic guru and savvy investor who promised shelter from the financial storm.
In his 2007 book, "Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse," he recommends that investors pile into gold, commodities and overseas stocks that spit out steady dividends.
When global markets were soaring, many Euro Pacific investors' accounts experienced strong performance. For several years, investors saw returns in excess of 20% a year as foreign stocks and commodities surged, according to people familiar with the firm.
In 2008, investors nervous about the state of the U.S. economy who were impressed by Mr. Schiff's track record poured money into Euro Pacific, nearly doubling the number of accounts to 16,000. But many did so at the worst time possible, much like investors who piled into Internet stocks as the dot-com bubble peaked.
Mr. Schiff, 45 years old, says the downturn in his strategy is a short-term setback. He argues that it is only a matter of time before the dollar collapses, pressured by massive government bailouts, triggering outsize returns for his investors.
"I think the dollar is going to get destroyed," he says. Investors with the staying power to wait out what he sees as a temporary phase of irrational confidence in the dollar will reap huge rewards, he argues.
Mr. Schiff is still riding high on his housing-market call. This week, he spoke at a global competitiveness conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alongside former heads of state, prime ministers and American gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps. He is the subject of more than 3,000 YouTube videos, including one called "Peter Schiff Was Right."
His admirers even created Web sites supporting a possible run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Mr. Schiff, who was economic adviser to independent presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2008, says he has no plans to run for the Senate but "anything's possible."
Critics say Mr. Schiff's strategy is much riskier and more aggressive than many investors realize. David Yeske, managing director of Yeske Buie, a Vienna, Va., money manager, says Mr. Schiff's investment strategy was a focused bet on a single outcome, rather than risk management for investors looking to protect assets from an economic collapse. "He's a speculator; he thinks he can see the future," says Mr. Yeske, former chairman of the Financial Planning Association. "That's not really risk control."
One of Mr. Schiff's biggest forecasts was that many overseas economies would "decouple" from the U.S., gaining strength even as the American economy struggled. Instead, overseas stock markets plunged as much or more than U.S. stocks in 2008 as the global economy skidded. Prices for commodities also tanked, torpedoing another favorite investment theme of Mr. Schiff's. After last year's losses, his firm has about $845 million in assets.
Early last year, Richard De Gennaro, a retired Harvard University librarian, put $100,000, about 15% of his assets, into a Euro Pacific account that included Canadian Oil Sands Trust, which focuses on crude-oil projects in Canada, and the India Capital Growth Fund, which holds investments in companies that do business in India.
Both investments took big hits in 2008, compounded by the fact that the Canadian dollar and the Indian rupee fell 18% and 19%, respectively, against the U.S. dollar. The 83-year-old retiree's account is now worth about $37,000, a 63% plunge. Mr. Schiff "goes around saying that he was right," says Mr. De Gennaro. "He was right about one thing and wrong about everything else."
Among investors who turned to Mr. Schiff's firm just as his strategy began to falter, Brian Kullberg, a design engineer in Portland, Ore., says he started to worry about the state of the U.S. economy in early 2008. He put $70,000 into a Euro Pacific account, hoping it would benefit as the U.S. economy and the dollar weakened. By late January 2009, his investment had shrunk to about $25,000.
"It's curious," says one longtime client of Mr. Schiff's who works in finance. "His thesis of how things are going to collapse and crumble and fall apart isn't effectively executed in [my] account." The account, which is largely invested in gold, mining and infrastructure stocks from Canada to Australia, was down roughly 35% last year, the client estimates. The Australian dollar weakened 19% against the U.S. dollar in 2008.
Mr. Schiff says one year's poor performance doesn't prove he was wrong. He has admitted in notes to clients that his investment thesis hasn't performed as expected, particularly with respect to the U.S. dollar. But he holds fast to his convictions and has been telling investors to scoop up a number of depressed stocks.
Some clients are inclined to agree. "The decoupling he talked about has not happened," says Barbara Hearst, a clothing entrepreneur who splits her time between Charleston, S.C., and Bridgehampton, N.Y., and has invested with Mr. Schiff since 2000. But "longer term or medium term, I don't discount what Peter says."