A Global Investor, Concerned by World Politics


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Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

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Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Nicolas Berggruen is a German-American investor and philanthropist. For years, he was known as the “homeless billionaire,” for his peripatetic life in which he lived in fine hotels around the world but did not own a home.

He amassed his fortune, estimated at more than $3 billion, doing unconventional things, like buying Foster Grant, once synonymous with stylish sunglasses, and turning it into a maker of reading glasses. Now 55, Mr. Berggruen lives in Los Angeles, where he spends most of his time running the Berggruen Institute, a political research center he founded.

Yet Mr. Berggruen is a member of a global elite with the wealth and dual citizenship to remove himself from any crisis if he so chooses, and with that freedom comes a global perspective on the crises facing the world.

This is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

In terms of investing, what concerns you the most in the world?

Politics. The good news is that globalization really has, on average, made the world a better place for most people. Not for everyone, but on average, it has helped people who didn’t have opportunities. It helped take hundreds of millions, if not billions, out of poverty. That’s long term. Short term, there is an incredible backlash in this country and in Europe and pretty much every country in Asia. You see regimes that are more reactionary and defensive in nature. It’s a reaction to globalization and technology.

How are you managing those concerns?

You do what we do, which is to spend time working on political thinking and ideas. You come up with ideas and build bridges. From an investment standpoint, you can take one of two views — you can say the political backlash is going to win and you stop investing. Or you say to yourself, globalization is going to win and you keep investing. I take the second one. I’m an optimist.

What are you investing in?

I spend less and less time on investments. We’re moving more and more to an endowment model — long term, more passive. If you want to do something well, it’s hard to do a number of things well. The only area I’m actually interested in being more active is technology. It’s more to learn than make returns. If you’re not close to what’s happening in technology, you don’t really understand where the world is going.

Where are the biggest opportunities?

The biggest opportunities are going to be — and it sounds a little too obvious — in two areas. One, you have a part of the world that used to not be part of the economy but has become part of it, as a contributor and an actor and a consumer. All the so-called emerging countries — these are huge opportunities. The other is technology. Technology destroys jobs, but it creates new ones. But it also compresses costs. That’s a big political and social issue.

How do you see your life five years from now?

Hopefully, we make good progress with the institute. The institute works on things that are hard. That’s one reason we exist. It’s not like looking at things with specific milestones. In California, we’ve changed the referendum system.

Referendums have become incredibly powerful, as you saw with “Brexit” and Colombia’s vote against peace. Referendums have been hijacked by populists. It doesn’t look like it from the outside, but referendums are the most structurally important systemic tool that California has for governance.

We changed the system. These are the kinds of things we try to do. But I think the world is going in the opposite direction. It’s hard to stop that tide. You need more independent nonpolitical bodies that do the job for everyone.

If everything is too political, people lose faith, and that’s what you see in the United States and Europe.

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