[Taken from Howard's book, How to Prosper in the Age of Obamanomics: A Ruff Plan for Hard Times Ahead (2009)]
I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth. My mother was widowed when I was only six months old. We were poor but I didn’t know it, because in the depths of the Great Depression everybody else was poor too. We were actually too poor to afford a father. My Mom literally took in sewing to feed my eleven-years-older brother Jim and me. By the time I was nine years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer? a financial advisor? a Prophet of Doom? None of the above! I was a really good boy soprano, and I knew I wanted to be a singer on Broadway or at the Met someday.
When I was a pre-adolescent during World War II, we lived in Reno, Nevada, and I became a member of the Victory Boys, a group of boy sopranos. We gave patriotic programs all over the state of Nevada. That’s when I found what I loved the most in the whole world—applause!! When I was thirteen, we moved back to Oakland where my voice changed abruptly from soprano to baritone. So at age sixteen, I joined a San Francisco musical-theatre company and a year or two later sang in San Francisco’s famous opera clubs for ten dollars a night plus tips. We would sing operatic arias and duets by request from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. It was really just a smoke-filled bar, but I was doing what I loved to do.
When I was eighteen, my voice teacher told me she had arranged for a full-ride scholarship to the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. Curtis was considered on a par with Julliard, and could be a very important step on my road to the Met, but when I told my Mom, she threw a big monkey wrench into the works: “But you are supposed to go on a mission!” As a practicing Mormon family, it was expected that young men would volunteer to leave home for two years and teach the gospel to potential converts, and I didn’t want to go because I knew that my Curtis scholarship would be toast.
After a period of intense spiritual inquiry, I finally made the hard decision that unbeknownst to me would change the whole direction of my personal and professional life. I decided that if I served the Lord, He would take care of me. So with blind faith, I launched out into the dark and decided on the mission. They sent me to the heathens—Washington D.C.—and not only did it jump-start my life-long interest in government, economics and politics, but it was there that I first heard the Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants in a Sunday night concert on the Capitol steps. It would change my life forever. I was also befriended by the two current Utah senators (Arthur Watkins and Wallace Bennett, the father of Utah’s present senator), as well as J. Willard Marriott, Sr. of hotel fame. We had had long discussions about life, business, and the issues of the day, and I began forming my economic, business and political opinions.
I attended the Missionary School of Hard Knocks—on thousands of doors—and learned one of the great lessons of life that every salesman and marketer must learn: how to live with continuous rejection and failure and keep bouncing back day after day. It was a tough but immensely satisfying and character-building experience, and I regretted it coming to an end. After my mission, I went to BYU to continue my musical education.
When I ran out of money after my junior year, I went back to San Francisco where my mother now lived, to make some money so I could go back to school, singing in the opera clubs by night and selling Chryslers by day. Then, unexpectedly, I was reclassified 1-A in the draft and ordered to report for induction into the army. I remembered the Air Force Singing Sergeants, called the Pentagon to get their phone number in Washington, D.C., and was given the number of Colonel George S. Howard, Chief of Bands and Music for the Air Force. I called him. He told me he had an opening for a new baritone soloist, but wouldn’t be in California to audition me for six months, so I told him, “I’ll audition in Washington next Wednesday.”
The Singing Sergeants and Marriage
I borrowed $150 from my big brother, flew to Washington, auditioned, got the job (with a letter to prove it!), and enlisted in the Air Force. After only three weeks of basic training, I was ordered to report to Washington to go with the Air Force Symphony on a tour of Iceland and Scandinavia as soloist and announcer. I called the lovely Kay Felt in San Francisco and rather arrogantly informed her we would be married in Salt Lake City on the way to Washington the following Monday.
Fortunately, she couldn’t think of any good reason why not, so we were married on schedule. Kay Felt became Kay Felt Ruff (when she realized what her name would be, it almost killed the marriage). She has been the spiritual and nurturing center of my life and family, and our numerous kids and grandkids all adore her—and so do I.
I traveled all over the world with the band, meeting and in some cases having dinner with historical figures and assorted prime ministers and royalty on three continents and twenty countries. We also toured in forty-nine states. I was having an amazing educational experience, while Kay was at home having babies.
But I wasn’t really an absentee father. Being a Singing Sergeant was a government job. When we weren’t on tour (we were only gone about fifteen weeks out of the year), we only had to report to rehearsals for two hours a day, so I got a job with a stock broker, continuing my economic and financial education, and spent a lot of time at home, helping Kay with the kids and learning to love fatherhood.
My First Business Career
When my four-year hitch was up, we moved to Denver to work for my broker/employer, stumbled across Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, bought the Denver franchise, then the Bay Area franchise, and launched my business career: teaching the world to read faster and more efficiently. I learned I had valuable gifts as a marketer, writer, and public speaker, but I was also laying the foundation for my first big Learning Experience—a business failure!
We’d had eight glorious years, with more than 10,000 students in the San Francisco Bay area, and I wrote the ads and designed the marketing for all the nationwide franchises. I became the protégé of Evelyn Wood, who taught me how to read over three thousand words-per-minute, a life-changing skill that has served me well ever since. We taught University of California and Stanford law students, high school and junior-high students, and businessmen how to read more rapidly and efficiently and also enjoy and absorb more from their reading.
As the money was rolling it, we spent it. We gave money to the Oakland Symphony, and I bought Kay a $1,000 designer dress so that when we had our picture on the society page at post-concert receptions, she would look great. In the meantime, our family was continuing to grow, and Kay bore more much-loved and much-wanted children.
However, I was making the biggest mistake of my life to that date, (although bigger mistakes would come later). Because I thought the gravy train would last forever, we didn’t bother to accumulate any savings or cash reserves. We had good credit and used it. We spent our money as if there were no tomorrow, or, to be more accurate, I did. Kay expressed her concerns, which I discounted because I thought I knew better.
Then disaster struck. I had planned an eight-page advertising supplement to go into all of the Bay Area newspapers one Sunday. On Friday night a wildcat strike hit all the Bay Area papers, and the Sunday paper was never published. I had spent $25,000 printing that supplement, which at the time seemed like all the money in the world. We couldn’t just keep the inserts and use them at a later time because they were all geared toward specific demonstration meetings on specific dates at specific places all over the Bay Area.
I was in deep trouble. I didn’t have any cash reserves, accounts payable began to pile up, we were up to our ears in hock and personal debt, and I was in arrears with my royalties. Finally, the parent company, seeing an opportunity to grab off the business and resell it to someone else, abruptly cancelled my franchise and notified the sheriff. My doors were locked, and I was out of business. I went to work rich (I thought) and came home broke. It ruined my whole day.
Learning From a Failure
This forced me into bankruptcy, but Kay and I, prompted by some ethical counseling by local church leaders, decided that even though we had filed bankruptcy, legally discharging half-a-million dollars in debt, we would not be right with our creditors and the Lord if we didn’t someday pay it off. So I made perhaps the most important decision of my life—I would eventually pay off those debts. This meant I couldn’t just get a J.O.B.; I had to become rich— again.
That all happened in October 1968, and we had already been hit by a tragedy the previous June when our toddler, Ivan, was drowned in our swimming pool. It was a devastating year, but I now know that sometimes the healing and correcting spirit of God can only enter us through gaping wounds. This spiritual process had begun at Ivan’s death when we had to decide what we really believed. We were ready to make the spiritual, financial, and emotional commitment to pay off half-a-million dollars in debt. It took us twelve years to pay for that dead horse, but we did it!
In the meantime, we had taken in a teen-aged foster son in the neighborhood who had become estranged from his family. The word got around, so over the following years we took in more than eighteen of them, mostly teenagers, for varying lengths of time. We eventually adopted five.
A Business Comeback and a New Perspective
I began my business comeback as a distributor in the multi-level sales organization for a major manufacturer of food supplements called The Neo-Life Company. It’s still in existence today and is one of the honorable survivors in the multi-level-marketing business. I quickly became its largest distributor and won all of the company awards for performance. This began a life-long obsession with keeping up with the research and development of nutritional supplements.
About this time, I began to worry about what I saw as a coming train wreck for the economy. When I was in an airport, I saw a book whose title intrigued me, How to Prepare for the Coming Crash by Robert Preston. Thinking it was a way to stay safe if the airplane went down, I bought it to read on the plane, but that wasn’t the crash it was talking about. Preston advocated investing in silver and gold as a hedge against an inflation-induced economic crash. For the first time, my stock-market-oriented brain began to turn in that direction. I began to study the fundamentals of Austrian economics and the inflation that would lead to economic troubles and a resurgence of gold and silver. I began to worry about what I believed the government was doing to the economy with its inflationary policies.
I also became convinced that there was a real possibility of a deep recession that could turn into a depression, characterized by high inflation and unemployment. I became a vocal advocate of emergency food-storage as a kind of family-insurance program. After all, we had once lived on our stored food when the bottom had dropped out of our financial lives in 1968. This traditional Mormon practice grew not so much out of its theology as it did out of its nineteenth-century pioneer self-sufficiency culture. It was not an apocalyptic practice, but a very practical one, designed for just the kind of circumstances we had to face. This very prudent, riskless piece of financial advice planted the roots of what would someday be the cause of my near-universal bad press.
I wrote my first book, a very bad self-published book called Famine and Survival in America, not realizing how powerful words could be. Rather than a carefully reasoned discussion of why you ought to have a food-storage program as a conservative, prudent precaution against hard times for your family, it sounded more like a scream in the night. But to my amazement, as I began to do radio and TV shows to promote this self-published book, it caught on as people were scared of what was happening in the world around them as inflation soared.
Riding High through Ruff Times
In the book, I promised to send a monthly update on the markets to book buyers, so I soon was sending out 5,000 monthly updates and going broke doing it. I sold off my supplement distributorship to finance a for-pay newsletter, which I called The Ruff Times to a chorus of sardonic jeers. My guts told me that name was right for the times. I launched The Ruff Times newsletter in June 1975, forecasting rising inflation, a falling stock market, and rising gold and silver prices. Was I ever right! At the time, gold was only $105 an ounce and silver was under $2. They had not yet begun the spectacular bull market that would take them to $850 and $50 respectively.
As the precious metals and The Ruff Times took off, I decided I needed to write a manual for new subscribers because I couldn’t reinvent the wheel every time I went to press. With no intention to publish it as anything but a manual, I wrote How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years. A member of my board of directors knew many New York publishers, so he persuaded me to go there to meet several of them. Four of them wanted to publish the book. I chose Times Books, a division of the New York Times of all things. Tom Lipscomb, the president, was a brilliant publisher and marketer who believed passionately in me as well as the book, and he shared my philosophy. He and I made publishing history together—2.6 million copies!
By this time, I had a syndicated TV talk show called RUFFHOU$E, interviewing a lot of interesting guests. I got a call from a radio syndicator who had been distributing the Ronald Reagan daily radio commentary. When Reagan decided to run for President, he gave up his radio show, so they asked me to fill that slot, as I was getting a lot of notoriety as the book hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list and my TV show was gathering millions of viewers. So I created a two-minute daily radio commentary, which eventually was on some three hundred stations. The Ruff Times was on its way to the stratosphere—or so I thought!
As a public service to benefit from my high profile and high levels of trust from my like-minded subscribers, I founded RuffPAC, a political action committee, and Free The Eagle, a registered lobby in Washington D.C. I began to fight for free-market issues and free-market-oriented candidates for public office. We were successful in some pretty important things. I previously mentioned how we persuaded President Reagan to get stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels. This forced the Soviets to fly so high they couldn’t devastate the villages that were harboring the Mujahadin. It stalemated the war. When the body bags kept going home and the Soviet Union was on the verge of bankruptcy trying to support their functional equivalent of our Vietnam, eventually Gorbachev withdrew from Afghanistan, pulled back the Soviet Army from their Iron Curtain satellites, stopped their financial support of Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and communist insurgents in Africa, and the Iron Curtain began to crumble. I honestly believe we had something to do with starting that whole process.
In any event, The Ruff Times had become a publishing phenomenon. How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years was Number One or Number Two on the hardcover best-seller list for months, and when the paperback came out a year later, it not only stayed at or near the top of the hardcover list, but was also Number One on the paperback list. It stayed high on both lists for two years.
Early on, “the Prophet (sometimes spelled Profit by the media) of Doom” title began to plague me. It seems that hard-core “survivalists” were getting a lot of media attention. These extremists shared some of my economic views (gold, silver, stored food, etc.), but they believed that society would collapse completely, so they were building impregnable retreats in the mountains and buying lots of guns and storing food and hunkering down, waiting for the end. I had a chapter in How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years about the advisability of a food-storage program as a riskless, prudent hedge against personal or public financial difficulties, and a lot of information on how to invest in gold and silver. There it was: guilt by association!
The simple-minded media saw me as a hook for critical stories about hard-core survivalists, and the Prophet of Doom title was forever attached to me, despite my protests. Heck, the “How to Prosper,” in the title (which is not exactly an end-of-the-world idea) should have been a clue to them that they were wrong, but to no avail.
Way back in 1975 when I started publishing The Ruff Times, I foresaw the coming inflation that plagued us for the next seven years, and analyzed—correctly—that it would cause a big boom in gold and silver. I recommended gold when it was only $105 an ounce and silver when it was under $2. Gold subsequently went to $850 and silver to $50 for a few days. I published a sell order in 1980 when gold was $750 and silver at $35. This angered and offended my subscriber base, which now were mostly gold bugs, and they began deserting me as an apostate from the true religion of The Golden Calf. For twenty-two subsequent years, gold stayed below $300 and silver under $5.
I turned bullish on the stock market in 1983, mostly because of Ronald Reagan, and stayed bullish for several years. We did very well for my subscribers, but I started telling people to get out of the stock market about six months before it peaked in March 2000 and called the market an “unsustainable mania and a bubble.” This was right on the money, as March 2000 was the peak of the greatest bull market in history and the beginning of the greatest bear market in history. I’ve been on the right side of that market ever since, keeping people out of it, and instead recommending thirty-year T-bonds and ten-year T-notes, where we had big profits in 2000-2003, and saved subscribers untold millions of dollars.
In 1983 I was at the top of my popularity. My book had become the biggest financial bestseller of all time. My syndicated TV show, RUFFHOU$E, and my daily radio commentary were popular across the nation. My newsletter, The Ruff Times, had more than 175,000 subscribers, and I thought I was a marketing genius, as all the direct-mail pieces I wrote worked. Because my Washington lobby, Free the Eagle, and RuffPAC, my Political Action Committee, were real powers in Washington, I had access to President Reagan and any senator and congressman I wanted. I was famous, I was rich, and the world was my oyster.
On the Downside
In retrospect, that was the high-water mark of my professional and business life. It would be all downhill business-wise from there. Little did I realize that I wasn’t the marketing genius I thought I was. I was just a very lucky guy with the right message at the right time, and if conditions changed much, I wouldn’t be so smart. Conditions changed!
Ironically, even though I had campaigned vigorously for him and had warm personal relations with him, the election of Ronald Reagan was the beginning of a long, downhill slide for me. I had made my mark in the world by telling people how to prosper during the scary Jimmy Carter-induced inflation of the 1970s. Ronald Reagan was my friend, and Jimmy Carter was my foil. Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker’s successful assault on the run-away inflation and interest rates of the late ‘70s made people less convinced we were facing some “Coming Bad Years,” and properly so. My old message was less compelling. As I changed with the times and became properly bullish on America, the new message was less interesting than the old one, and media publicity was harder to come by.
During that years-long downhill slide, I made a series of stupid mistakes that taught me most of what I know today. I had learned how to make a fortune and had done it twice: once in good times and once in bad. Also, I had learned how to lose a fortune, and had done that twice—also in good times and bad.
In retrospect, as I became a celebrity, my financial success and notoriety infected me with a bad case of hubris—the Greek word for the arrogant pride of the gods. I unconsciously believed that I was so smart I could violate my own published rules with impunity and avoid the problems that would trip up lesser mortals, and my success wasn’t teaching me a thing. Too often my operative principle was “do as I say, not as I do.” Unfortunately, I was wrong—really wrong— and it has cost me millions. Much of what I thought I knew (that eventually turned out to be wrong) came out of my successes.
One reason I felt driven to write this sometimes embarrassing treatise is that I don’t want my posterity to repeat my foolish mistakes; my successes are nowhere near as instructive and helpful. If I can’t pass on what I learned about the things that no longer work—or didn’t work in the first place—some of my most valuable experiences would be wasted. Making the mistakes I made will prevent them from becoming safely prosperous or really rich. I also want the cathartic benefit of publicly facing reality about myself and cramming a little humility down my unwilling throat. It will be too late when I am trying to explain my arrogant pride to God.
My Y2K Flop
I believed Y2K was a deadly serious threat that could have devastating effects on the economy. I said so in my newsletter, and even wrote a book on the subject. I was dead right about the seriousness of the problem, but for the only time in my life, I underestimated the willingness and the ability of government and industry to solve the problem in time to beat the deadline of January 1, 2000. Miraculously, they did fix it in time, due to the efforts of Senator Bob Bennett of Utah and others. On New Year’s Day, 2000, when the dire consequences failed to materialize, I had egg all over my face, and that book became a big publishing flop. It wasn’t that I had not analyzed the problem properly; it was that I didn’t believe that they would have the will and the smarts to fix it in time. I was wrong. Big time!
Old Fogy Wisdom
This book could only be written by someone of my ripe years (sometimes I wish I was seventy-seven again). I’ve been observing the world of money through three serious recessions; three major bull and bear markets, including the late, lamented dot-com bubble of 1996-2000; the insane inflation of the 1970’s; a real-estate boom and bust; a historic gold bull market and subsequent collapse; and fourteen children (five were adopted—we couldn’t find homes for the other nine), eighteen foster children, seventy-six grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. I’ve made and lost two fortunes by making some stupid pride-driven mistakes and been written off by Wall Street as a fringe character at times, but for a few glory years, I couldn’t walk down any sidewalk in the Wall Street financial district without being recognized. For the last decade, I’ve been laying low, laboring away in relative obscurity just publishing my newsletter on the Internet, and waiting for gold’s inevitable comeback. My patience has finally been rewarded; thence this book.
A Real Adult: I’ve Been There
I have been publishing The Ruff Times through thirty-four years of bull and bear markets in the precious metals. I’ve been around a long time, unlike most of the hot financial advisors and brokers today who weren’t even born when I was already accurately predicting the markets. These big shots were the Invincible Optimists at the peak of the last bull market on Wall Street in the spring of 2000, and I was yelling at them (they didn’t listen) to get out of the stock market. I think I am one of a handful of real adults in the Wall Street kindergarten with a long-range view of the world of money and an encyclopedic view of gold and silver.
In short, in a financial world that has been dominated by 20- and 30-something kids who weren’t even stockbrokers during the last bear market in 1987, I’m one of a small clique of real adults—newsletter writers, financial publishers, analysts, and advisors—who have been around since the ‘60s and ‘70s and through the gold and silver bull market of the ‘70s. For the most part, Wall Street has not respected us. But that’s okay because we don’t have a lot of respect for many of them either.
If this book doesn’t convince you to trust me, then I’m sorry. I tried.