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Dueling Systems

Mongolian stocks, hero jocks

By Bob Harris

SO WHERE'S a speculator supposed to get a reliable return on his money these days? After years of easy money, Wall Street's finally looking about as fairly priced as a tub of movie popcorn, and even more likely to cause a heart attack.

Not many other countries look safe for a killing, either. Europe reflected the New York gyrations, Latin America is always boom and bust, and Asian markets were the ones that set off this set of tremors. Hey, since when is living at the top of the pyramid scheme supposed to involve risk? It's almost enough to make you go get a job. But worry not, dear predators. I've been poking around, and there's still one place where your surplus money can reproduce like ebola: Mongolia.

Just look at the numbers. Remember Bloody Monday, when the Dow dropped 550 points, and almost every market in the world fell at the same time? Mongolia was up 6 percent just that one day alone. In fact, the index of the top 75 stocks traded in Ulan Bator hit a mark of 332 -- up from about 84 less than two years ago. That's roughly a 200 percent annual return for the last two years.

And you thought Magellan was hot stuff.

The place is an Emerging Market player's paradise: post-communist monopolies with government subsidy, cheap labor, and no human-rights inspectors. Somebody get Phil Knight on the phone -- when he's done with Vietnam, Nike's got a new home up north.

There's just one catch: The main reason the Mongolian Exchange was unaffected by other markets is that it's just too darn isolated to get any money in or out of there. You want to invest in Mongolia? Fine. Grab a yak, exchange your dollars for a wheelbarrow of tugriks, and hit the trail. Which means that until they hire Peter Lynch to manage the Fidelity Mongolian fund, we're on the sidelines. Unless possibly there's a futures market in Antarctica.

Hey, with global warming, maybe we can short the icecaps.

LET'S SUPPOSE you and I are competitors in business. Let's say we run gas stations on opposite corners of the street. And we don't like each other a whole lot.

So I call you names that aren't very nice. I don't actually assault you or anything. I just say a few things you don't particularly like.

One day, you decide you've had enough. You call me out. You initiate a confrontation. You tell me to shut up. I say no. And so suddenly, in front of dozens of co-workers, you haul off with your left hand and knock me to the ground. I don't fight back. And that's the end of the exchange. You'd be arrested for assault, wouldn't you? Of course. And you'd have to plead guilty, what with the dozens of witnesses.

So why wasn't Shaquille O'Neal arrested for whopping the Utah Jazz center the other day? It didn't happen during a game, when the rules of normal human conduct are suspended. It happened as the teams were passing on the floor between workouts. Whop. End of story.

You or I would be standing in front of a judge. Shaq just has to sit for a little while and might have to toss some pocket change at the NBA commissioner. He'll keep his endorsements and remain (to most) this big wonderful hero. No, it's not as if Shaq ought to be breaking rocks somewhere, instead of just shooting them. He just lost his temper. It happens. So even if the cops had gotten involved, with a lack of priors he'd probably get off with a suspended sentence and/or a fine--pretty much what he's getting from the league.

But that's not the point. The problem here is that there seem to be two systems of law--one for "important" people, and one for you and me. People talk about where kids today get the idea that they can pull trash and get away with it.

Well, heck, if we let big shots walk around slapping people and still treat them like heroes, what else can we possibly expect?

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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