Opinion

Sir John Templeton: iconic innovator in finance and religion

He was a shrewd stock picker. But his priority was spiritual wealth.

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Sir John Templeton was many things to many people.

To the general public, he was one of the past century's greatest investors and philanthropists – a man who revolutionized both mutual fund investing and the effort to explore the nexus between science and religion.

After his passing this week, he will likely be remembered by the rational and affluent West as a poor boy from Tennessee turned Rhodes scholar and Dean of Global Investing.

His fellow professionals might remember him as a shrewd judge of the value of corporations.

Christians might remember him for his Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and as someone who puts first things first: Faith, patience, prudence, and ethics were foremost in his thought.

Scientists might remember him most for his Templeton Foundation, which gives millions to study the links between science and religion.

Traditional Europe might remember Sir John, as his friends called him, as a great philanthropist who was knighted by Her Majesty as he valued historic treasures such as Oxford and Westminster Cathedral enough to invest in their futures. And the East will probably remember John as a spiritual creature who valued his Creator above all else, as he'd "been convinced that nothing exists except God."

I will remember him as a good Samaritan who paused to help me during a painful time on Wall Street. His historical and global perspective assured me that markets assuredly rebound – and that it's most wise to, as the poem goes, "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs." That was sage advice then, and it's sage advice today.

We would all be correct in our differing memories of John Templeton. Yet we live in an age of strained relationships, where differences seem intractable. So we might be most enriched if we remember his holistic approach to life.

John worked very intentionally to live the spiritual qualities he prized. And while he may have valued reason, prosperity, tradition, and spirituality, he gave top priority to love, the connecting force that holds us together despite our differences – even the largest ones.

He once startled me by describing how difficult it had been to love Joseph Stalin. He later worked at loving Saddam Hussein. That effort showed how seriously he took the biblical injunction to love his neighbors, including enemies, as himself.

That began with humbly loving God. The Jewish scriptures, which John loved and studied late in life, tell us: "As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he."

In the West, it is common to think of science as being about this world and religion about the next. But John saw reality as a single whole. So his foundation now invests his wealth in scientifically testing that proposition, just as the scriptures say Solomon "tested truth."

We financial types often think of investing as a selfish activity and charity as an altruistic one, so we leave ministry to the ordained clergy. John thought of us as "ministers of prosperity."

The Christian Scriptures say to put your mind on those things that are good, pure and lovely. So John refused to read or watch most media as he knew they might fill his mind with negativity.

He saw long-term trends long before others did. After World War II, when most people thought the phrase "Made in Japan" would always mean trinkets, John thought the Confucian ethic would help the East prosper so he bought Japanese stocks.

But John wasn't just a contrarian for the sake of being different. He simply understood a truth that still escapes most investors: "The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell."

That perspective proved prescient in the late 1990s when he predicted that 90 percent of the new Internet companies would be bankrupt within five years. He added that US stock markets would likely stagnate for a decade. Those were enriching lessons in the school of life.

Yet John was ever hopeful about financial and spiritual progress. A few years ago, he asked me to co-write an article about why the Dow Jones Industrial Average might rise to 1 million by the year 2100.

I was skeptical at first. But then I remembered that John often spoke to us in financial parables, and I realized that the Dow would only need to rise about five percent per year in order to achieve that goal. He was saying that America will be fine but developing nations may also achieve greater parity during this century.

The John Templeton I knew and loved would be pleased to know that the mutual funds he founded will continue to help turn that hope into reality.

He would be even more pleased if his foundation helps us achieve even greater spiritual progress, the most important progress of all. That is more likely as we now have his example that the ancient values of faith, hope, and especially love still promise a more abundant life for our modern world.

Gary Moore is an investment adviser who wrote two books about John Templeton, including "Spiritual Investments: Wall Street Wisdom from the Career of Sir John Templeton."

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