Monk Investor

God bless these returns

Benediktinerpater Anselm Grün
Amen to that. Source: DPA

Anselm Grün is a best-selling author, motivational speaker and a Benedictine monk. Monk first, probably, and then all the other things. He’s also a very successful investor on behalf of the Münsterscharzach Abbey in southern Germany where he lives. What kind of returns does he get? Modest, of course.

Mr. Grün’s flowing gray beard fits his 72 years and his flowing black robe, his position. On a random October night, 900 people have paid as much as €28 ($33) each to hear his latest presentation: How We Live – How We Could Live. Ahead of his appearance, Mr. Grün – Father Grün – sits down for an interview as he sips a cappuccino and snacks on apple strudel. “My dinner,” he says.

Mr. Grün has sold about 20 million books, numbers that could make even a best-selling author jealous. With sales like that, he could be a millionaire but instead he’s a monk. The only money he has to his name is the €150 in his wallet, which the abbey gives him every time he goes out on the road for gas and expenses.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand money. He was the abbey’s treasurer for 36 years before handing the spreadsheets and checkbooks to a younger monk four years ago. “I only manage the stock portion of the portfolio myself,” he says, which is 70 percent of the portfolio. Mr. Grün would never consider himself an active investor, but he is. He spends 15 minutes a day on the investments and 20 on Fridays, when a German investing newsletter arrives.

The investor usually gets returns of between 5 and 7 percent.

That says a lot about the investor monk. The millions he makes from his books and about 200 annual appearances flow into the abbey. And he’s invested it better than many a professional would. He borrows at a low rate to make higher returns and sometimes even takes loans in foreign currencies. He likes bonds of small- and medium-sized companies and has held Greek debt. His investments have never given him a sleepless night – diversity is divine.

But isn’t there something un-monklike – even un-Christian – about investing. Isn’t avarice one of the seven deadly sins? Mr. Grün countered the criticism in an earlier, 2014 interview: “Anyone who today says interest is devilish doesn’t understand finance. First, money serves people, not avarice. We have a school and we could save until it hurts. We don’t want to. Second, you need moderation. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Were it not an abbey – with about 90 monks – Mr. Grün’s home and workplace would be a typical Mittelstand company, the mass of small- to mid-sized firms that form the bulk of Germany’s economy. It employs about 300 in 20 divisions and its high school has 900 students. The money earned by Mr. Grün and his fellow monks supports the abbey but money for capital improvements and the school also comes from Mr. Grün – between €200,000 and €400,000 each year.

On the investments, the investor usually gets returns of between 5 and 7 percent. “This year it’s a little more,” he says with a grin. Though he won’t say how much more, but more is good: the school is being renovated. Although more than 80 percent of the costs are covered by public funds, the rest has to come from the monks. Mr. Grün has taken some profits.

More is also good because the new treasurer has dialed back some of Mr. Grün’s investments and the abbey needs cash to pay off the money he borrowed for investments. But that isn’t holding him back. He recently discovered mezzanine debt derivatives. “They’re very lucrative,” he says with that grin again. Then there’s the 222 acres of farmland and nearly 500 acres of forest he was recently able to buy on the cheap.

No one’s thinking about leveraging the land for speculation. The wood will play a key role in the abbey’s future and it helps with diversification. “We have woodchip-fired heating and get lots of energy from renewable resources,” he says.

As his appearance nears, he confesses he has no plans for the future or ideas for the next book. “I focus more on the moment,” he says. The moment to make money.

Christian Schnell covers markets and the auto industry for Handelsblatt. This piece was adapted for Handelsblatt Global by Andrew Bulkeley. To contact the authors: schnell@handelsblatt.com, a.bulkeley@vhb.de

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