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Friday, September 22, 2023

‘Planet Money’ co-host unravels rise and fall of major investor

The entrance to the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business.
The entrance to the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business.

The E. Claiborne Robins School of Business hosted its last live taping of NPR’s “Full Disclosure” for the academic year on March 24 in the Ukrop Auditorium.

“Full Disclosure” host Roben Farzad interviewed Mary Childs, co-host of NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast, on how she turned a story of fixed income and bond investments into a dramatic narrative of greed and fortune. 

Childs infused wit and intense financial-world knowledge into her novel, “The Bond King,” which unravels the rise and fall of financial investor Bill Gross, Farzad said in his introduction of Childs.

Childs spent over seven years accumulating the facts and narratives included in her book, Childs said. It took a long time to coax people to talk to her and to pull all the details together, she said. Even as she collected facts and angles, Gross continued to stay in the press, causing her to basically rewrite the book 100 times, Childs said.

As the manager of the Total Return Fund, a portfolio of bond investments, Gross amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds for the investment management firm PIMCO, Childs said.

“The stock market has the obvious highs and lows, but there is less complexity in them than bonds,” Childs said.

Childs introduced Gross through an anecdote about learning to count cards and using his skill at casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada. Childs described the ability to feel risk — when you could know when the table was hot, when to bet big and when to know that you have a real stake in the game.

“Growth at any price is a dangerous siren call,” Farzad said, referring to the success of Gross during his subsequent breakthrough investment success.

No one at the time was investing in bonds the way Gross was. Bonds don’t have the same appreciation as stocks, and they’re not as fun, Childs said.

Childs offered a brief synopsis of the 2008 financial crisis, and Gross and PIMCO's involvement leading up to it. 

“If PIMCO didn’t exist, the government would’ve needed to invent it,” Childs quoted from an interview included in her book.

There is a lack of institutional memory of inflation for young people, Childs said, prompting a conversation with Farzad about the discrepancies between older and younger generations’ perspectives on the current state of the economy.

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Farzad and Childs exchanged frequent jokes among explanations of market complexities.

Anne Birch, a community member, was especially engaged by the Childs’ personal anecdotes, she said. As a regular listener of “Planet Money,'' she was excited to hear what Childs had to say, Birch said. 

“She was extremely impressive,” Gerry O'Brien, another audience member, said. "Often, economic presentations like these can be dry, but Childs kept it witty and interesting while being extremely knowledgeable."

After discussing the economy over the last twenty years, Childs shifted towards the present economy amongst COVID-19 and inflation.

“Look into your crystal ball,” Farzad said. "What’s coming for the future of our economy?"

For a long time, people weren’t as aware of the little recessions that inevitably befall our economy, but people are starting to notice inflation, and they’re starting to see the problem grow bigger, Childs responded.

After an hour of financial discussion and delineations of the mysterious and often eccentric lives of Gross and his peers, Farzad prompted a brief discussion on Childs’ role in this story as a woman journalist.

The finance world is notoriously sexist and racist, Childs said. While talking to the people involved in this firm and in these conversations, the hesitance and the awareness of her role and identity as a woman was definitely palpable, Childs said.

Junior Shelby Campbell has attended every live-taping of “Full Disclosure” hosted by the business school and said she enjoyed seeing locals fill the audience.

“It’s a nice way to interact with the Richmond community,” she said. 

Campbell said she had found the topics themselves interesting and liked having new ideas to bring into discussion and conversation after the talks.

Contact news writer Zoe Beede at

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