WalletPop interviews Wayne Rogers, M*A*S*H* star, now a financial guru

If you're of a certain age or enjoy watching TV Land, you know who Wayne Rogers is -- an actor famed for his role as Trapper John in the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H. But if you watch Fox Business News, you may also know him as a regular guest on the series Cashin' In. Now, instead of saving lives on TV, he's encouraging people to save (and invest) their money.

This isn't a recent conversion on the actor's part. Rogers, 76, has been playing the role of businessman -- in real life -- since his days on M*A*S*H (1972 -- 1975). That's when he met Lew Wolff, a real estate developer, hotel owner and managing partner of the Oakland A's. At the time, Wolff was head of real estate for 20th Century Fox where M*A*S*H was filmed.

Rogers started picking Wolf's brain about real estate investing and realized he had a natural affinity for the business world. He was also acutely aware of the dangers of starring in a hit series and then losing your money to bad investments. There were numerous stories of successful actors who had run into money trouble at the height of their fame. Rogers didn't want that to happen to him.

Since the 1970s, he'd been on an entrepreneurial bent, helping to both start up and turn around banks, and creating several businesses, including a convenience-store chain (the Stop-N-Save) and a barge company. He also founded Wayne Rogers & Co, a Los Angeles-based investment strategy and management firm. (In fact, while he was playing Trapper John on M*A*S*H, Rogers was an investment adviser for both Falk and fellow actor James Caan.) Don't look for the company's web site, though -- it doesn't have one. "All his business is [through] referral," Rogers' PR guy, John Goodman, told me. But Rogers does have a web site for himself.

After watching him on Cashin' In one day, I decided to get in touch and get his experienced perspective on all things money and banking. Here's what he had to say.

What's his take on the recession that we're hopefully coming out of? I asked Rogers if he'd been blindsided along with the rest of the country when our economy seemed to collapse, and he was emphatic that not only was he not surprised, but that he had predicted it back in 1991 when he testified in front of Congress, urging politicians not to repeal Glass-Steagall, the law that was passed in 1933 and kept banks out of the securities business. As far as Rogers is concerned, that move pretty much created today's economic climate.

"Congress is mindless," says Rogers. "When I testified, I asked them, 'How many of you have read the testimony at the Pecora hearings, which examined the causes of [the stock market crash of] 1929 and the Great Depression?' A lot of lessons came from that, including the establishment of the FDIC. Well, they had no idea what I was talking about. I might have been talking to a wall. Those hearings established the Glass-Steagall Act, which worked well for 60 years, and then in 1999, Phil Gramm -- another moron -- cancels the rule that led to what we have now."

The new law that went into effect, the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, allowed banks to sell insurance and securities, and insurance and securities firms to get into banking. Before 1999, for those 60 years, a bank was a bank, and an insurance company was an insurance company, and ne're the twain did meet.

And now, according to Rogers, things are out of control. "These banks aren't only too big to fail, they're too big to exist," Rogers grumbled. He says that we basically have two banking systems. One's made up of the largest banks like Citibank, Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The other is "about 10,000 community banks, which finance most of the loans, but they don't control the assets," says Rogers. If Rogers had his way, the solution would not be "to regulate this and that, not to invent new agencies or hire a new czar. The way to fix this is to break up the larger banks."

Rogers' timing in bringing all this up is good. On Wednesday, January 13, Congress is holding the first hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which is going to look into how the recession began -- The New York Times recently compared it to a 21st century version of the "Pecora-style investigation that scrutinized the market crash of 1929."

So the ultimate blame for this recession should go to just who exactly? The government, according to Rogers, who understands the whole we the people concept, adding, "We're to blame -- we elect them."

He isn't too impressed with Senator Chris Dodd or Representative Barney Frank (the former is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee; the latter, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee), nor does he seem happy with financial reform under the president. But refreshingly he isn't personal about it. He says that Dodd and Frank "are bright guys" and that President Obama "is trying to do his best." Rogers just doesn't feel that the banks are being reformed the way they should be, and that eventually everything that created this recession will just return.

Rogers thinks If we're going to keep another, similar recession at bay, we need to repeal the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, and then break up the biggest banks into little pieces.

"If I sound intense about this," says Rogers, suddenly sounding apologetic, "well, I am. It just seems so ludicrous to me that people can't see this coming. We've got to educate ourselves. If you don't believe this, go back and read history. I'm not the brightest light in the chapel, so if I see can this, other people should be able to see what's right in front of them."

What would Trapper John think of our current financial situation? OK, I didn't actually ask that, though I was tempted. However, M*A*S*H was just three years out of the guy's life, and Rogers, who started acting back in the late 1950s, has had such a rich life (figuratively and literally) beyond that. I did ask what he thought previous generations would have thought of our economy circa 2010. Would Rogers' father or grandfather, I asked, have been disappointed or surprised by how much debt we've accumulated?

"I think they would have been, yes," said Rogers. "I think our generation -- well, I'm an older person but I think my children's generation -- was raised with an idea that consumption is good. And it's preached all the time -- if we don't consume, the economy's going to suffer."

If you have any extra cash, what should you do with it? Rogers is a crack investor, so I thought I'd ask him what he'd suggest doing with money if you have, say, an extra $500. "Put it in a bank," he suggested.

OK, not a surprise. Well, what about $5,000? "Put it in a bank, a savings account," said Rogers.

Hmmm, not what I expected.

"Well," I asked, "What about $10,000?"

"Same thing," said Rogers. "Put it in a savings instrument that's very safe, where you're going to make a little money and not speculate. Look, you have to ask yourself, 'Am I trying to preserve capital or make money?' You've got to ask those questions. If you put it in the bank, you'll make a little money. You won't make a lot, but you're not going to lose it."

I guess I was hoping he'd offer some sure-fire stock tip or a quick tutorial on mutual funds, but the bank? Not what I was expecting. Well, you can't argue with that logic, and of course, my wanting more might symbolize what Rogers is really complaining about -- as a nation and a people, we've made managing our money far too complicated.

Geoff Williams is a WalletPop regular and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race and co-author of the new book Living Well with Bad Credit.

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