Howard Ruff, an idiosyncratic economist, best-selling author and political conservative best known for being bullish on gold and silver and gloomy about the economy, died on Nov. 12 in Lehi, Utah. He was 85.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his assistant, Joann Allen, said.
Mr. Ruff, a college dropout, had a roller-coaster career, starting out as a stockbroker. For a time he also supported himself as a singer. (One gig was at a synagogue, as what he described as the only practicing Mormon cantor in San Francisco.)
He went on to run an Evelyn Woodspeed-reading business for a while — which helped make him a millionaire — until it foundered and his franchise was revoked, forcing him to declare bankruptcy.
Rather than defeating him, however, the setback led to an epiphany, he said: It inspired him to plunge into business-cycle research and forge a career as a faddish investment adviser, which made him a millionaire for a second time. But that enterprise, too, went belly up.
“Some people say that I couldn’t succeed at anything, so I became a prophet of doom,” he told Time magazine in 1979.
That turned out to be another successful calling. In 1975 he started publishing a newsletter called Ruff Times, which mixed financial counsel (predicting inflation and recommending investment in gold) with conservative commentary. It drew more than 175,000 subscribers.
He began a syndicated weekly television program called “Ruff House”; organized forums that offered, for a fee, more or less conventional investment advice; and established companies that distributed natural vitamins and coins, as well as other for-profit and self-promotional ventures.
Again he prospered, as reflected by a 20,000-square-foot home in Utah with an indoor pool.
(He also said he had a hand in geopolitics, claiming some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union. He and his White House contacts, he said, persuaded President Ronald Reagan to sell Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels, whose guerrilla war with the Soviet invaders had all but bankrupted Moscow by the late 1980s.)
Mr. Ruff drew his widest attention in 1979 with his book “How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.” It recommended survivalist strategies, like stocking a year’s supply of food, and directed readers to other books including “Safe Places East of the Mississippi” and “Eating Weeds for Fun and Freedom.” The book sold millions of copies and was a New York Times best seller for more than a year.
Until about 1981, his followers reaped large capital gains by investing in precious metals. But by several measures his portfolios later underperformed market indexes and even Treasury bills, and some of his apocalyptic predictions did not come to pass, as inflation subsided and interest rates declined during the Reagan administration, and when the economy rebounded after the 2008 financial crisis.
“Howard was a pioneer in the financial world when brokers encouraged investors to buy blue-chip stocks and bonds and charged high fixed commissions,” Mark Skousen, the editor of Forecasts & Strategies, an investment newsletter, said in an email on Tuesday. “Ruff argued that Wall Street was hazardous to your wealth, especially investing in bonds that were big losers during the inflationary ’70s.”
Mr. Ruff became bullish on the bond and stock markets in the early 1980s, changing the name of his newsletter to Howard Ruff’s Financial Success Report. But it reverted to Ruff Times in the mid-80s, and in 2008 he updated his book on the coming bad years, warning that whoever won the presidency in 2008 would be doomed by rising oil and gas prices and spiraling monetary inflation to become “the Hoover of the 2000s.”
Among his other books were “Famine and Survival in America” (1974) and “How to Prosper in the Age of Obamanomics: A Ruff Plan for Hard Times Ahead” (2009).
Unlike some of his doomsaying colleagues, though, Mr. Ruff maintained a following through an engaging wit and a general willingness to admit mistakes.
Urging investors to be mavericks, he compared the breed to “a bovine that’s left the herd,” adding, “And I feel the majority of the herd is going to be turned into hamburger.”
In recommending readiness for economic collapse, he reminded his disciples, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”
He co-founded a conservative lobbying group called Free the Eagle, and in 2000 he fought, unsuccessfully, to prevent Hillary Clinton, who had transplanted herself from Arkansas and Washington, from winning a Senate seat from New York.
His Ruffpac political action committee prepared a television commercial that benignly featured babies and puppies playing in Central Park. It asked rhetorically what they had in common, responding: “They have all lived in New York longer than Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Howard Joseph Ruff was born on Dec. 27, 1930, in Berkeley, Calif., the son of the former Rena Maxberry, a seamstress, and Wilson Ruff, who killed himself when Howard was 6 months old.
“I grew up broke,” he recalled. “We were too poor to afford a father.”
He had wanted to be a singer since the age of 9, but, at his mother’s insistence, instead of accepting a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he served a two-year mission in the eastern United States for the Mormon Church. He later majored in music education at Brigham Young University in Utah with a minor in economics.
But by his senior year, he told The New York Times in 1979, “I ran out of money and got out of college before it did me any personal harm, like ending up teaching high school music courses.”
Instead, after joining the Air Force, he toured with its symphony as a baritone soloist and also performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Mr. Ruff released an album, “Howard Ruff Sings,” in 1982 on his own label, Target Records, featuring songs like “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “My Way.”
“I did it for the shock value,” Mr. Ruff said. “I also did it to change my image. I have always been painted as a cardboard figure of doom.”
Mr. Ruff is survived by his wife, the former Kay Felt; 13 of their 14 children (some of whom were adopted) — Larry, Eric, David, Megan and Timothy Ruff, Anthony Ramon, David Steinberg, Pamela Patterson, Sharon Slater, Patty Simpson, Liza Spencer, Debbie Rasmussen and Terri Lynn Bond — 79 grandchildren; and 48 great-grandchildren.
By 2002, Mr. Ruff’s fortunes had slipped again. The circulation of Ruff Times had plummeted to 3,000, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and he had long sold his 10-acre Utah estate and moved to smaller quarters.
“He was a self-made millionaire. Twice. He lost it all. Twice,” his family said in a statement. “He often said he learned more from his failures than from his successes.”
But he retained admirers. The journalist and financial analyst Mark Hulbert wrote on MarketWatch.com in 2013, “It would be easy to miss the lasting contribution Howard Ruff made to the investment advisory business.’’
Mr. Ruff, he wrote, had brought “into the mainstream the notion that we don’t need to rely on a Wall Street broker or analyst for advice on what to do with our money.”
He added, “Ruff gave voice to the millions of middle-class investors who felt that the country’s financial system was rigged against them.”