Tim Harcourt on investing in red bricks and blue chips


Tim Harcourt is the "Airport Economist". That is the title of the book he wrote when he travelled widely to get an anecdotal feel for other economies as well as the numbers.

The name was originally used to insult the American economist Milton Friedman, who made prognostications about Australia just after stepping off a plane here for the first time.

However, Harcourt feels his moniker is preferable to that of an armchair economist who uses data without real life. The Airport Economist was released in 2008 and was followed by a TV series, which visited thriving markets across Asia to learn more about these economies. His work has now expanded globally. 


What was your first job?

My first job was at Coles in Adelaide. I was the microphone attendant and I used to be able to say things like "we have a red spot discount" and "are you having a bar mitzvah or party happening? We have specials today in aisle ... "

When I was 15 I went to the ACTU to ask for a job and they said either get a job in a trade and work for a union or go to university and study law or economics. Their best people had been economists, so they suggested I get an economics degree.

My first real job was as a cadet international economist at the Reserve Bank under [future RBA chief economist] Glenn Stevens, at age 20. It was my first time in Sydney - bright lights, big city. I was interested in politics, international relations and international stuff so I managed to combine it at the ACTU.

When I was at the ACTU, [ACTU secretary] Bill Kelty asked me about my loves and I said international trade and Aboriginal affairs. I got both those portfolios and that's how I got my next job at Austrade.

What's the best money advice you've ever received?

George Shultz [former US Secretary of State] told me, "Do what you're really interested in and let the money look after itself."

It was his dad's phrase. His dad wanted to be a history teacher but after the Depression had to do what he needed to do. Shultz said only take that kind of job when you have to; don't take it for 20 years.

What is the typical reaction when you tell people what you do?

They get a little bit jealous or get very interested.

One thing that's great about Australia is that I can get into a taxi and ask the driver where they are from and it can be Kazakhstan or India or wherever, and I can talk to them about it because I've usually done a show there and written about it. I've been to 60 countries in six years.

I joke that people are jealous, but they're usually more positive or curious.

What have your career highlights been?

When I started I wanted to work for the ACTU like Bob Hawke, represent Australia overseas and write a book. I did all that and the book became a TV series.

Highlights have included interviewing Megan Gale in Milan for an Australian tourism ad. I saw Sachin Tendulkar bat in India and I interviewed Miss Universe in India.

I went to London with former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and on our way to a SA University alumni function found there was a huge crowd gathered. It was for Sacha Baron Cohen, who was filming The Dictator. I told him I was going to Kazakhstan and, staying in character, he said "Say hello to my friend Borat."

What's the best investment decision you've made?

Family, education and superannuation. I bought a house early when I moved from Sydney. Adelaide people get afraid of Sydney property, I bought as early as I could. I like to invest in red bricks and blue chips and hang onto them for the long-term.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

I had a view that I had to have my personal library with me wherever I went, so I'd be shipping books to Canada, America, Israel when I really didn't need to.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

Apart from my family, I do like nice holidays and they don't have to be far away. I love nature and going and seeing wombats in Tasmania or South Australia, or quokkas in Western Australia, or whale watching.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I'd put it on my mortgage - I know it sounds a bit conservative. I might also buy a pair of R.M. Williams boots and an Akubra hat - but I have to disclose they're my sponsors!

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I'd put it on the trifecta at Randwick. My grandfather and his brother were the racing Harcourts, professional punters in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne. My grandfather was a rabbi who became an atheist and he and his brother changed their name from Harkowitz to Harcourt.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

Yes, I have two children - a daughter from China, a son from Taiwan, so we have to do a very careful diplomatic split. My daughter refers to Taiwan as "runaway China" when she's annoyed with her brother. I will also donate to the foundation to preserve the northern hairy-nosed wombat.

What's been your best money-making career move?

Every time I've got a new job I've doubled my salary, so I think being good at your job and giving your employer a long-term commitment but then making a move when you need to.

Finish this sentence: money makes ... 

... life easier.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
tim harcourt
June 15, 2021 1.03pm

Thanks for the interview Julia I really enjoyed our discussion Cheers Tim