Taking Stock / Broke or bats
George Soros looks a good 10 years younger than his chronological age, which is 78. He's one of the few who's done beautifully by this crisis.
For five years Soros has been arguing that George Bush's economic policies would lead the United States and the whole world to disaster. He put his money where his mouth is, too. A decade after he'd stopped actively managing his tremendous wealth, Soros took back the reins to preserve what he had, as he explained it. While the financial world melted around him, Soros' fund finished 2008 with returns of 10%.
Over lunch with reporters at the World Economic Forum, which ended yesterday, Soros explained how he'd done it, and what prepared him for the crisis of 2008. He'd been through it before, in 1944. Most economists compare the crisis of 2008 with the Great Depression of the 1930s, but Soros sees things otherwise. He was seasoned by his escape from Hungary, together with his family, in March 1944, as the Nazis rolled in.
Back to Davos, where Soros later joined a closed meeting with 15 leading newspaper editors. On the agenda: "Where we went wrong." Did the papers err in failing to predict the crisis and neglecting to warn readers? Soros comforted us, admitting that he hadn't foreseen the utter collapse of the entire financial system either. You can't see an era while you are in the midst of experiencing it.
Soros has ideas for resolving the global crisis, which are much the same as the other ideas being tossed around the Alpine town. All begin with how to "reboot" the banks and get them to lend again.
Economist Nouriel Roubini, who had predicted the crisis, gaining himself rock-star status, uttered the slogan of the moment right at the start of the conference: The banks are finished. They're broke. Interestingly, no banker disagreed, no regulator protested.
Nobody wants to be optimistic here. It's unfashionable. If you seem to be optimistic, you will be thought to have bats in the belfry. Or, people will figure you're in such bad financial shape that you have nothing but fantasy to sustain yourself.
As Shimon Peres said over lunch Friday: It's a lot more distinguished to be pessimistic.
Last year optimism was all the rage in Davos. Globalization was hailed. The Masters of the Universe - investment bankers who were financing the global spree - were applauded. But the investment bankers aren't here this year. Some went broke.
The rest stayed home rather than be publicly pilloried. Even Lloyd Blankenfein of Goldman Sachs, who was supposed to attend as a representative of the one investment bank that survived, canceled his trip. Photos of him smiling in the snow would have gone down like a lead balloon in Washington, where Congress is busy wrapping up aid packages for the banks, consisting of hundreds of billions of dollars, courtesy of the taxpayer.
Davos had no solutions. All it seems to have had was the latest stars: the economists who predicted the meltdown, spouting gloom and doom for 2009. One reason is that the people expected to save the world didn't show up: Barack Obama, Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers - not one could leave Washington at this time. Summers was supposed to attend but canceled at the last minute, leaving the slopes populated by pessimists.
One of the few investment people prepared to brave a panel this year was Steve Schwarzman of the private equity fund Blackstone, a former prince of Wall Street. It was a big mistake: Private equity people are used to operating behind the scenes. They may have made billions for clients, but they don't know how to behave in the spotlight.
Schwarzman was up against Maria Bartiromo, the anchor of CNBC's "Closing Bell." Without batting an eye, he urged that even more money be poured into the system so it could work, and said that because of its gigantic bond offerings, the government was elbowing the private sector out of the capital market. "Add more leverage to the system," Schwarzman said, adding that you can't deleverage 30 years in a year and a half.
That did it. First was Roubini, who heckled from the audience, saying that it's all a Ponzi scheme and that leverage has to be controlled. Banks have to drastically cut their balance sheets, he said: The government is elbowing out the private sector, it's replacing it.
Laura Tyson joined in: Nobody will lend to companies because nobody trusts them. The government is the only borrower they trust, she said.
It's a new game, said Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, the biggest ad agency in the world: Once governments had to spend a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to save the banks, the game became political.
Schwarzman was unmoved. Nationalizing the banks is a bad idea, he insisted, and with all due respect to calls for transparency, the game had been pretty transparent to begin with. More regulation? he taunted: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had received six complaints about Bernie Madoff and it did nothing. Regulation was there, it just didn't work.
And then came the moment to vote, using the Davos electronic system. How many in the audience supported Schwarzman and his ideas, and how many opposed them? After 10 seconds, the vote was in: 30% in favor, 70% against him.
If at Davos, the meeting point of the economic elite, a majority like that opposes Schwarzman, we may guess what kind of support he and his ilk will find in Congress.
By the way, while Washington stayed home to work, who did come to Davos? Vladimir Putin, though why he showed up never did become clear. Logic suggests that after oil fell from $147 to $40 per barrel, he hoped to drum up foreign investment in order to shore up its financial system.
But Putin is Putin and he evidently can't stop being Putin. On the first panel in which he participated, he fired in all directions, remarkably aiming one attack at Michael Dell. Spurning Dell's suggestion of technological assistance, the Russian leader said they didn't need any. "We are not invalids. We do not have limited capacity," he said.
The next day Putin had an opportunity to improve the impression he'd made and held a closed meeting with editors, off the record. I can't quote him, but I can describe the atmosphere.
Putin did show a cynical sense of humor, impressive rhetorical abilities, and thorough understanding of the global economic situation. But mainly, he aggressively quashed hard questions about corruption in Russia, or anything else for that matter.
After the meeting, the editors agreed, "Once a KGB agent, always a KGB agent." One suggested that if Putin wanted to attract foreign investment back to Russia, he could use a page from Dale Carnegie's book - "How to Win Friends and Influence People."