January 28, 2008
GSTAAD—The fat cats were all over Davos last week, greedy bankers, self-important bosses of publicly-owned multi-nationals, craven hedge-funders, and shameless publicity seekers such as Bono and others of his ilk mixing freely with Gordon Brown, Al Gore, and Bill Gates. No, Carla Bruni did not attend nor did Amy Winehouse, who had better things to do—like being filmed smoking crack. Some 20 years or so ago, while in my cups, a lady who used to chauffeur me around, suddenly came up with a pipe and offered it. I like to think myself a chancer, but I drew the line on that one. Crack will get you nowhere fast except the morgue. But back to the fat ones.
The greed of bankers is well known. This time they managed to surpass themselves. They created a product that was no good and sold it as gold. So avaricious were they, massive interest rate cuts by the Fed have had no effect at all. The trouble is the architects of this mess do not suffer personally. They will take massive golden goodbye checks—some in the hundred of millions—and then retire to Palm Beach or St. Moritz and become elder statesmen. And it gets worse. Until recently, people trusted banks. No longer. Bank after bank has had to seek huge capital infusions. The Saudis will end up owning most of America’s banks, which might not be so bad as the first thing they will do is stop lending money to American women to buy cars and houses, or have breast enlargements. The French are also doing a Northern Rock. Societé Generale might be gobbled up after dropping a bundle, and that includes a Barings rogue trader. Fear is the cheapest commodity to be had in Davos, with the lack of trust having intensified as some banks that had offset their loans by purchasing insurance against defaults are now facing dicey claims.
The irony is that a lot of money can be made during rocky times such as these, or even during a recession. Back in 2001, Charles Fix, Taki’s financial adviser and known as the magician among those in the know, had his best year. Ditto back in 1997, during the Russian meltdown. I was Fix’s first investor back in 1989, after my daddy’s death. People told me I was nuts. Fix was new to the game, he was, after all, a brewer back in Greece. (Fixs had monopolies for years, ever since the first Fix came from Bavaria with King Otto and started a brewery east of Athens.) But my childhood friend was no fool, nor was he greedy. He created a fund of funds with something no one had thought of before, a simple game plan which went as follows: Every fund manager played but only those whose results were good remained in the game. One wrong pass, a foul, a missed shot at goal sent the player to the bench. Managers were judged on a negative scale. What was the most you ever lost in one month, was the way Fix judged—Not the most one ever made. If it exceeded one per cent, off you were to the sidelines, to warm the bench for awhile.
Karolos, the Greek name for Charles, called it the Fix Family Fund, but a truer name would have been the Fix Football Fund, as he used a football manager’s mentality to have 21 per cent annual returns for his investors. None of that 85 % up one month and 90% down the next. 21% compounded annually since 1989. As I write, Charles Fix is ensconced in his chalet 50 yards down the road from me, reading German philosophy and ignoring stock market quotes and other such drivel. Which brings me to a man I’ve never met, but one I dislike for his use of military metaphors in his crummy business dealings. John Duffield’s company, New Star Asset Management, lost £100 million, which means the investors are paying the piper. Duffield is one of those bullies who screams at associates, calls people Nazis and announces he will park his tanks on people’s lawns, but would most likely faint if he ever heard an RPG explode anywhere within the vicinity of five miles or so. I read in the Telegraph that he called it the worst business day of his life, the worst day being when he got divorced from Vivien Clore. (I would have thought it the other way round, but then I don’t go for rich Cockneys’ daughters.) The truly bad news was not Duffield’s losses but the fact that some wise guy put him up for Pug’s the day his losses were announced in the media. But quicker than a speeding bullet he was blackballed by all 10 members, the 10th one coming a bit late all the way from India. Whew! That’s all we need, a Duffield to blow Pug’s extremely generous club fund, now close to a billion or two. Pounds, that is, not drachmas.
In the meantime I’m off to Liechtenstein and a back clinic that promises to help me defend my world title in Brussels next June. I know judo is bad for the back, but my fans (all three of them) demand I defend my championship. And Liechtenstein can be fun at night. There are hundreds of broken down fund managers begging in the streets and offering their wives and girlfriends to those who invested with Fix.