Living the free market dream | Buenos Aires Herald

Rodrigo Orihuela, bloguero y crítico de libros del Buenos Aires Herald, me manda la crítica de Golden Boys que salió este fin de semana en el diario, y que en la Web está disponible sólo para suscriptores. Por el momento la tengo sólo en inglés.

A few years ago, when Argentina was
hit by its worst financial crisis ever and the government declared the biggest
debt default in world history, bankers and stockbrokers were almost as vilified
in this country as criminals. Only politicians were more hated by civil
society. It was the time when doomsday seemed to have arrived to Argentina and
bankers and brokers were hated because they were seen as the doom-makers behind
the apocalypses. The widespread popular perception was that Argentina exploded
in 2001 because for more than a decade the government (first under the ten year
presidency of Carlos Menem and then during Fernando de la Rúa’s two year spell
in the job) had followed the dictum of the masters of global finances without
ever elevating a voice against it. And who manages global finances but
bankers?, went the line of thought.

In this conception of the world,
bankers, brokers, traders and IMF officials were all the same. The issue at
stake was not as much who they were and what they did as what they stood for in
the public eye. Anger and frustration combined with ignorance to create more
anger. Argentines knew, at the time, that Wall Street was bad, very bad. Few of
us knew who Wall Street was and what Wall Street did (and does). The complex
world of finances was far too complex and obscure to bother with attempts to
understand it. Now, Hernán Iglesias Illa, a New York-based Argentine
journalist, has taken on himself the tremendous task to do away with this
rampant ignorance.

However, explaining the world of
finance to laymen is far from easy, more so because mostly everybody outside
that world is a layman, from the most inexperienced call centre intern to the
top political and economic press columnists. Making the explanation
entertaining can only be more difficult. In Golden Boys Iglesias Illa
does both.

The 276 page-long book gives an
easily understandable summary of the history of the Argentine debt and of how
public debt works. It also explains how markets make money off debt, how relief
is offered to highly indebted governments, how bonds are traded and how this
may affect a country. But the main focus of the book is on the story of
Argentine economists, accountants and MBAs who made a career for themselves in
Wall Street, mainly in the 90s, as financial analysts, investment bankers and
financial traders. These are men (women are strikingly absent, unless mentioned
as rich, home-staying wives in the best tradition of Desperate Housewives)
who held important roles in firms that had a lot to do with the state of the
Argentine foreign debt and who, at a time (mostly in the second half of the
90s), gave Argentina a disproportionate representation and leverage in Wall
Street, considering the size of the country’s financial markets.

Iglesias Illa tries to determinate
not only the degree of responsibility these financial big-minds had in the
2001-2002 Argentine economic meltdown but also what they felt as they saw their
own country crumble to pieces after having made lots of money for their
companies off Argentine debt bonds (and thereby for themselves, mostly through
year-end bonuses). Jorge Jasson, Alberto Ades, Guido Mosca, Pablo Calderini,
Martín Schubert and Daniel Canel are only some of the little known names of the
Argentines who became millionaires in Wall Street. Their power is not overrated
by the author, they were really key players although the time of Argentines as
an ethnic powerhouse in the heart of global finances is now part of the past:
between 1996-1998, five Argentines (Jasson, Calderini, Canel, Juan del Azar and
Miguel Guitérrez) headed the emerging markets departments in five of Wall
Street’s top banks (Chase, Deutsche Bank, UBS,  J.P. Morgan and Merrill

Iglesias Illa names many of these bankers
but also does a great job of explaining where they come from, how they live
and, more importantly, what they do, something he was not to sure about himself
when he started the investigation even though he worked as an editor at the Wall
Street Journal Americas
(the Spanish version of the financial paper) at the
time. He underlines that this kind of ignorance was widespread and implies that
it may have had a lot to do with the perception Argentines have of Wall Street
bankers, especially when it appeared among so-called specialists, . He
specifically names two top analysts (the economic columnist Marcelo Bonelli and
the foreign  affairs expert Oscar Cardoso, both of the newspaper Clarín)
and gives examples of columns in which they used the term "brokers"
loosely and with no precision whatsoever. Brokers, we learn in Golden Boys,
have very little power in Wall Street.

The book is a disappointment for
conspiracy theory buffs as  Iglesias Illa once and again offers example of
how many important decisions – both within the limits of Wall Street (which the
author explains is, today, a concept more than a physical place, as most
investment banks and financial companies have moved away from the street) and
in meetings between Wall Street envoys and government officials – were made
with near to none long-term planning, and sometimes there was no planning at

Instinct, in fact, boosted the
success of many Argentines who arrived to Wall Street in the late 80s and early
90s, when trading emerging markets debt bonds was a nascent activity. Since it
was a market that was only just appearing a lot was done from the heart and
rules were scarce and flexible. Traders, the men who made the serious money
playing with the ups and downs of stock prices, were essentially storytellers,
says Iglesias Illa . Telling the story to bosses and clients, making it up as
it unfolded and imagining beforehand what its outcome would be, was just as
important as in-depth knowledge, sometimes even more important. When, towards
the late 90s, the trading of emerging countries became more organized and
mathematical, the appeal of Argentines diminished.

Even so, some 100 Argentine
families still live in Greenwich, the Connecticut town where many Wall Street
high-rollers live, much like Hollywood stars flock to Beverly Hills or Malibu.
For many of the Argentines among those high-rollers, Greenwich is the obvious
choice to build a home when they can afford it for they come from top,
old-money Argentine families (with surnames like Blaquier and Pereyra Iraola).
For others, however, Greenwich is a big step up since their origins lie in
middle or upper-middle households, they come from families where mom was a
housewife and dad may just as easily have been a doctor as a mechanic. This is
one of the other myths Iglesias Illa dispels: not all Argentines who made it
big in the heart of global finances were born among the rich and powerful; many
built their own way.

Iglesias Illa wrote this book thanks to a grant from the
Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, the Colombian-based foundation
created by the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez to promote quality
journalism. When in 2006 the jury awarded him the grant, its three members
(Argentine Martín Caparrós, American Jon Lee Anderson and Mexican Juan Villoro)
said Iglesias Illa’s proposal presented a major challenge: to narrate and
understand the behaviour and day-to-day life of a group of men capable of
making decisions that affect the lives of millions of Latina Americans. The
challenge has been overcome.

Oh, yeah. Ja. Me gustaría prometer una traducción, pero sé que sólo será posible mediando un improbable y huracanado asalto de energía, que por ahora no veo venir.

  1. Christian said:

    Muy lindo comentario!
    Busque el libro en Madrid y no lo encontré.
    Seguis en el carril del medio o vas un poco mas a la izquerda?

  2. Graciela Ferraro said:

    Queres que te lo traduzca? Una pequeña colaboracion al blog para que se pueda leer la critica del libro en el BAHerald. todavia estoy buscando el libro

  3. claudia bogarin said:

    Quisiera Una nota Que salio en El Diario Buenos Aires Herald diario El Día, 18 de Noviembre de 1996 echa Por Charima Reinardt Que Lleva Como titulo “A LOS NIÑOS DE TRABAJO LUCHA” lo necesito PARA HACER ONU Trabajo de cast El lunes 26/04/2010 Por favor si me lo pueden facilitar , GRACIAS !!!!!!

  4. Una pequeña colaboracion al blog para que se pueda leer la critica del libro en el BAHerald.

  5. And who manages global finances but bankers?, went the line of thought.

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