A former World Bank chief banks on connections

Sunday, January 16, 2011; B06

Early societies accorded disproportionate power and influence to priests - look through the records of who was actually running a country, and you'll often find someone with a religious background. Over time, as economies became more complex, the landed aristocracy, wealthy merchants and industrialists held positions of prominence as ministers or top advisers to the ruler. In the Soviet Union, engineers were central to power networks. We have bankers.

James Wolfensohn's autobiography, "A Global Life," provides a glimpse into why exactly bankers have become so powerful in modern American society. Wolfensohn is actually not the kind of banker with the most power today: The ones who brought the economy to its knees in 2008 suffered no consequences, and now they tell the rest of us who and what we need to cut.

Wolfensohn never ran a commercial organization that was "too big to fail" - although he apparently used such arguments in an attempt to get more subsidies for Chrysler during its rescue at the end of the 1970s. And he was never engaged in the aggressive and under-capitalized risk-taking that has characterized the past two decades - he was out of Salomon Brothers in 1981 and out of his own boutique advisory business (and into the World Bank) in 1995.

Even at Salomon, Wolfensohn was an investment banker in the traditional sense, meaning that he put together old-fashioned corporate financing deals, not complicated "structured" products or anything directly related to trading.

Wolfensohn is a networker. Moving deliberately into worlds centered on wealth, first in Australia, then the United Kingdom and always the United States, he cultivated people with his charm, courtesy and always with money. In his memoir, he is delicate and discreet to everyone - even people who threatened his career or damaged his fortune are treated with kid gloves. There are a few exceptions: mostly Australians but also some British snobs who stood in his way, and at the very end of the book, there are some uncharacteristic but completely justified jabs at senior Bush administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice and even George W. Bush.

Mostly, though, Wolfensohn discusses his network of friends and relationships with the utmost care, presumably because, at age 77, he is still in the game. He is chasing something - influence, prestige, status as "a global player" - and he is never done.

He wears his connections lightly in the first part of the book but makes a good deal more of them during his World Bank years. Describing a meeting with President Bill Clinton at the White House to discuss whether he could become World Bank president, Wolfensohn presents his MO in a nutshell: "He and Hillary had visited our home in Jackson Hole during their summer vacation, and we had given him a birthday party at our house. But this was my first time in the inner sanctum, and my first meeting where there was a substantial issue to be discussed."

Wolfensohn is a major league name-dropper, and the reader grows weary at times. As the book tells it, he boosted his role as a networker by bringing his friends together with leading musicians. After funding a pair of budding impresarios in London in 1969, Wolfensohn befriended the Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, connected with a much wider range of up-and-coming (and famous) performers and bridged the worlds of music and finance ever after.

Wolfensohn made brilliant use of nonprofit board memberships to meet powerful people and build valuable network connections. He chaired the boards of Carnegie Hall and then the Kennedy Center. The book makes it sound as if in each case he actually ran the show, but this is implausible - there are top-notch professional staffs at these places for a reason. He is a bit too inclined at times to take all the credit.

The World Bank material takes up nearly 200 pages but really comes as an anticlimax. He is too much on his political guard, and there is nothing new here. His time at the bank was fine, particularly his incessant wooing of nongovernmental organizations. But the alleviation of poverty cannot be arranged as readily as musical events.

Wolfensohn was a banker to the rich and famous. He was not a Medici-type banker, using money to wield unvarnished power. And he was not a Sandy Weill-type banker, building a fragile financial behemoth based on delusions of grandeur. But he helped many members of our elite, and they helped him in return.


Simon Johnson is a co-author of "13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown," just out in paperback.


My Journey Among Rich and Poor, From Sydney to Wall Street to the World Bank

By James D. Wolfensohn

Public Affairs. 462 pp. $29.95

© 2011 The Washington Post Company