OFF THE BOOKS has all the ingredients of a great novel: intrigue, late- night meetings in bars and restaurants in cities around the world, a whistleblower at the nation's largest bank, front-page investigative stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times leading to congressional investigations, frustrated and befuddled government officials around the world, allegations of a cover-up of a federal investigation, and of course, money. Lots and lots of money.
It is a story of millions of dollars whirling around the world at speeds faster than the speed of light. And, to make it all the more interesting, it isn't a novel. It's a true story.
The high-powered world of international banking is very complex, often misunderstood, and almost never talked about, knowledgeably, by outsiders.
But thanks to a very messy, and uncharacteristically public, feud between Citibank and one of its young currency traders in Paris during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a financial journalist from Europe named Robert A. Hutchison has been able to detail how the mysterious world of currency trading in general, and at Citibank in particular, operated.
During the summer of 1975, a young Citibank Paris trader named David Edwards was getting antsy. The way he saw things, the chief money trader for the bank's Paris office was doing some questionable dealing. It looked to Edwards like his boss was making some money on the side and creating phony transactions that seemed designed to cut the amount of French taxes the bank would have to pay. He decided that he had to bring this to the attention of higher-ups in the bank.
After all, this incident happened against a backdrop of serious problems in the world currency markets, and fears that the U.S. banks were tinkering with the dollar to their own benefit around the world.
"The West was in the deepest recession since World War II," Hutchison writes of that time. "The foreign exchange market, after a year of coping with floating exchange rates, experienced one of its worst upheavals."
The Franklin National Bank of New York and Bankhaus I.D. Herstatt, West Germany's largest private bank, collapsed in 1974 under the pressure of huge foreign exchange losses.
Both banks had been speculating heavily in foreign currency trading -- and lost. Their fates had given new rise to calls for tougher regulations and limits on the booming but generally unregulated area of world money trading. Just how loose and fast the trading world had become is illustrated in the following passage:
"The Citibank trader in the foreign exchange pit at the Paris Bourse called (David) one afternoon to report that the dollar was sinking. 'Aw shit,' David said, more to himself than the pitman, and slammed down the phone. At the close of trading, the pitman called back to confirm he had bought dollars.
" 'You did what?' David shouted.
" 'But you said ach pitman.
"That evening David walked into Chuck Young's office and said, 'I've got a funny story to tell you, but it's going to cost a quarter of a million dollars to hear.'
"Young heard the story, but he was not amused."
But that wasn't the only trouble David Edwards would have communicating with his superiors. When he started about the "problems" he was seeing in his office, he was not greeted with open arms.
One after another, meetings with internal auditors and key officers of Citibank to discuss Edward's allegations ended badly. Time after time Edwards was told to keep his allegations to himself. The banking fraternity was tightening the net.
The reader is left wondering what drove Edwards to take his campaign to the highest levels of the bank, and expect to stay on, but he did. Finally, after yet another unwanted transfer, Edwards is out of the bank.
But then he did something that stunned the bank, the banking community, and the press. Something that is never, ever done.
He sued Citibank for wrongful dismissal, and put into the court records hundreds of pages of internal bank documents outlining the practices and procedures -- and several specific transactions -- at Citibank.
What followed, according to press accounts from The Post and The Times, internal bank records, and congressional hearing transcripts, is one of the most detailed discussions of how international banking is conducted ever committed to print.
It is a somewhat unnerving description of how lightning-fast international money transactions were conducted, virtually unregulated. Not only were most governments and banking authorities unaware of how these markets were being used, but many of the bank's top officers were also in the dark.
The book describes in painstaking detail how Securities and Exchange Commission staff recommended action be taken against the bank. The commission ultimately declined to act. Congressional committees investigated and held dramatic hearings, but only until sexier hearings came along. The bank was hit with fines and convictions in Switzerland and Italy.
What is missing from this scholarly and informative book, otherwise written with the melodrama of a mystery novel, is an ending.