Shards of conversation ;
"I say when the dollar's in trouble, the whole world has a cold."
"Oh, about U.S. $14.39 billion."
"Well, considering the cost of freight and insurance payments on imports. . . ."
"In a struggle between paper and gold, there's no doubt in my mind which is going to win."
"Oui. Oui. Oui. D'accord."
Some of the world's most astute moneymen assembled in Washington this past week. The occasion was the 33rd joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, two institutions that try to barter a global economic stability, borrowing from the rich, lending to the poor.
No one knew for sure just how many finance ministers, central bank governors, private bankers and financial analysts showed up at the Sheraton Park Hotel for the four-day conference, but 9,000 badges were given out. Not a limo in town was left for hire. THough one fund official called it a "gaint money bazaar," to an out-sider, at sea over such jargon as "reserve credit tranches" and "buffer stock financing facilities," it seemed more like an economic Super Bowl, complete with a world press in the basement providing a blizzard of words.
There were the inevitable standouts: such as Jose A. Martinez de Hoz, wonder boy of the Argentine economy. Martinez de Hoz is minister of economy for Argentina, a civilian in a military regime. This was his third straight IMF-WB conference, and that was thought to be a record of stability. He is a tall, imperial, with slicked hair and dark suits.
Of late, Mortinez de Hoz has been to Moscow and Peking (whose governments are not members of the fund or the bank), trying to open new markets for trade. When he would appear in the Sheraton lobby, surrounded by his covey of flushed aides, heads automatically turned, acknowledging the Star Presence.
Some sightings: An African with a British accent reading the American Banker, Stacks of esoteric literature (Financial Focus, International Currency Review, Finance & Development). A United Nations of language. Few beards and acres of pinstripe suits. The Arabs, more than others, seemed to have the fine, musky scent of money on them. But they were hard to find.
Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal led the giant American delegation. He was not highly visible, either, except at a reception he hosted Tuesday evening at the East Building of the National Gallery.
Blumenthal reportedly spent most of his time during the conference holding meetings in the U.S. "nerve center," which was the C wing of the Sheraton's fourth floor. According to one World Bank official who asked not to be named, if you could have gotten past the Camp David-like security there, "you would have seen the guy from Zaire standing in the hallway with his briefcase waiting for his 11 o'clock appointment, the Indonesian for his 11:30. That sort of thing. There were literally hundreds of millions being discussed every half-hour. That's where the action was, not in the plenary sessions."
The size and clout of delegations varied almost comically. Japan, a major power and economic wizard, was represented by its minister of finance, seven governors, 24 advisers, four assistants to the executive director, a clutch of secretaries and staff aides. The World Bank had a separate Japanese contingent. Most of the Japanese came to Blumenthal's party Tuesday in glossy black limos.
The Maldivians came on a bus. The Republic of Maldives is a string of 2,000 islands in the Indian Ocean. The population of 114,000 is largely illiterate, the per capita income less than $100 a year. It was not surprising then that this infant, struggling nation could only afford to send three officials to Washington.
There they were Tuesday, Amir Abdul Sattar, Hussain Ali Didi and Ahmed Saleem, bowing and nodding and marveling amid the party's crush of better-heeled, better-known guests. (The British financiers seemed most comfortable at the cushy affair. Lots of silk polka-dot hankies shooting from vest pockets, and easy conversation.)
Hussain Ali Didi is the special under secretary of the Maldives. He is a squat man with a gracious smile. He had on a brown suit. As he put it in his not-yet-perfect English.
"A small country like ours must hope for the best at something like this We feel it is worhtwhile just to make the contact." He looked up then, at the marbled edifice looming over him. The building's triangles were dappled with evening light. "It is also good for us to see a building like this - to dream what money can make and what we ourselves may someday build, in another century."
No one was able during the week to pinpoint the qualities of a sound moneyman. Everyone mentioned conservatism, of course. Toshihiro Kiribuchi, director of the international organizations division in Japan's ministry of finance, said he sometimes thought "a brave man is required." Kiribuchi trained "at the Northwestern University in your Chicago." He has been a civil servant for 23 years. It is a myth, he said, that government moneymen are wealthy. "The private ones perhaps."
The emerging African nations were everywhere at the meeting. Their representatives always had cards and wallet-sized pictures of themselves ready. The Maldives and some other countries excepted, there seemed a sort of inverse law between the poverty of a nation and its showiness. Last year, at a world economic meeting the ministers from Uganda reportedly showed up in a private jet, then taxied up and down the runway for half an hour to let everybody know they were there.
O.O. Vincent is the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He studied at the University of Manchester in England. He talks in round, soft, fluent English. He said that something concrete and positive for his nation had come out of this year's conference: the resumption of issue of "special drawing rights" from the IMF. That is the system, based on quotas, whereby member nations borrow money for development.
"As you know, we have been selling a lot of petroleum," Vincent said.
Do they get lots of money for it?
"We try." Then Vincent took his interviewer by the thumb and said, "Come, I want to find Mr. Blumenthal."
D.N. Ndegwa is the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya. He is a confident, articulate African who took his economics work at St. Andrew's University in Scotland. One morning, in the Sheraton Pavillion Coffee Shop, he moved aside a glass of water, came close, and said:
"You see that table over there? That's the governor of the Netherlands talking to the minister of Denmark. The governor will say, 'Now I think these trade arrangements between us should be such and such,' and the minister will say, 'Man, that's bull . . .,' That's the way it's done at these things. In the end, you've got to face the face of a man. This room is full of negotiation. Everybody is talking money. Right now."
Ndegwa said private bankers by the hundreds come to affairs like these to lure depositors. "They seek you out. They know who you are, what hotel you're staying in, where you go to dinner. They say, 'Deposit $1 million with me.' They have gimmicks, what they call 'instruments.' For some, it is the duration of deposit, for others special stocks and bonds arrangements. They tell you, 'Give us your $1 million, and if you want ot withdraw before maturity, we will make it so you will have another million available at special rates.'"
There's not a dollar of Kenyan currency that's not being put to use, Ndegwa said. "We send out wires across the world saying, 'Quote us for one year, for two years.' It's like that with every country. Money never just lies there. It is always working. Everyone owns it."
Ndegwa said the current U.S. treasury secretary is more accessible than his predecessor, William Simon. "I think he's more charitable to the idea of developing countries."
When Ndegwa got up to go, he was approached by a man in impeccable dress. "This is Mr. Ashton," Ndegwa said. "He's a friend of mine from England. He represents the factory out-side of Landon that prints our notes. How are you Ashton?" he clapped the man on the back. Ashton laughed thinly.
THere were plenty of people who insisted real money deals aren't made at these meetings, that it is mostly just talk and contacts. "It's so American to think in terms of deals," said an American named Louis Riggio, a Wall Street analyst for Nomura Securities International, a Japanese firm. "You want to think people come up with wads of fresh-minted money in a suitcase and say, 'Hey, buddy, I want to make a deal.'"
Still, there were some who said it was almost like that, Ahmet D. Arsan, vice president of the Asia Pacific division of the First National Bank of Chicago, came to the meeting to close just one deal, he said. He wouldn't say what it was, or with whom, but that he had accomplished it that afternoon, on a handshake. Now he was in a cab heading to Dulles.
"I came all the way from Hong Kong," he said. "I got what I came for. It was worth it. Now I'm going home."