'Go for the Jugular'

By Sebastian Mallaby
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The collapse of Greece's economy, and its domino effect on Spain, Portugal, and other countries in the euro currency zone, is in many ways a replay of an earlier financial crisis--the break-up of the continent's Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Then, as now, Europe's policymakers showed little patience with--or understanding of--markets. Then, as now, Germany often seemed contemptuous of  the less competitive economies on the periphery of Europe.

The 1992 crisis came to a head on Friday September 9, when currency speculators forced the devaluation of the Italian lira. By the following Tuesday, Britain was facing the same fate. In this excerpt from More Money Than God, his new history of hedge funds, Sebastian Mallaby tells the story of the crisis from inside the cockpit of George Soros's Quantum Fund. 

On Tuesday, September 15, the pound took another beating. Spain's finance minister telephoned Norman Lamont, his British counterpart, to ask him how things were. "Awful," Lamont answered.

That evening Lamont convened a meeting with Robin Leigh-Pemberton, the governor of the Bank of England. The two men agreed that the central bank should buy the pound aggressively the next morning. As the meeting wound down, Leigh-Pemberton read out a message from his press office. Helmut Schlesinger, the president of the German Bundesbank, had given an interview to the Wall Street Journal and a German financial newspaper, Handelsblatt. According to a news agency report on his remarks, Schlesinger believed there would have to be a broad realignment of Europe's currencies.

Lamont was stunned. Schlesinger's remark was tantamount to calling for the pound to devalue. Already his public statements had triggered an assault on Italy's lira. Now the German central banker  was attacking Britain. Lamont asked Leigh-Pemberton to call Schlesinger immediately, overruling Leigh-Pemberton's concern that the punctilious Bundesbanker did not like to have his dinner interrupted.

After several conversations, Leigh-Pemberton reported that Schlesinger believed there was no cause for alarm. His comments were not "authorized," and he would check the article and issue an appropriate statement when he reached his office in the morning. Lamont protested that this was a dangerously leisurely response. Schlesinger's purported comments were already on news wires; traders in New York and Asia would react overnight; Schlesinger needed to issue a denial quickly. But Germany's monetary master refused to be hurried. He was not going to adapt to a world of 24-hour trading.

That night, Lamont went to bed knowing that the next day would be difficult. But he could not imagine how difficult.

Stan Druckenmiller, the chief portfolio manager at George Soros's Quantum Fund, read Schlesinger's comments on Tuesday afternoon in New York. He didn't care whether they were "authorized;" he reacted immediately. Schlesinger had made it obvious that the Bundesbank was not going to help the pound cling onto its position inside the exchange-rate mechanism by cutting German interest rates. The devaluation of sterling was now all but inevitable.

Druckenmiller walked into Soros's office and told him it was time to move. He had held a $1.5 billion bet against the pound since August, but now the endgame was coming and he would build on the position steadily.

Soros listened and looked puzzled. "That doesn't make sense," he objected.

"What do you mean?" Druckenmiller asked.

Well, Soros responded, if the Schlesinger quotes were accurate, why just build steadily? "Go for the jugular," Soros advised him.

Druckenmiller could see that Soros was right: Indeed, this was the man's genius. Druckenmiller had done the analysis, understood the politics, and seen the trigger for the trade; but Soros was the one who sensed that this was the moment to go nuclear. When you knew you were right, there was no such thing as betting too much. You piled on as hard as possible.

For the rest of that Tuesday, Druckenmiller and Soros sold sterling to anyone prepared to buy from them. Normally they left it to their traders to execute orders, but this time they got on the phones themselves, searching for banks that would agree to take the other side of their orders. Under the rules of the exchange-rate mechanism, the Bank of England was obliged to accept offers to sell sterling, but this requirement only held during the trading day in London. With the Bank of England closed for business, it was a scramble to find buyers, particularly once word got around that Soros and Druckenmiller were selling crazily.

Late that day, the hedge-fund trader Louis Bacon called Stan Druckenmiller. The two talked about how the drama might play out, and Bacon said he was still finding ways to dump sterling.

"Really?" Druckenmiller blurted out. He told Bacon to wait, and a few seconds later Soros joined the call.

"Where did you get the market?" Soros demanded furiously.

Around 2 the next morning, Druckenmiller returned to the office. He wanted to be at his desk when London trading reopened and the Bank of England would be forced to resume purchases of sterling. Before he had even taken his coat off, Soros checked in by telephone. Druckenmiller hit the speaker button, and his boss's disembodied East European accent filled the office, urging him to redouble sales of the British currency.

When the markets opened in London, the Bank of England did its best to boost sterling, acting on the plan that Lamont had authorized the previous evening. It intervened twice before 8:30 AM, each time buying £300 million. But the buying had absolutely no effect. Druckenmiller was manning his cockpit on the other side of the Atlantic, clamoring to sell sterling by the billion. The Bank of England carried on intervening, not realizing how completely it was outgunned. By 8:40 AM it had purchased a total of £1 billion, but sterling still refused to budge. Ten minutes later, Lamont told Prime Minister John Major that intervention was failing. Britain would have to raise interest rates in order to protect sterling.

To Lamont's frustration, Major refused to authorize a rate hike. He had been responsible for taking Britain into the exchange-rate mechanism. He feared that his credibility would collapse if the policy was seen to be failing; he might face a leadership challenge from a member of his own cabinet. Major pleaded that new economic data would come out later that day. He told Lamont to hang tough in the hope that the markets would subside eventually.

Every hour that went by, hedge funds and banks sold more sterling to the Bank of England, which was being forced to load up on a currency that seemed sure to be devalued. Britain was presiding over a vast financial transfer from its long-suffering taxpayers to a global army of traders. At 10:30 AM Lamont called John Major again to urge a rise in interest rates.

While Lamont was calling the prime minister, British officials did their best to project confidence. Eddie George, the number two at the Bank of England, went ahead with a long scheduled meeting with David Smick, a financial consultant who fed political intelligence to Druckenmiller and Soros. Smick showed up at the Bank of England's exquisite building on Threadneedle Street to find George in apparently fine form, decked out in a checkered shirt and striped tie in the manner of a London banker. "We have it all under control," George said cheerily; in the extreme case, which was unlikely, to be sure, the Bank of England would raise interest rates by a full percentage point to see off the speculators. Smick wondered whether George understood the weight of the hedge-fund selling that was forcing down the value of the British currency. The avalanche had begun. It might be too late to stop it.

Smick summoned up his nerve and asked George straight out: "Aren't you worried that you may have slipped too far behind the curve on this thing?"

George betrayed a look of mild annoyance. He was about to respond when the telephone rang. After a minute of intense conversation, he hung up.

"I've learned we've just raised interest rates by two hundred basis points," he said softly--a full two percentage points. Then he rose and shook Smick's hand and left the room running.

Lamont's plea to the prime minister had succeeded this time, and the announcement of the dramatic rate hike had been set for 11 AM. A few minutes before the appointed hour, Lamont walked over to his outer office at the Treasury to watch the Reuters screen. But when the announcement came, the pound did not respond at all. The line on the screen remained totally flat. Lamont felt like a surgeon who looks at a heart monitor and realizes that his patient has expired. All that remained was to unplug the system.

Lamont knew he had to take Britain out of the exchange-rate mechanism. But this would require the prime minister's approval, and Major was not immediately available. Lamont had his staff call Major's office repeatedly to stress the urgency of a meeting, but no audience was granted. Eventually Lamont led a team of advisers over to Admiralty House, the fine Georgian building that was serving temporarily as the prime ministerial residence; there they waited for at least another quarter of an hour before Major would see them. Lamont calculated that the nation was losing hundreds of millions of pounds every few minutes, but his boss looked annoyingly relaxed. He began the meeting by wondering aloud whether there was room for further financial diplomacy with Germany, then added that several other government ministers would shortly be joining the meeting. A meandering discussion ensued. Could Britain withdraw from the exchange-rate mechanism without offending its European partners? If it did withdraw, would there be calls for ministers' resignations? It became clear that Major's objective was to share responsibility for the crisis with the other people in the room--"we were there to put our hands in the blood," one minister later commented. It was a shrewd maneuver, and from Major's perspective, it served to neutralize potential rivals to his throne. Meanwhile, Druckenmiller and Soros were adding to their positions.

The Admiralty House meeting broke up without the decision to quit the exchange-rate mechanism that Lamont had wanted. Instead, Major insisted on another interest rate hike--this time of three additional percentage points, effective the next day--as a last ditch effort to save sterling. Again, Lamont watched the news break on the Reuters screen. Again, there was no effect on sterling's value. At their desks on the other side of the Atlantic, Druckenmiller and Soros saw the rate hikes as an act of desperation by a dying man. They were a signal that the end was nigh--and that it was time for one last push to sell the life out of the British currency.

Lamont proceeded to warn his fellow finance ministers in Europe of sterling's plight. His Italian counterpart, Piero Barucci, suggested that, rather than quitting the exchange-rate mechanism unilaterally, Lamont suspend markets to give himself time to negotiate a realignment with other European governments. Lamont had to point out that it is not in the power of a modern finance minister to suspend currency markets that trade continuously and globally.

That evening, Lamont called a press conference in the Treasury's central courtyard. At 7:30 p.m., facing a massive battery of TV cameras from all over the world, he announced Britain's exit from the exchange-rate mechanism.

The markets had won, and the government had at last recognized it.

Adapted from More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite, to be published by the Penguin Press on June 14.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/06/go-for-the-jugular/57696/