Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000
A B A L K A N E N C O U N T E R: |
The Temptations of the Cash
Strange, penumbral, characters roam the boardrooms of banks in the countries in transition. Some of them pop up from apparently nowhere, others are very well connected and equipped with the most excellent introductions. They all peddle financial transactions which are too good to be true and often are. In the unctuously perfumed propinquity of their Mercedes-driving, Rolex-waving entourage - the polydipsic natives dissolve in their irresistible charm and the temptations of the cash: mountainous returns on capital, effulgent profits, no collateral, track record, or business plan required. Total security is cloyingly assured.
These Fausts roughly belong to four tribes:
These are the shabby operators of the marginal shadows of the world of finance. They broker financial deals with meretricious sweat only to be rewarded with their meagre, humiliated fees. Most of their deals do not materialize. The principle is very simple:
They approach a bank, a financial institution, or a borrower and say: "We are connected to banks or financial institutions in the West. We can bring you money in the form of credits. But to do that you must first express interest in getting this money. You must furnish us with a bank guarantee/promissory note/letter of intent that indicates that you desire the credit and that you are willing to provide a liquid financial instrument to back it up."
Having obtained such instruments, the shoppers begin to "shop around." They approach banks and financial institutions (usually, in the West). This time, they reverse their text: "We have an excellent client, a good borrower. Are you willing to lend to it?" An informal process of tendering ensues. Sometimes it ends in a transaction and the shopper collects a small commission (between one quarter of a percentage point and two percentage points - depending on the amount). Mostly it doesn't - and the Flying Dutchman resumes his wanderings looking for more venal gluttony and less legal probity.
These are crooks who set up elaborate schemes ("sting operations") to extract money from unsuspecting people and financial institutions. They establish "front" or "phantom" firms and offices throughout the world. They tempt the gullible by offering them enormous, immediate, tax-free, effort-free profits.
They let the victims profit in the first round or two of the scam. Then, they sting: the victims invest money and it evaporates together with the dishonest operators. The "offices" are deserted, the fake identities, the forged bank references, the falsified guarantees are all exposed (often with the help of an inside informant).
Probably the most famous and enduring scam is the "Nigerian-type Connection." Letters - allegedly composed by very influential and highly placed officials - are sent out to unsuspecting businessmen. The latter are asked to make their bank accounts available to the former, who profess to need the third party bank accounts through which to funnel the sweet fruits of corruption.
The account owners are promised huge financial rewards if they collaborate and if they bear some minor-by-comparison up-front costs. The con-men pocket these "expenses" and vanish. Sometimes, they even empty the accounts of their entire balance as they evaporate.
A lot of cash goes undeclared to tax authorities in countries in transition. The informal economy (the daughter of both criminal and legitimate parents) comprises between 15 percent (in Slovenia) and 50 percent (in Russia and Macedonia) of the official one. Some say these figures are a deliberate and ferocious understatement. These are mind-boggling amounts, which circulate between financial centres and the off-shore havens of the world: Cyprus, the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein (Vaduz), Panama and dozens of aspiring laundrettes.
The money thus smuggled is kept in low-yielding cash deposits. To escape the cruel fate of inflationary corrosion, it has to be re-invested. It is stealthily re-introduced to the very economy that it so sought to evade, in the form of investment capital or other financial assets (loans and credits). Its anxious owners are preoccupied with legitimising their stillborn cash through the conduit of tax-fearing enterprises, or with lending it to the same.
The emphasis is on the word: "legitimate." The money surges in through mysterious and anonymous foreign corporations, via off-shore banking centres, even through respectable financial institutions (the Bank of New York we mentioned?). It is easy to recognize a laundering operation. Its hallmark is a pronounced lack of selectivity. The money is invested in anything and everything, as long as it appears legitimate.
Diversification is not sought by these nouveaux tycoons and they have no core investment strategy. They spread their illicit funds among dozens of disparate economic activities and show not the slightest interest in the putative yields on their investments, the maturity of their assets, the quality of their newly acquired businesses, their history, or real value. Never the sedulous, they pay exorbitantly for every manner of prestidigital endeavours. The future prospects and other normal investment criteria are beyond them. All they are after is a mirage of glittering success.
This is the most intriguing group. Normative, law abiding, businessmen, who stumbled across methods to secure excessive yields on their capital and are looking to borrow their way into increasing it. By cleverly participating in bond tenders, by devising ingenious option strategies, or by arbitraging - yields of up to 300 percent can be collected in the immature markets of transition without the normally associated risks. This sub-species can be found mainly in Russia and in the Balkans.
Its members often buy sovereign bonds and notes at discounts of up to 80 percent of their face value. Russian obligations could be had for less in August 1998 as could Macedonian ones during the Kosovo crisis. In cahoots with the issuing country's central bank, they then convert the obligations to local currency at par (that is at 100 percent of their face value).
The difference makes, needless to add, for an immediate and hefty profit, yet it is in (often worthless and vicissitudinous) local currency. The latter is then hurriedly disposed of (at a discount) and sold to multinationals with operations in the country of issue, which are in need of local tender. This fast operation becomes an almost addictive avocation.
Intoxicated by this pecuniary nectar, the fortunate, those privy to the secret, try to raise more capital by hunting for financial instruments they can convert to cash in Western banks. A bank guarantee, a promissory note, a confirmed letter of credit, a note or a bond guaranteed by the Central Bank - all will do as deposited collateral against which a credit line is established and cash is drawn.
The cash is then invested in a new cycle of inebriation to yield fantastic profits. It is easy to identify these "investors." They eagerly seek financial instruments from almost any local bank, no matter how suspect. They offer to pay for these coveted documents (bank guarantees, bankers' acceptances, letters of credit) either in cash or by lending to the bank's clients and this within a month or more from the date of their issuance.
They agree to "cancel" the locally issued financial instruments by offering a "counter-financial-instrument" (safe-keeping receipt, contra-guarantee, counter promissory note, etc.). This "counter-instrument" is issued by the very Prime World or European Bank in which the locally issued financial instruments are deposited as collateral.
Investors invariably confidently claim that the financial instrument issued by the local bank will never be presented or used (which is true) and that this is a risk-free transaction (which is not entirely so). If they are forced to lend to the bank's clients, they often ignore the quality of the credit takers, the yields, the maturities and other considerations which normally tend to interest lenders very much.
Whether a financial instrument cancelled by another is still valid, presentable and should be honoured by its issuer is still debated. In some cases it is clearly so. If something goes horribly (and rarely, admittedly) wrong with these transactions - the local bank stands to suffer, too.
It all boils down to a terrible hunger, the kind of thirst that can be quelled only by the denominated liquidity of lucre. In the post nuclear landscape of this part of the world, a fantasy is shared by both predators and prey. Circling each other in marble temples, they switch their roles in dizzying progression. Tycoons and politicians, industrialists and bureaucrats all vie for the attention of Mammon.
The shifting coalitions of well-groomed men in back stabbed suits, a hallucinatory carousel of avarice and guile. But every circus folds and every lunar park is destined to shut down. The dying music, the frozen accounts of the deceived, the bankrupt banks, the Jurassic Park of skeletal industrial beasts - a muted testimony to a wild age of mutual assured destruction and self-deceit. The future of Eastern and Southeast Europe. The present of Russia, Albania and Yugoslavia.
Dr Sam Vaknin, 6 March 2000
The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.
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