Category Archives: finance

When Journalism Works

One year ago, a group of financial and political journalists put their heads together to tackle a very onerous task: raise awareness about what is happening on the highly influential island of Jersey – the largest of the Channel Islands, a global tax shelter of some stature and a so-called “peculiar possession” of the British Crown known for its sailing and golfing, as well as hiding money and committing unspeakable crimes against children.

The goal was threefold: restore my U.K. visa, eliminate a travel ban initiated by Jersey to keep me off the island and, most importantly, see to it that the children who were victimized for decades at the Jersey children’s home Haut de la Garenne – nearly 200 of whom are still alive to tell their tale – were no longer willfully ignored.

Today, I am very happy to report that all three of those objectives have been reached, thanks to a group of intrepid journalists whom I am honored to call colleagues.

Because of them, I have just returned from my first trip to the U.K. and Jersey since my 500-day travel ban and warmly welcomed by U.K. Parliament.

Journalists from The Guardian, BBCSunday Express and VICE magazine, in addition to Jersey’s Team Voiceled by citizen journalist-cum-bloggers, Neil McMurray and Rico Sorda, contributed to my pieces on this blog and in CNN/Fortunepaving the way for the first glimmer of real hope for Jersey’s victims and the start of what may soon be some palpable changes on this idyllic island – a place that, while living in London, was my home away from home.

Politicians in both the U.K. and on the island also have put in long hours to bring these issues to the forefront.

Journalists for Jersey

Right after arriving in London on my visit, I was able to meet and personally thank the Member of Parliament most responsible for restoring my visa, John Hemming. Because of him, I received the first “writer visa” to be issued by Great Britain in years.

While the reasons for my travel ban remain under investigation (this is rather awkward, as it consists of the U.K. government effectively investigating itself) the MP and I had a chance to catch up at the Palace of Westminster, sit out on the back terrace overlooking the Thames and film this. 

My trip to Jersey brought me a still warmer welcome. Many of the islanders stopped to ask questions, the politicians had news to share and, dining out, some of the restaurant owners came by my table to shake my hand. It was a truly humbling experience.

Hope For Jersey

As for the promising changes on the island of Jersey: this week, members of Jersey’s parliament voted unanimously for a senior U.K. judge to lead a £6 million Committee of Inquiry into the island’s legacy of atrocities against children. The significance of this cannot be overstated. One year ago, it looked as though the inquiry would never get off the ground. The fact that Jersey’s legislators were unanimous in casting their votes after years of infighting and objections means they finally realize the island must give this matter a proper airing.

The reason the inquiry has taken some time is somewhat understandable. Jersey’s economic position is delicate… Continue reading When Journalism Works

Celebrating One-Year Anniversary Of My UK Ban

Last picture in Jersey (before being banned)

Feeling grateful for supporters in the UK and around the world who have demanded my UK travel ban be overturned. Because of you — and the help of UK Member of Parliament John Hemming, it expires today.

To mark the ban’s one-year anniversary, Trevor Pitman, member of the parliament of Jersey (the British Crown dependency where I was conducting research before I got the boot) launched a petition on Change.org, urging the UK government to restore my UK Tier-1 visa.

Without this, it is unlikely I will be able to finish my work. Please, if you believe in defending a free press, take 10 seconds to sign this petition. Surrounded by ocean, Jersey has been isolated in its struggle for a free and fair democracy for far too long. It should be able to welcome journalists, not ban them.

#FreeJersey: A Small Island Fights For Its Democracy

The Jewel Of The Channel Islands

Almost everyone has heard of New Jersey, but few people have heard of “old” Jersey — the 5-by-9-mile island just off the coast of France that belongs to the British Crown and is best known for its wonderful Jersey cream, cows and potatoes.

What it is less known for: Jersey stows more tax-shelter money than any other offshore financial center on the planet.  (That’s right, more than the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, the British Virgin Islands, you name it.) In fact, name any global bank or quote-unquote paragon of finance and it will almost certainly have some kind of presence here.

For hundreds of years, Jersey was torn asunder by the territorial pissings of England and France — an accident of geography, really, since the island lies in the English Channel between the two countries. As a result, its roads all have very long, ornate French names, but the people of the island speak the Queen’s English.

Another result: the island has an institutional memory of war, not excluding its status as a major base for Germany in WWII (which regarded Jersey as a great jumping-off point for the final showdown it was planning with Britain). Because of this, Jersey has learned to be extremely wary of outsiders.

Jersey: Tiny, But Complicated

Jersey is a self-governing, parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy with its own financial, legal and judicial systems. Its currency is pegged to the British pound, but it prints its own money, votes for its own senators and makes its own laws. Indeed, Jersey has an extremely polished external image that has earned it a very high ranking among the world’s tax havens, but internally its democracy appears to be foundering.

As someone who fell in love with Jersey when I was living in the UK, I have friends on the island and found myself looking into the problems there. A flashpoint in my research was the scandal surrouding an orphanage called Haut de la Garenne, where unspeakable violence, abuse and possible murder took place against children for decades — and yet the government did not stop it. An investigation finally undertaken in 2008 was shut down and the chief of police was suspended — twice — which seemed gratuitous. Those who stood accused largely went untried, but when the island’s health minister objected to this — and would not stop objecting — he was jailed. Also twice. Some of those who were labeled “priority suspects” by the island’s police are now working in high-level government positions in health and education where they continue to have indefensible access to children.

Jersey’s Campaign

Exactly one year ago today, I was banned from the UK as a result of my research into these events. I have continued my work from the U.S. and have had many outstanding supporters in the UK who have kept me going. Among them are Deputy Trevor Pitman, a member of Jersey’s Parliament, who put up a petition today in support of my return. If you believe in the power of the press and the right of even a very small, insular island to stand up for its democracy, please sign this petition (ten seconds) and spread the word. My ability to do my job in this case depends on it.

Today, my travel ban will expire due to the efforts of UK Member of Parliament John Hemming. But I will not be able to work safely until my UK visa is restored. Hence, the reason for Deputy Pitman’s petition (which, if you haven’t signed it yet, again, here it is: http://chn.ge/QCp7qy).

In addition, a group of Jersey citizens — including bloggers, current and former elected officials and concerned residents of the island — have issued a statement of solidarity this afternoon. It is their hope that by joining forces online, where they can best reach the international community for help and support, they can make a stand in defense of their island’s democracy. Featured on the Web site of Neil McMurray, one of the lead bloggers, I have posted their statement here:

Jersey’s Citizen Solidarity

Today is not a day to focus on right-wing versus left-wing politics, but the difference between right and wrong.

When a democratic government abuses its substantial legal, legislative and financial powers to crack down on journalists’ freedom of speech, force policemen and elected officials from their jobs and systemically dismantle its own checks and balances so as to deny each of its targets due process, clearly it is a government that has lost its way.

Jersey, the jewel in the crown of the Channel Islands, may be one of the world’s leading offshore financial centres, but it has begun to use its clout against its own people –and it is keeping the rest of its population in the dark about it. This is now a place where court and legislative records – those that are public anyway – can now be redacted. This is an island where secret trials are now allegedly taking place and elected officials are forced to debate key issues in secret. Web content is banned and journalists booted out. This is not the way a democratic government is supposed to be run.

Again, this is not about politics. It is about standing up for truth, honesty and integrity. It is about restoring the good name of our beautiful island whose reputation has been dragged through the mud by those attempting to cover-up the facts surrounding some of the most heinous crimes known to man – crimes of violence against children. Crimes the vast majority of islanders would never defend, yet most of those who stand accused of committing them have not been brought to justice and continue to walk among us and our children. Worse, these alleged perpetrators remain entrenched in some of the very highest echelons of Jersey’s government –working in departments that focus on children. It is beyond comprehensible.

On an island where children in need of care have been let down by the government for decades – and continue to be let down – we cannot afford to ignore or repeat our mistakes. More broadly, challenging the government’s current decisions, particularly when not made in the best interest of the public, should not require bottomless financial resources and friends in high places. We are supposed to be a democracy, right?

With our checks and balances hamstrung, the international and independent media may be our last chance at reclaiming our democracy and re-establishing rule of law.

Today, Jersey politician Deputy Trevor Pitman launched an e-petition on Change.org in support of the return of U.S. investigative journalist and author, Leah McGrath Goodman, to the island to continue her research into decades of child abuse at Jersey’s state-run “care”homes and allegations of cover-ups in the wake of the government’s removal of the chief of police and shut-down of the investigation.

One year ago today, Ms. Goodman was banned from the UK and Jersey for two years after revealing to the Jersey Customs and Immigration Service during a voluntary meeting that she was writing a book on atrocities against children at Haut de la Garenne. According to the UK Border Force, she was flagged by Jersey Immigration authorities for removal upon her next border crossing – and that is exactly what happened. After the intervention of UK Member of Parliament John Hemming, the ban was reduced to one year and it expires today, 11 September 2012. That said, the UK and Jersey have so far declined to restore Ms. Goodman’s visa or allow her cross the border to continue her research. In order to do so safely, she will need to have her Tier -1 visa status fully restored – hence, the reason for Deputy Pitman’s e-petition.

Leah McGrath Goodman should be permitted to complete her work in order that there is an accurate record based on the available facts and evidence. Jersey needs to confront the failings of its past so it can redress them and, most of all, ensure the safety of our children’s future.

We ask readers who care about the island’s children, who care about the island’s reputation, who believe in a free press and who want the truth to be told to sign Deputy Pitman’s e-petition. We also ask fellow bloggers to copy and paste this blog onto their own Web sites so that we may show the world that Jersey wants the best for its future and its children. It is time to leave our island’s culture of secrecy behind and demand the kind of free and open society our island deserves. Those who would do otherwise are not representative of the majority of islanders.

Please spread the word and sign this petition. The Internet is the one thing Jersey authorities have not been able to lock down. For those who tweet this campaign, please use the #FreeJersey hashtag.

While Jersey may try to keep journalists out, it cannot keep us for letting the truth in.

 

Anarchy In The UK?

Haut de la Garenne, Jersey, 2011

The following story was commissioned by The Guardian after I was detained, questioned and banned from the United Kingdom in the wake of research for my next book in the Channel Islands, a $1 trillion tax haven off the coast of England. Many of you have asked what I have been working on — this is what I have been working on. My misadventures, along with those of several others whose names I am honored to see mine beside, are cited in The Guardian’s print edition today. I am fine, although I may now be the only member of the London Speaker Bureau not allowed to speak in London. I will truly miss the UK’s savory fish pies.

When I was 29 and first embarking on my writing career in London, I discovered a beautiful island off the coast of England that I would return to many times in the years to come. Jersey not only has heavenly beaches and culinary delights, but the people of the island are some of the loveliest I have known. After a busy week in the City, a puddle-jump flight could see me there in less than an hour, soaking up the sun on the white sands under wildflower-draped cliffs. The island’s locals would sometimes hint that Jersey’s pristine exterior belied a dark side. But I couldn’t imagine it. How could a place with such warm people have a dark heart?

When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 with my first book contract, it came as a shock when I witnessed, from a distance, Jersey’s horrific child abuse scandal. Day after day for weeks, I watched the deputy chief of police, Lenny Harper, give interviews to a crush of international press outside the shuttered orphanage of Haut de la Garenne. Harper seemed increasingly alarmed over the human remains his team was finding inside, although what to make of them was hotly debated by the media.

The islanders, who are quiet people, were quietly devastated. The notion that, for decades, their children’ homes might have been used as a sexual cafeteria for the rich and privileged – as hundreds of the victims contended – was distasteful in the extreme. During the probe government officials repeatedly stated that they fully intended to run a thorough investigation. Yet, within months, Harper and his boss, the island’s head constable, Graham Power, had been smeared by the local newspaper, The Jersey Evening Post, as unfit for their jobs and driven from the island. Their main advocate, Senator Stuart Syvret – then-health minister and one of the island’s most popular politicians – also found himself under siege, eventually sacked and jailed twice. The cases made against each man were as flimsy as the headlines were flashy.

It seemed that anyone who attempted to stand up for Jersey’s underprivileged or conduct a proper investigation into their treatment soon found themselves in the fight of their lives.

Evidence found at Haut de la Garenne – including bones that were “fresh and fleshed” before being burned and dozens of children’s teeth with the roots still on them in the furnace area – was turned over to a new police chief who downplayed its significance but also admitted to throwing some of it out. As an investigative journalist, I found it hard to understand how this could possibly inspire confidence. It seemed the situation needed to be looked at by someone without an axe to grind or an ass to save.

After I passed in my first book, which also focused on cultures of corruption (The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked The World’s Oil Market, HarperCollins 2011) I began to travel to the UK on a regular basis to conduct interviews with the victims, senators and law-enforcement officials.

This is where my own troubles began… Continue reading Anarchy In The UK?

A Very Good Six Years

Today marks six years of writing as a free agent. When I hung out my shingle back in 2006, I wasn’t sure what it would be like to get up in the morning, walk into the next room (my office) and find my job waiting for me.

I wondered, would it be a matter of time before my writing turned into more of a hobby than a profession?

Actually, it was the other way around.

My home life, for a long time, disappeared. In its place was my writing life, only my writing life. During this time, the phone would ring at all hours with editors making frantic requests that frequently fell under the rubric of pie-in-the-sky. (This often would be something along the lines of, ‘We really love what you did with the contango piece, but do you think we could add a talking dog? We’d really love a talking dog.’ To which, I’d say, ‘Of course, how could I have forgotten the talking dog?’ And just as often as not, we’d never speak of it again.)

When I relocated to London, the New York editors’ calls would roll in past midnight. The hardnosed, salty-mouthed (usually male) editors were my favorite. I strongly preferred them to the pinched Barnard ladies who would fuss and fidget over every last accent aigu until their magazine was put to bed. It was a long time before I learned how to balance the steady stream of demands with a life that allowed for, among other things, regular meals, the occasional exposure to sunlight and sleep.

But it was worth it, because any topic I stumbled across I could make into a story. The world, I found, was full of maddeningly fascinating mysteries nobody else seemed to be noticing. On an Emirates flight to Dubai, I thought, how is it we are allowed to quaff champagne on a Muslim airline — and have Muslims serve us without breaking with their faith? This led to a series of feature-length articles on Islamic finance.

My first book proposal was written from snatches of time over many weekends, because it was impossible to do during the busy work week. Once I returned to New York in late 2008 with my first book deal, Wall Street was falling apart. Yet even with half the magazines I’d written for cratering, there were still plenty of stories to write about the crisis for the publications left standing.

Whether boom or bust, it has never been boring. This is the reason, I believe, so many executives on Wall Street can’t bring themselves to ever leave. Certainly, there is the realization that any sickness of mankind will be exacerbated there and duly amplified. That is unavoidable. But the genius is there too. There is a loneliness among the truly gifted that seems to find a home along the corridors of Wall Street.

I have talked to many people over the years who say they would like to leave. But for what? The money is good. But that’s not the main stumbling block. It’s more furtive than that. It’s a feeling that to remove oneself from the vortex of power would be to forevermore live life in the outback. The vortex is addictive. And, ultimately, it’s not really about the money. It’s about being an insider. To leave would be to become an outsider.

Unless, that is, you leave for politics. Because the fight here is not for money, but personal relevance.

Even for mere Wall Street writers, this is true (despite the fact financial journalists are outsiders by definition). I could very well write about art and wine and great, great literature. Sometimes I do. But artists and vintners and writers will never be as interesting as the people I talk to on Wall Street. Sooner or later I am going to ask a vintner how much artisan wine is pressed in California annually or what the yearly cash flow is of an average vineyard and I will get a blank stare. Faced with a dearth of quantitative facts, I cannot help but be crestfallen.

On the other hand, Wall Street is never so banal. One of my favorite hedge fund managers is into extragalactic physics and biblical textual analysis. Not for any reason. Just for fun. How can any writer walk away from that?

I was raised by an English teacher and an artist. They did all could to ensure that I would never be interested in finance. They discouraged me from taking an unwholesome interest in balance sheets, Beige Books, black swans.

But as soon as I found out about triple witching, it was all over.

 

 

PAST PERFORMANCE IS NECESSARILY INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS

S also stands for 'sinister,' 'scurrilous' and 'slippery'

It met rarely and whined often. It gave up before the actual deadline (Nov. 23). It sought to shear over a trillion off the national budget, but came up with peanuts. It inspired satire in the form of, among other things, superhero cartoons. It was the “supercommittee.” For these reasons and so many more, America’s elite political body truly lived up to its name in that was super-lame.

This again proves that when Congress gets together and can’t make a deal, guess what? Moving the date back and getting together again — on the taxpayers’ dime, replete with catered lunches — still doesn’t lead to a deal. Funny how that works.

Whenever confronted with the need to make an actual decision, Congress prefers instead to commence lengthy studies, probing inquiries and cerebral surveys — all of which require much munching and lunching and the drinking of fresh coffee and spring water — that rack up bills yet infrequently give rise to any answers… Continue reading PAST PERFORMANCE IS NECESSARILY INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS

How To Make Someone Else Swallow Your Losses, The Mastercourse

It’s official: when a Wall Street powerhouse suddenly collapses and (possibly) more than a billion dollars goes missing, it’s no longer just the ordinary taxpayer’s problem. Now, it has moved up the chain. Below, the piece I wrote today for Fortune on what traders do when you misappropriate their money.

While Occupy Wall Street was holding its two-month anniversary rally in Manhattan last week, traders were quietly mounting a rather more sophisticated version of OWS on their own. Call it Occupy Wall Street Bankruptcy Court.

FORTUNE — Big institutional investors are getting a taste of what many frustrated taxpayers experienced during the financial crisis: Being on the hook for losses of a major financial firm against their wishes.

This time, of course, it’s MF Global at the center of the dispute. A once-trusted brokerage with roots dating back to the 1700s, MF Global is now a bankrupt firm suspected of misappropriating customer funds to the tune of at least $600 million.

More than two weeks after MF Global’s Halloween bankruptcy filing, there are more questions than answers and a surfeit of conflicts in an investigation that should be aiming to restore the public’s confidence, but is doing the opposite. On Monday, the bankruptcy trustee for the case announced that there may be much more than $600 million missing from MF Global accounts — perhaps as much as $1.2 billion.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of trading capital and collateral were frozen without notice, dramatically disrupting the derivatives marketplace and ushering in a phalanx of federal prosecutors, regulatory agencies and forensic accountants working around the clock to determine where the missing money is. This, after a lawyer for MF Global assured a New York judge earlier this month “there is no shortfall.”

What’s different about this case?  One hedge fund executive summed it up best: “What is scary about MF Global is that there is no political will in this country to look out for people. Let this be a lesson that, if someone tries to steal from you, there is no one who is going to save you. I mean it is literally the most frightening thing that can happen in finance.”

Led by a sense of outrage — as well as the conviction that if they don’t look out for themselves, no one else will — investors have been pooling information and banding together to defend themselves for weeks. Continue reading How To Make Someone Else Swallow Your Losses, The Mastercourse

Good News From Francis, The Lamp Man

Leg up?

Sometimes there’s a need to find a good lamp guy. The guy the other lamp guys go to who really knows where it’s at. That guy is Francis Nowalk of Pittsburgh (or for those of you who want to get persnickety about it, Bloomfield, PA, the Little Italy of Pittsburgh).

Francis has a massive stone building that looks more like a cavernous school than a shop. In it, he keeps scores of lamps, old and new, on which he assiduously works with the help of big, heavy machines.

If you are nice to him, he’ll sneak you past a pair of handsome, leather-encased, brass-studded double doors in the back to his secret stash of high-end chandeliers.

I happen to be living on the second floor of a Victorian house in a Norman Rockwell town. During the day it is glorious, but at night it can be a little scary. Whenever I descend the long stair in the evening for wine on the porch with friends, I am unsettled by the pervasive darkness of the foyer. Perhaps it is the old-house vibes; perhaps it is just my imagination. But I don’t care for it. So I began looking into alternatives.

At the base of the bannister where the handrail terminates there used to be a Newel post lamp. In Victorian times, it just wasn’t enough for a balustrade to end, it had to finish off magnificently. As a result, it became a place for the layering of carved finials, lights and small-scale figural sculpture.

For me, the light part was what I was after. Continue reading Good News From Francis, The Lamp Man

Final Words From U.S. Bank Watchdog Sheila Bair

Castle on the Fuschlsee

Not all banks are the same. A handful of banks — such as the one that invited me to speak in Austria this autumn– were not happy to see the multibillion-dollar bailouts, the hue and cry of the public and the resumption of the indefensible bonuses on Wall Street that have, again, given banks a bad name.

I had never been to Salzburg before, so I was heartened to see another American there who had not been either: Sheila Bair, the outgoing head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the federal agency that insures bank deposits and unwinds the banks that fail. Bair has been very busy these past few years.

Bair was the only other female speaker in a sea of bank governors, finance ministers and consultants from a wide range of European nations. What united the group, however, was a sense of urgency in examining the origins of the global debt crisis and its possible solutions. A prominent boutique bank in central and eastern Europe, Erste Group, held a series of panel discussions at a private castle in the Alps on Lake Fuschlsee with provocative titles such as “Who needs banks?” (The answer, according to the moderator, was that we would like more “normal banks, banks that take our deposits and don’t try to gamble with them.”)

Ms. Bair offered her own pearls of wisdom in a keynote speech sizing up the banking system and the current state of the world’s financial affairs from the perspective of a Washington insider:

– On the highly popular banking credo of profits will be privatized; losses will be socialized: “There is still an issue with Wall Street’s perception of too big to fail,” Bair says. “The problem is, too big to fail is not over until Wall Street thinks it’s over. I have argued that the ratings agencies should not be rating banks more highly than they deserve, based on the expectation they will be bailed out. It is unfair for the taxpayers to have to put their money at risk again.”

– On bank bonuses: “We have got to do something about these huge bonuses…We are still seeing huge political movements based on the anger generated from this. We do need some tough love to address this.”

– On the fight over the U.S. debt ceiling (our nation, by the way, now owes over $54.5 trillion): “I am not going to defend our politicians…it was appalling, unnecessary and self-imposed,” Bair says, adding: “I am not going to defend it and I feel somewhat helpless about it. It’s a very sad situation.”

– On U.S. politicians primarily being driven by “short-term interests” and “the idea of driving decisions based on keeping your job” (her words): “It’s not like you get into public service for the money, so if you’re not doing the public good, it’s like, why are you doing this?'” Bair, who has worked for George Bush senior and Bob Dole — both military men — offered her suggestion for a better type of leader: those who have gone to war. “If you are willing to go to war for your country, then you’re not just willing to lose your job, you’re willing to sacrifice everything.”

– The prognosis for global growth and stability… Continue reading Final Words From U.S. Bank Watchdog Sheila Bair

Warren Buffett Has Some Choice Words For ‘Billionaire-Friendly Congress’

Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest man, hasn’t raked in his $50 billion-plus by  nursing a bleeding heart for the middle class.

In fact, those closest to him (I am talking about his kids and grandkids here) have personally told me the Seer of Omaha is as hard-nosed as they come. To him, playing the market is a game — and he wants to be the best on the planet. “Dad always says, ‘Bury me with a Ouija board, because when I die, I want to keep on playing,'” one of his sons told me in 2008.

Bottom line: this is not a man looking to be parted with his bucks.

And yet…when confronted with the Hieronymus Bosch painting of political and financial horrors of the past few years, he has felt the need to speak up about the wounds he feels are needlessly being inflicted on ordinary Americans.

In the following New York Times editorial, which should be read by one and all, he offers a brief economic education for those who seek to propagate the untruths ginned up by the deep thinkers in Washington to protect the wealthy from their worst horror of all — tax hikes.

Stop Coddling The Super-Rich

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me.

I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched. Continue reading Warren Buffett Has Some Choice Words For ‘Billionaire-Friendly Congress’