Forget about Tiny Rowland and his African adventures as an imperialist entrepreneur and dealmaker. The nastier face of capitalism has morphed into its 21st-century iteration: bankers. The idea that bankers are the world’s worst has been accepted and propagated by the left, setting up a dichotomy between “capitalism” and the power of the state. It may seem odd for someone like me to bash capitalism and entrepreneurship, but seeing what some ostensibly capitalist bankers and banks are doing these days, I can’t help but empathize with the “progressive” attempt to paint bankers as parasites on the world’s productive class.
A case in point is JP Morgan, one of the world’s most respected banks. Its operations in Venezuela amount to nothing more than a gigantic laundromat for crooks. There’s no added value, there’s no funding new ventures or contributing positively with wealth creation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Like in China, JP Morgan hires well-connected locals who cash in on their network of contacts to basically bleed the country. JP Morgan has been in the news a lot recently: its now infamous trader, nicknamed the “London whale” for the size of his trades, left a $6 billion hole on the books. The whale is perhaps the perfect case study of bankers gone bonkers, bankers who in the ever-encouraged culture of bonus chasing would put the best robber barons in history to shame. How can it be argued that a trader, with two other colleagues, is allowed to run a $6 billion loss without anyone noticing, or raising the alarm and putting an immediate stop to it?
Let me provide another example with which I have some familiarity, a Venezuelan one. From 2009 and in the space of 14 months, a fly-by-night outfit with zero prior experience known as Derwick Associates was granted 12 public contracts for the construction of power plants in Venezuela. The total amount of public money awarded is unknown: none of the contracts were obtained through an open bidding process. However estimates in Venezuelan newspapers last week suggest that total could exceed $3 billion. This is public money we’re talking about — not depositor cash. To get anything done, Derwick Associates would partner with American suppliers and contractors, such as ProEnergy Services and its subsidiary Energy Parts Solution. These partners in turn, would require payment on completion of work. And just how would a company managed by under-30-year-olds without a penny to their names pay millions to American subcontractors in a country where there are foreign exchange controls?
Enter JP Morgan. In China, JP Morgan hires the children of communist officials, they are known as “princelings.” Since Hugo Chavez left no children willing to go into banking, JP Morgan got the next best thing in Venezuela: children from well-to-do but utterly amoral families to exploit network of contacts built over a lifetime of collusion between politics and business. JP Morgan hired Eduardo Travieso, son of a renowed and respected lawyer by the same name. One of the Derwick execs, Pedro Trebbau Lopez, went to school with Travieso.
So, here’s a plausible, hypothetical sequence of events: 1) corrupt businessman (Trebbau) needs to pay American contractor (ProEnergy). Old friend Travieso is with JP Morgan, which has been pushing him to bring in new business. 2) Travieso offers JP Morgan’s services to Trebbau, then payments to American contractors are wired through JP Morgan. 3) Travieso earns a nice bonus 4) Trebbau bypasses Venezuelan foreign exchange controls and U.S. money laundering regulations. 5) JP Morgan gets a new client and makes a few quid along the way. And, off the books, Travieso is provided a payment from Derwick for laundering the Derwick cash. Enabling banks is the most important part of money laundering operations. Without Travieso neither Derwick nor ProEenergy nor JP Morgan could have profited from such murky deals.