Three cheers for scary George

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2001, 12:00am

George Soros, he's my man.

If he can't do it no one can.

And he certainly did do it, for which we may all be grateful.

The fear of him alone was a major factor in breaking down the market-rigging practices of Asian governments in 1997, and for that he deserves three big cheers.

This is not the assessment you will read in most newspaper accounts of him.

He is vilified everywhere as an evil speculator, a monster who has worsened the burdens of the poor around the world.

Death threats forced him to cancel a trip to Thailand recently.

To hear it from the placard wavers, he leads a cabal of greedy international opportunists who make themselves wealthy by regularly plunging poor countries into recession and whose depredations caused the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

It is not so. He rather represents a breed of investor who seeks out economic inefficiencies around the world and forces the people who create these inefficiencies, invariably governments, to confront the inevitable outcome of their incompetence at an earlier date than foreseeable events would otherwise do it.

Economic hardship undoubtedly results from this, but economic catastrophe is averted. People who call Mr Soros a monster have their villains confused. He is in fact a monster-slayer. The real monsters are the politicians for whom they vote.

But few of these politicians are honest or intelligent enough to admit to their own monstrosities. Mr Soros as a wealthy foreigner is an easy target on which to inflict their populist venom.

He makes money from his raids, does he not? Yes, he probably does but it is only a fraction of what his services to their constituents are worth.

Take two Asian examples. In the early-1990s Malaysia's central bank, Bank Negara Malaysia, made itself a reputation as the world's wildest currency speculator. It staked huge bets on forex markets with the hard-won public savings of a poor country.

Finally, like so many gamblers, it took a wild toss too many, betting massively in 1993 that sterling would stay in the European Monetary Union. Mr Soros made the opposite bet (with private money and a cooler head) and proved right.

Then, when Bank Negara pushed the Malaysian ringgit down in the last days of 1993 in order to disguise the resulting losses in its 1993 accounts, with foreign currency translation gains booked in artificially depressed ringgit terms, he was on to it in a flash and made the opposite bet again.

He actually lost money on that occasion when the Malaysian Government tilted the playing field against him, but he succeeded marvellously in exposing the silly games of Malaysia's central bankers. They lost their country billions. If Mr Soros had not stopped them in time it could have been tens of billions.

Take Thailand. It is an axiom of economics, whatever school you choose, that if a country dictates both its interest rates and its exchange rate while leaving its borders open to capital flows, it is turning up the flames under a pressure cooker with a jammed safety valve. The longer it lasts the bigger the inevitable explosion will be.

Thailand did it for more than 10 years and you may wonder in fact why Mr Soros and his 'cabal' did not help alleviate some of the pain of that explosion by forcing it to happen sooner, with less damage.

Ordinary Thais nonetheless have reason to thank the cabal for doing it eventually.

One shudders to think of the hell to which the Thai economy would be consigned if the baht were still rigged today.

So when you hear people raving against Mr Soros, just ask yourself whether the brain wiring they need to make a judgment has not all been plugged into their mouths instead.