The Man Nobody Wanted to Hear Global Banking Economist Warned of Coming Crisis
Part 2: Prima Donnas of the Banking World
The BIS is a closed organization owned by the 55 central banks. The heads of these central banks travel to the Basel headquarters once every two months, and the General Meeting, the BIS's supreme executive body, takes place once a year. The central bankers -- from Alan Greenspan and his successor Ben Bernanke, to German Bundesbank President Axel Weber and Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) -- are fond of the Basel meetings. When they arrive, the BIS's dark office building at Centralbahnhof 2 in Basel suddenly comes alive. Secretaries inhabit the otherwise deserted offices of the governors, stenographers and chauffeurs stand at the ready and dark limousines wait outside.
The penthouse at the top of the building, with its magnificent view of Basel, is decorated for the annual dinner, the nuclear shelter in the basement is swept out and the wine cellar is restocked with the best wines. At the BIS's private country club, gardeners prepare the tennis courts as if a Grand Slam tournament were about to be held there. The losers of matches can find comfort in the clubhouse, where the Indonesian guest chef serves up Asian delicacies à la carte.
"Central bankers can sometimes be prima donnas," says former BIS Secretary General Gunter Baer. He remembers the commotion that erupted at one of the annual events when it became known that a certain vintage of Mouton Rothschild was unavailable.
The corridors of the BIS headquarters buildings are lined with retro white leather chairs and sofas from the 1970s. The round table where the delegates address the problems of the global economy is polished to a high gloss. But the most impressive space of all is the auditorium, with its modern armchairs in white leather and chrome, the thousands of tiny LED lights, the booths in the back where the interpreters sit behind one-way glass, and the console where the financial masters of the world do their work, centrally positioned at the front of the room. The room is evocative of the control room in "Star Trek." It was supposed to be the hub from which the financial world was to be guided through every possible hazard.
Naturally, the building is largely bugproof, the goal being to prevent anything from leaking to the outside and any unauthorized individuals from penetrating into its interior. There are no public minutes of the meetings. Everything that is discussed there is confidential. The word transparency is unknown at the BIS, where nothing is considered more despicable than an indiscreet central banker.
Central bankers, proud of their independence, are intent on holding themselves above all partisan influences while taking all necessary measures to keep the global economy healthy.
These traits make the BIS one of the world's most exclusive and influential clubs, a sort of Vatican of high finance. Formally registered as a stock corporation, it is recognized as an international organization and, therefore, is not subject to any jurisdiction other than international law.
It does not need to pay tax, and its members and employees enjoy extensive immunity. No other institution regulates the BIS, despite the fact that it manages about 4 percent of the world's total currency reserves, or 217 trillion ($304 trillion), as well as 120 tons of gold.
"Our strength is that we have no power," says BIS Secretary General Peter Dittus. "Our meetings are generally not oriented toward decision-making. Instead, their value consists in the exchange of views." There are no across-the-board agreements on the order of: "Let's raise the prime rate by a point." Opinions take shape in a much more subtle fashion, through something resembling osmosis.
Central bankers are not elected by the people but are appointed by their governments. Nevertheless, they wield power that exceeds that of many political leaders. Their decisions affect entire economies, and a single word from their lips is capable of moving financial markets. They set interest rates, thereby determining the cost of borrowing and the speed of global financial currents.
Their greatest responsibility is to prevent a bank or market crash from jeopardizing the viability of the financial system and, with it, the real economy. It is no accident that central bankers are also in charge of bank supervision in most countries.
But this time they failed miserably. How could this community of central bankers, despite its access to insider information, have so seriously underestimated the dangers? And why on earth did it not intervene?
"Somehow everybody was hoping that it won't go down as long as you don't look at the downside," William White told SPIEGEL. "Similar to the comic figure Wile E. Coyote, who rushes over a cliff, keeps running and only falls when he looks into the depth. Of course, this is nonsense. One falls, because there is an abyss."
But why did they all refuse to recognize the abyss? Why did the central bankers, of all people -- those whose actions are above profit expectations, shareholder pressure and the need to please voters -- keep their eyes tightly shut? Did they too succumb to the general herd instinct?
"As long as everything goes well, there is a great reluctance to (make) any kind of change," says White. "This behavior is deeply rooted in the human mind."
White calls it the human factor. And that factor had a name: Alan Greenspan.