Great American writer and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi has a new book out, Griftopia. It tells the story of America’s financial crisis and its outsourcing to various shady characters from across the world. Privatisation on speed (something I’m also examining in a forthcoming book):
In the summer of 2009 I got a call from an acquaintance who worked in the Middle East. He was a young American who worked for something called a sovereign wealth fund, a giant state-owned pile of money that swims around the world in search of things to buy.
Sovereign wealth funds, or SWFs, are huge in the Middle East. Most of the bigger oil-producing states have massive SWFs that act as cash repositories (with holdings often kept in dollars) for the revenues generated by, for instance, state-owned oil companies. Unlike the central banks of most Western countries, whose main function is to accumulate reserves in an attempt to stabilize the domestic currency, most SWFs have a mission to invest aggressively and generate huge long-term returns. Imagine the biggest and most aggressive hedge fund on Wall Street, then imagine that that same fund is fifty or sixty times bigger and outside the reach of the SEC or any other major regulatory authority, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what an SWF is.
My buddy was a young guy who’d come up working on the derivatives desk of one of the more dastardly American investment banks. After a few years of that he decided to take a step up morally and flee to the Middle East to go to work advising a bunch of sheiks on how to spend their oil billions.
Aside from the hot weather, it wasn’t such a bad gig. But on one of his trips home, we met in a restaurant and he mentioned that the work had gotten a little, well, weird.
“I was in a meeting where a bunch of American investment bankers were trying to sell us the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” he said. “They even had a slide show. They were showing these Arabs what a nice highway we had for sale, what the toll booths looked like . . .”
I dropped my fork. “The Pennsylvania Turnpike is for sale?”
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “We didn’t do the deal, though. But, you know, there are some other deals that have gotten done. Or didn’t you know about this?”