The Lung Brothers

Hanging out at the extreme end of the long tail ...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Economists Without Borders Work with Local Peasants to Build Much Needed Stock Exchange in Remote Himalayan Village

Billy Harmann was just another Ivy League Business School graduate wondering how to pad out his résumé before applying to the major Wall Street financial houses, when a friend of his put him onto Economists Without Borders. ‘Yeah, it was my buddy Josh Van Hatten IV who got me wise to the EWB. Told me it was pure pro bono gold. Any future job interviewer will automatically see that I’ve earned the necessary altruistic merit badge, but haven’t let it interfere with my single-minded career trajectory. Jeez, it’s almost as good as having a hospital wing named after you. So once I made sure that Josh wasn’t getting any head-hunting commission from the organization, I signed up.

Economistes Sans Frontiers in an allegedly non-profit NGO that was set up several decades ago as an international entrepreneurial watchdog. Its main objectives are to protest against financial injustices across the globe, be they free market violations, natural or man-made fiscal disasters and to criticize local government inaction when there are bottom-line abuses happening in developing nations. It also works in war zones where it attempts to rehabilitate economic institutions and continually lobbies international organizations to donate emergency capital and wealthcare. Its headquarters are in Geneva, although it also has international emergency offices in the Cayman Islands, Andorra and Dubai.

Billy was thrown in at the deep end with a two-week crash course in tropical disease treatments, all-weather survival techniques and business modelling for sub-subsistence micro-economies. ‘Within a month there was a team of eleven of us flying out to Kathmandu with the briefings of our field assignments tucked inside our Samsonites. Only two of us had any kind of experience in this type of work, so I can tell you, the nervous tension on board was palpable. And yet despite the butterflies in the stomach, there was a distinct feeling of unity and solidarity aboard. We were all here to do a job, in the name of something that we truly believed in, something that was far greater than any arduous trails that we may face in our endeavours. We were financitarians, and this was our calling.'

After a day and a half’s rickety bus ride into the mountains and a six-hour hike with a mule, Billy and his colleague Brenda Hillard-Schwarz arrived at the village that would be their home for the next six months.

‘Boy, we were expecting something primitive but nothing had prepared us for this! No mahogany tables, no leather swivel chairs and you should have seen their faces when Brenda asked where she could recharge her Mac. This certainly wasn’t going to be a picnic. Fortunately our training had prepared us for this and we managed to obtain the regular use a local farmer’s dung powered generator by threatening to foreclose on his farm. I admit, this was a bluff and might even be interpreted as being somewhat cruel and dishonest, but it was all for the greater good.

A quick market analysis showed that the equity exchange system of the village centred on a weekly livestock-hardware-service retail gathering known locally as the ‘Village Market’. Local shepherds would come down from the surrounding mountains and exchanged their milk and goats for grain or other needed supplies. Although national currency was available in the village, a great deal of business was based on the barter system, (something that made the squeamish Brenda wince). There seemed to be free movement of goods and services alright but where was the capital outlay? Real estate was generally in private hands, inheritance and family gift giving favoured over the more manageable mortgage system. Fortunately, the local urban zoning and planning permit allocation were governed with a refreshing laissez-faire attitude.

And the people! These were a people who had practically nothing but would share everything they owned with you. They would open their houses and allow you to dine with their families. Offer you a bed for the night and volunteer to escort you if you had a difficult journey to make. We would clearly have to stamp out this sinister attitude of festering socialism before our competition based project could have any chance of working.’

‘The big obstacle to progress was the village leader
,’ Billy told us, ‘an elderly figure, set in his ways and unwilling to bring the village on line with more advanced western fiscal practices. No matter how much I told him about venture capital, bonds, securities, hedge and mutual funding, he just wouldn’t listen and would always end up storming out of the room waving at us to leave.'

One day however, the village leader’s eldest son (who had also attended the meetings) stayed behind after his father had angrily fled the room. He had a puzzled but curious expression playing on his face. ‘Explain this investment thing to me again.’ he said, ‘Why is it better to have a piece of paper stating that I own a piece of meat than to have the piece of meat itself?’ Exasperated, Billy turned to him and said almost shouting ‘Look it’s quite simple. Give a man a goat and he will eat for a day – teach a man the concept of a goat as a piece of equity and his stock can appreciate forever. Get it!?’ There was a long pause and Billy feared that he had gone too far and offended the young man. But suddenly the face of the leader’s son broke into a broad smile and he shook Billy warmly by the hand. ‘Consider me on board. I’ve just got to run this by a few of my associates to see how it plays, and then I think we can put together a portfolio. Have your girl call my girl and we can do lunch next week. How does Wednesday work for you? Excellent. Later!’ Billy was then left in silence. But it was a serene and joyous silence, because he knew that this was the breakthrough he had been waiting for.

And breakthrough it was, because a week later the old leader’s body was recovered from the valley a thousand feet below. It appeared that he had accidentally stepped off the edge of the village while sleepwalking or at least that was the explanation his son gave to Billy before he walked off whistling loudly. Two weeks later, in a secret ballot, the son was voted as the new village leader and Billy was assigned the post of financial adviser.

‘Without delay, we set to work with the new village council (mostly personal friends of the new village Leader). So much time had been wasted already. At first it was quite an uphill struggle. Most of them were totally illiterate so I really had to improvise with my PowerPoint presentations. Our first priorities were improving the fiscal sanitation and insuring fresh currency supplies. We then set up a central bank in the village’s main square and established a credit system that was easily accessible to the locals. Before this, some of the region's women had to make a fifteen-mile round trip on foot just to borrow money.'

'The new leader (or MD as he now preferred to be called) showed an uncanny ability to think outside of the box and was proactive in practically all of the decision making of the board (as the council preferred to be called). He was always ready to go that extra mile, whether it be a feasibility study on the village’s sweatshop capability or the possibility of turning the council into a series of performance-based affiliate networks.'

'Needless to say, the day we replaced the archaic village market with the stock market, I was so nervous that I could barely sit still. When the trading began in goat futures, there was quite a lot of confusion. The open outcry system didn’t seem to bother the local shepherds as much as the electronic readout system that I'd had delivered the week before. Some of them had never seen moving lights before. Others didn’t understand why they couldn’t bring their animals into the trading hall. Finally though, with the help of the brokers (all of whom were coincidently members of the village council) the ball got rolling and stocks started moving. And the rest as they say is history.'

Three months later when their project time was up and they had to return home, Brenda and Billy said goodbye to their newly made friends, took their mules and headed down the mountain away from the village. Although they were leaving, a part of them would always stay in that small hamlet with those wonderful people. These people who had opened their hearts and minds and let these two westerners build a better life for them based on the global free market.

They stopped and looked back at the village one last time. At the shanty towns that had sprung up along the treacherous mountain’s edge, built by the evicted villagers who had defaulted on their mortgage payments. At the smoke billowing from the goat meat processing plant and the neon sign of the newly built casino. At the sun glinting off the cranes that were busily demolishing a part of the town to build timeshare chalets for the wealthy Kathmandu weekend getaway market. So much had been accomplished in so little time. Billy took Brenda by the hand and they both felt their eyes swell with tears. ‘We’ve actually done it Bren. We have created wealth.’ They glanced once more at the hottubs and satellite dishes on the terraces of the council members’ houses in the upper part of the village. ‘Do you think they’re watching CNBC right now?’ Brenda asked. ‘I sure hope so, Bren. I sure hope so.’