By Chris Coffman
When investment banker Alexander “Dusty” Street returns to Hong Kong twenty years later, everybody wants him to save a huge acquisition, stabilize panicking financial markets, and return home to New York. The choice is obvious, until the love of his life reappears.
The call came through as I was finishing my first cup of coffee on a hot morning at the beginning of January over twenty years ago. I could already feel the heat coming through the big windows of my hotel room and see the glare shining around the buildings to the east as the sun rose over the great gulf of the Río de la Plata. It was not yet six thirty in the morning.
I assumed the call—an inconsiderate, too early call—was from London or from one of our offices in Europe where it was early afternoon. Anyone could have called my mobile phone, not necessarily realizing where in the world I was, but not that many people had the number of my hotel.
But it was the voice of Jim Walmsley on the phone, calling from New York. That surprised me because it was just before four thirty in the morning for him.
“Hi, Jim. What can I do for you?” I said.
“You can get on the next plane to Hong Kong,” he said. “We’ll talk about what else you can do when you get there and tell me what you see.”
I sighed. “What’s up?”
“Things are starting to go badly, very badly, in the Asian markets.”
I had just finished the merger of two companies into what was now the largest petroleum company in Latin America not owned by a government. I had flown the eleven hours from Buenos Aires to New York in order to spend two days with my family over Christmas, and then flown back to finish up the deal.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’ve been watching the markets get choppier over the last few days as I brought the Petróleos Argentinos deal in for a landing. I don’t know why emerging markets traders in New York and London always start dumping Argentine stocks and bonds whenever there’s a whisper of trouble anywhere in the world. Pisses me off.”
“Put that deal behind you, Dusty, we’ve got much bigger problems to worry about,” said Walmsley.
I was staring at the oily film collecting on the surface of my cup of coffee as it started to go cold in my hand. Lovely swirling greens, blues and reds against the black. “I know you wouldn’t be calling me at four thirty in the morning if this wasn’t important, but—”
“Look, Dusty,” he interrupted. “I know what I’m asking. The markets have just closed in Hong Kong.”
“Down another ten percent?” I asked.
“Ten percent, my ass. The bottom fell out. I need you there now.”
“What is this all about—the Transco deal, whatever it’s called—is that it?” I set the cup of coffee on the nightstand and lay back on my bed, my head propped on the pillows. Our firm had been negotiating for almost a year to acquire a big investment bank based in Hong Kong as part of a strategic expansion into the Asian markets. At that moment, I just couldn’t remember the name of the firm.
“TransPac. Yeah, we’ve got big trouble with the TransPac deal,” Walmsley said. “But that’s not half of it. The market has been expecting us to close on that deal for the last two months.”
“I thought everything was agreed,” I said. “At the weekly partners’ video conference before Christmas you said you were expecting financial close any day.”
“I was,” said Walmsley. “All we had to do was sign.”
“So cut the price by twenty-five percent and sign,” I said. “In these markets, there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“The situation’s worse than that.”
“Okay, cut the price in half. Cram it down their throats. Look, Jim, I’ve been working for six months straight on this Petróleos deal. I’ve seen my wife and kids for a total of ten days, including Christmas, since June. I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I just can’t—”
“Dusty, I’ve just spent an hour on the phone with our guys in Hong Kong,” Walmsley said. “The losses of the last few weeks are turning into an avalanche, and it’s spreading across Asia and starting to infect the European and US markets. Panic is setting in. Traders have been looking to the TransPac deal as a sign smart money is still willing to invest in Asia. We’re heading toward the biggest market crash in a generation out there. If we cut TransPac loose, traders are going to sell everything they can get their hands on—stocks, bonds, currency. It might cause a total collapse in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Korea. You’ve got to figure out whether or not we can salvage the deal.”
“What have you got left to do in Buenos Aires?”
A gala banquet had been scheduled for that evening to sign the closing documents and celebrate the successful completion of the merger: the Ministers of Resources, Mining and Petroleum were going to attend, along with the boards of directors and chief executive officers of both companies. Bottles of champagne, whiskey, and French and Argentine wines worth thousands of dollars each were going to be served. Mountains of caviar, prawns, and aged Argentine steaks would be offered. The usual fountain pens made in France and Germany would be handed out, engraved with the date and the name of the new company, Petróleos Argentinos.
“Nothing,” I said. “Peter and Ricky can cover for me.”
“Tell me which way you’re headed and I’ll arrange to get you all the data at one of your layovers,” he said.
I called the concierge and asked him to check out the flight options while I took a shower, shaved, dressed, and packed.
There turned out to be little difference between Miami-San Francisco-Hong Kong, Santiago de Chile-Auckland-Hong Kong, or London-Hong Kong, but I thought I might as well relax and get some sleep. I chose to fly into the night.
The flight for London was leaving in a couple of hours. By the time I was packed and ready to leave for the airport, it was a decent time in New York and I could call my wife, Samantha, and explain that I wasn’t coming home the next day as expected.
I’d been dreading having to make the call ever since I got off the phone with Walmsley. It had been a terrible year for my family and me. I had missed my daughter Stephanie’s entire basketball season, and the second half of my son Timothy’s Little League season, including the championship in which he had pitched. He told me on the phone that if I had been there in the bleachers watching him, he could have hung in there through the bottom of the ninth inning when his team was up by only one run. Everyone wants to shift the blame for a loss onto somebody else, anybody else, but I believed Timmy. I had let him down.
Going to Hong Kong would mean missing the rest of Christmas vacation with the kids. Samantha had already rescheduled the two-week skiing vacation in Wyoming we had planned to a one-week skiing vacation in Vermont, but that was going to go out the window too. Unless she took the kids herself and they went up without me. Samantha had already warned me that the kids’ grades were starting to suffer.
When I told her, she was silent on the other end, not making it easy.
“Darling, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t be doing this,” I said.
“How much longer are you going to do this?” she asked.
“I’ll be thinking about it all the way to Hong Kong.”
“The kids and I can’t stand another year of this.”
“Do you want to put Steffie and Timmy on the phone?” I said. “I can try and explain.”
“That will make it worse.”
I was feeling defeated as I dropped my suit bag into the boot of the big black car that had come to take me to the airport. The driver executed a quick U-turn as we pulled away from the hotel, taking a right a block from the hotel and gliding down the hill past the high walls of La Recoleta cemetery, the district of the dead that gave its name to the most fashionable area in Buenos Aires. The Argentines joke that the walls of La Recoleta are the most irrelevant in the world—those who are outside don’t want to get in, and those who are inside can’t get out.
I went through passport control at Ezeiza, handing my chunky passport with the two inserts of additional pages to the clerk in the booth. When I first came to New York, I was told not to trust a man with a tan: a tan meant that he was either lazy and took too much vacation, or that he was vain and went to tanning salons. Somebody else told me, about the same time, that if a man had a single digit golf handicap, he was playing too much golf. Nobody had warned me not to let my passport collect too many visas.
Chris Coffman worked for decades in Europe, the UK, the United States, Latin America, Asia and Australia as an expatriate American investment banker and investor before founding a highly-awarded wine company in Australia.
His three children were raised in Australia, where he lived for twenty-five years.