Report From Berlin

I am sitting at my MacBook Pro typing this piece in the corner Suite on the sixth floor of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin.

A half finished bottle of 2001 Chateau Pech sits on my desk, a product of the French Mediterranean coast. Out the window hundreds of tourists are milling about the imposing Brandenburg Gate, taking pictures, posing with costumed cartoon characters, or texting their friends.

It is a scene of no small emotional importance for myself. I came here as a teenager to study German in the 1960’s. The Berlin wall had just gone up dividing the city in half, threatening the world with the prospect of global thermonuclear war.

I lived in the American Sector in Tiergarten, a mile from the hated wall, and recall with some dread, being kept awake at night by the angry growl of machine guns cutting down desperate, but helpless families as they attempted to flee to the West. That makes quite an impression on a young kid.

To make extra money, I used to escort small groups of nervous Americans through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin for a day of lunch, a visit to Queen Nefertiti at the spectacular Pergamum Museum, and the opera. I paid for it all with East German Marks that I purchased at a 75% discount on the black market, and that I smuggled into the communist territory in my boots.

You see, I’ve been in this currency game for quite a long time now. That was my first currency arbitrage, and it led to a pattern of ever-greater risk taking that could eventually lead nowhere else but the hedge fund industry.

About one third of East Berlin still awaited reconstruction from the Allied bombing and the 1945 Russian invasion that laid waste to the city, with every East facing wall still standing absolutely pock marked with bullet holes. As up to 10% of the bombs failed to explode, construction companies were still digging them up at the rate of three a week. Occasionally, they exploded and killed the workers.

My dalliance with the cold war was brought to an abrupt end when the Stasi caught me trying to sneak in a copy of the banned Berliner Zeitung newspaper, which landed me in an East German prison for a day. The hapless people I met there! Thank goodness they let me out, because I was only 16!

Some 21 years later, tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the wall fall on a TV screen at a Swiss Bank Corp trading desk in London. I immediately flew over to Templehof to join the party, taking my turn with a sledgehammer at the crumbling reinforced concrete barrier with great pleasure.

The dominoes then fell. The Soviet Union collapsed shortly thereafter, and China quietly turned capitalist, enabling two thirds of the world’s population to join the international economy. Globalization was born, followed by the Internet and the World Wide Web.

That led to the peace dividend, which helped finance the nineties dotcom bubble, and opened up new international trading opportunities on which the early hedge funds feasted to the point of gluttony. Ahhh, those where the days!

Only eight years later, Europe moved to establish a single currency bloc, creating the Euro, and confining the mark, the francs, the lira, peseta, drachma, guilder, and escuedo to the dustbin of history. Only the British pound, the Swiss franc, and the Scandinavian kroner were left standing. That demolished the intra European currency trade, said to be worth about $5 billion a year, and realigned the world into the big currency blocks of the dollar, euro, and yen.

Some 45 years later, I rode my rented bicycle over the site of the old wall, through the Brandenberg Gate, across the area once known as the “death strip” and into “no man’s land”, putting me at the front door of my hotel. The guard towers and searchlights were gone. The statue of Vicktoria, the goddess of triumph riding a chariot with four horses, on top of the gate, now faced west instead of east. It was all very satisfying and humbling, if not invigorating.

Checkpoint Charlie, where American and Soviet tanks faced off and almost started WWIII three times, is now a tourist attraction. The building where I was imprisoned, wondering if I would live another day, is now a McDonalds hamburger stand.

That’s the way it works. You lose the cold war and have to eat our crappy cheeseburgers and sell the tourists pieces of your old wall.

Talk about life going full circle.

Berlin Wall Up Goes the Wall

John Thomas - Berlin Down Goes the Wall