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Sailing away from the Lehman storm

(Article published in the Nov 5, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

To clear my jet-lagged head of the debilitating Lehman-led gloom and doom that constantly rose from the business papers offered by the soothing hands of the cabin crew of Singapore Airlines Flights 915 and 002 as we flew last Friday from Magellan’s side of the Pacific to Vespucci’s, I requested my hosts to book me for a bit of sailing at the San Francisco Bay in the afternoon of the 25th.  They did and, at least for about an hour and a half, I felt what it was to be like Nicolas Lazares. Nicolas Lazares, a managing director of Lehman Brothers Holdings who retired early this year just before the storm set in, is into sailing and more.

The early evening breeze on San Francisco Bay last Saturday was kind of brisk.  The waves were just strong enough to gently nudge up and down by no more than a foot the bow of the 55-foot catamaran named Adventure Cat moored at Dock J on Pier 69 at the Fisherman’s Wharf.  At exactly 5:30 pm, mailsail and jib were unfurled, and the cat crept out of the pier and headed towards the rock of Alcatraz.


She rounded the island of lonely memories and chastened liberties, close enough for us to see from portside the details of the rough cliffs on the east, then on the north and finally on the west, all stressing the impossibility of flight from within. Then, as if returning to dock, she headed south, revealing from starboard the sun slowly descending to the gleaming bay that was quivering in expectation of its gentle kiss.

The sound of motor announced the cat had changed her mind; out again the bow pointed west northwest, passing under the bridge with the mast seeming to miss just by inches the beams of steel, actually painted dull rose pink, but somehow seen as golden by the landlubbers on shore.  After barely touching Kirby Cove, the marine feline crawled back, again going beneath the bridge at center and, as soon as the steel was once more crossed, turned portside towards Sausalito.

Finally, with gold at stern and engine at rest, the cat faced starboard and headed back home to Pier 39.  The water at the pier had turned dark and quiet. The brisk breeze, much colder than an hour and a half ago, continued to gently puff the worthy sails. As the Adventure Cat slowly neared Dock J, the stars started sprouting one after another, as if on cue, on the homes on the hills of San Francisco. On terra firma, one could not but think how lucky Nicolas Lazares was to be doing his thing at some other spot on the water on his Caldera.

The Caldera, named after the volcanic eruption that, says Plato, sank the continent of Alantis, is a pleasure craft, twice as long as the Adventure Cat, and undoubtedly more luxurious.  Lazares, surely several times richer and more renown than most of us, jumped the corporate ship just before his employer ran aground.

“Greed”, he is reported to have said, “trumped everything at Lehman and I left in the nick of time.  They were willing to make a loan to an orangutan.”  He was, of course, talking of recent London and America where they were, until recently, partying to the music of easy credit and loose regulations.  In the Philippines, even in the best of times, our Aling Orang could not make utang. Certainly she could borrow not from the banks; she always has had to relie, in times of need which is always, on the five-six of the market bumbay.

It was not only Lazares, however, who was able to jump off the sinking ship in the nick of time.  Three of his colleagues in Asia also lept out at about the same time he did in America.  But instead of going to the water like Lazares, they, namely Remy Kramers, Alexis Suzat, and Marten Agren, joined Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore.  Both Lazares and the trio in Asia, nevertheless, continue to do their thing as they were doing  at Lehman.

Lazares was reported by the Herald Tribune last month to have been “ferrying the likes of Thanasis Tsoukalas, chairman and chief executive of the privately held Greed investment firm Capital Partners abroad the Caldera on an inflatable rubber skiff to review the opportunities the subprime crisis offers.”  He maintains a hectic schedule, says Caldera’s captain Ken Lannamann, riding over the Aegean and Ionian seas. In their voyage of 800-nautical miles, they have had to dodge Albanian pirates in the northern Ionian and negotiate mini-tsunamis from underwater quakes as well avoid apple pie-sized jellyfish in the eastern Agean.  All the while Lazares handled so many calls and e-mail on his Blackberry, thus being able to authoritatively declare that “there’s stronger cell and Blackberry reception off the Croatian coast than in any big U.S. city.”  My Smart-powered Blackberry, though, worked well enough on the bay of San Francisco.

It may take sometime, though, for his Asian colleagues to have enough time to adopt Lazares’ lifestyle.  Remy Klammers who was Lehman’s Managing Director Head of Structured Products Asia in Tokyo, is going to be busy as the Global Head of Fixed Income Trading in StanChart Singapore.  He has to prove himself worthy of the newly position created responsible for FX, Rates, Credit and Structured Products Trading.

Alexis Suzat brings to StanChart his background as Managing Director responsible in Lehman for structured products trading in Asia.  Before joining Lehman, Suzat was portfolio manager at Brevan Howard Asia and senior trader at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo and Credit Suisse Financial Products in Tokyo, Sydney, and Hong Kong.  He works as the new Global Head of Structured Products Trading.

Marten Agren is an IT person and joins StanChart as Global Head of Modelling and Analytics Group, Financial Markets.  He was Lehman’s Managing Director, Structured Products Trading Asia, in charge of implementing a quant modelling, trading and risk management platform.  Before his Lehman employment, he was at Credit Credit Sisse and Goldman Sacks in a variety of analytic and modelling, roles. He, of course, is not what we know here as a male model.

StanChart Singapore is very proud of the trio and the five others who came with them.  “In Remy, Alexis and Marten,” said Lenny Feder, Group Head of Financial Markets who himself joined the British bank in July just last year, “we have hired the key manager, trader and quant/IT specialist who will from the backbone of the Structured Trading team.  Together with Standard Chartered’s existing talent, these eight new appointments will give the Bank a differentiated position in this increasingly important area for our clients.”

The Philippines, however, will probably not see any of the extolled expertise of Singapore StanChart’s new ex-Lehman hires.  The word “global” among the close circle of local bankers, banking regulators and legislators you can bank on has become almost a bad word since the Senate Committee on Banking, headed by Sen. Angara, found a couple of years ago, erroneously in my opinion, that the local unit had at one time engaged in the illegal selling of what were called “Global Third Party Funds.”

But more significantly, Mr. Eugene Ellis, who heads StanChart Manila, is an old timer in the bank. He in my view, would have no use for those new comers.  He knows what honest-to-goodness banking is all about and thus rules, and rules exceeding well, his piece of the empire here in the Pacific, tranquil and far, far away from the troubled streets of Mumbai where Gandi, so the papers say, seem to have been thrown overboard recently somewhere in the dirty waters of the Bay of Bengal.