Thursday, October 16, 2003

You've heard of the Illuminati, right?

That secret club of grey-haired European guys who sit around and drink Cognac, give each other secret handshakes, and anonymously control the World.

Controlling the World may be a bit rich, but limit it to the World economy and the notion is not as far fetched as most Yankees think. Look no further than the boards of the largest insurance companies.
--> Allianz (German) (and the biggest)
--> Aegon (US - I mean Bermuda - I mean . . . not even the IRS can figure it out)
--> Not to be confused with Aon (US - I mean Bermuda - I mean - whatever)
--> AXA (French)
--> Metlife (US)
--> Nippon Life (Japan)
--> Prudential (US)
--> Royal and Sunalliance (Brit)
--> Winterthur (Swiss)
--> Zurich (Swiss)
--> although not as big, we'll throw in Berkshire Hathaway (US)
--> finally, for kicks, we'll include the retards (literally) Baiduri Berhad (Brunei)
By harnessing a bulletproof income stream of premium payments, they accumulate assets up the wazoo. They then live up to the credo they invented 'save for a rainy day' by squirreling cash away in every imaginable asset class in every imaginable country at every imaginable risk level. My whole (brief) professional career has been spent in Finance and one thing I've learned: if you have an asset to sell, they're buying. If you need an asset, they have it.

Of course its not quite so explicit as all that. By going through holding company after holding company after broker after broker they make it virtually impossible to quantify the scope of their involvement in any given market. Suffice it to say that they own enough of everything to take control of the market for anything they choose. And where they don't have 51%, you will find them using the most quaint of all European contributions to business: cross-shareholdings and board-of-director swaps. Though only showing the info that's neutered enough to print, their annual reports and org charts show a complex and chummy mess worse than the Bostonian Interstate Highway system.

I'm applying to MBA school as we speak, so for practice let's do a case study. Michel Pebereau, Chairman of the board of directors of BNP-Paribas, the largest French bank is on the Supervisory board of AXA, which in turn owns controlling interest in the bank, which in turn shares its client base with a joint-venture set up with AXA selling rebranded AXA products. Like yin and yang Claude Bébéar, chairman of the Supervisory board of AXA is on the board of directors of BNP-Paribas. By the way, Pebereau is also on the board of Dresdner Bank, which his bank and AXA both have cross-shareholdings in. Dresdner has similar arrangements with Deutsche Bank, which has similar arrangements with Allianz, which completes the circle by owning part of AXA. Incidentally, everyone owns a piece of Vivendi, which of course has a reciprocal director swaps with BNP-Paribas and AXA and which now owns a piece of General Electric (itself quite a financial institution) after selling Universal's US assets to them. Barry Diller, remaining on as a member of Vivendi's board, is also on the board of Coca-Cola alongside Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway (also on my list above).

When a big company starts looking like its going under, I guar-on-tee these guys find some smokey room in which to swill their cognac and decide its fate.

Unfortunately, that's about as sophisticated as some of their decision making gets. They only rely on risk math when it agrees with their preconceived notions and personal preferences. The sheer magnitude of their assets (and liabilities?) allows them to mask, ignore, and walk away from huge screw-ups. Certainly a 'Black Monday' or two might cause some of them to crash and burn, but the more likely risk is that someone will realize the Emperor really isn't wearing anything. This will lead to inquest and meltdown. In the end, some politician will have the bright idea of creating an FIIC (Federal Insurance Insurance Corporation) to ensure that "no American ever has to fear not getting his insurance payout."

Fear these guys, not because they're big and powerful -- or because they're old, white, and male -- but because they are careless with YOUR money and if they fall, they fall hard.

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