Ruling The World of Money

HARPER'S
November 1983

by Edward Jay Epstein


Ten times a year— once a mouth except in August and October— a small elite of well dressed men arrives in Basel, Switzerland. Carrying overnight bags and attache cases, they discreetly check into the Euler Hotel, across from the railroad station. They have come to this sleepy city from places as disparate as Tokyo, London, and Washington, D.C., for the regular meeting of the most exclusive, secretive, and powerful supranational club in the world. Each of the dozen or so visiting members has his own office at the club, with secure telephone lines to his home country. The members are fully serviced by a permanent staff of about 300, including chauffeurs, chefs, guards, messengers, translators, stenographers, secretaries, and researchers. Also at their disposal are a brilliant research unit and an ultramodern computer, as well as a secluded country club with tennis courts and a swimming pool, a few kilometers outside Basel.

The membership of this club is restricted to a handful of powerful men who determine daily the interest rate, the availability of credit, and the money supply of the banks in their own countries. They include the governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank, and the German Bundesbank. The club controls a bank with a $40 billion kitty in cash, government securities, and gold that constitutes about one tenth of the world's available foreign exchange. The profits earned just from renting out its hoard of gold (second only to that of Fort Knox in value) are more than sufficient to pay for the expenses of the entire organization. And the unabashed purpose of its elite monthly meetings is to coordinate and, if possible, to control all monetary activities in the industrialized world. The place where this club meets in Basel is a unique financial institution called the Bank for International Settlements-or more simply, and appropriately, the BIS (pronounced "biz" in German).

THE BIS was originally established in May 1930 by bankers and diplomats of Europe and the United States to collect and disburse Germany's World War I reparation payments (hence its name). It was truly an extraordinary arrangement. Although the BIS was organized as a commercial bank with publicly held shares, its immunity from government interference, and even taxation, in both peace and war was guaranteed by an international treaty signed in The Hague in 1930. Although all its depositors are central banks, the BIS has made a profit on every transaction. And because it has been highly profitable, it has required no subsidy or aid from any government.

Since it also provided, in Basel, a safe and convenient repository for the gold holdings of the European central banks, it quickly evolved into the bank for central banks. As the world depression deepened in the Thirties and- financial panics flared up in Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Germany, the governors in charge of the key central banks feared that the entire global financial system would collapse unless they could closely coordinate their rescue efforts. The obvious meeting spot for this desperately needed coordination was the BIS, where they regularly went anyway to arrange gold swaps and war-damage settlements.

Even though an isolationist Congress officially refused to allow the U.S. Federal Reserve to participate in the BIS, or to accept shares in it (which were instead held in trust by the First National City Bank), the chairman of the Fed quietly slipped over to Basel for important meetings. World monetary policy was evidently too important to leave to national politicians. During World War 11, when the nations, if not their central banks, were belligerents, the BIS continued operating in Basel, though the monthly meetings were temporarily suspended. In 1944, following Czech accusations that the BIS was laundering gold that the Nazis had stolen from occupied Europe, the American government backed a resolution at the Bretton Woods Conference calling for the liquidation of the BIS. The naive idea was that the settlement and monetary-clearing functions it provided could be taken over by the new International Monetary Fund.

What could not be replaced, however, was what existed behind the mask of an international clearing house: a supranational organization for setting and implementing global monetary strategy, which could not be accomplished by a democratic, United Nations-like international agency. The central bankers, not about to let their club be taken from them, quietly snuffed out the American resolution.

After World War 11, the BIS reemerged as the main clearing house for European currencies and, behind the scenes, the favored meeting place of central bankers. When the dollar came under attack in the 1960s, massive swaps of money and gold were arranged at the BIS for the defense of the American currency. It was undeniably ironic that, as the president of the BIS observed, "the United States, which had wanted to kill the BIS, suddenly finds it indispensable." In any case, the Fed has become a leading member of the club, with either Chairman Paul Volcker or Governor Henry Wallich attending every "Basel weekend."

Originally, the central bankers sought complete anonymity for their activities. Their headquarters were in an abandoned six story hotel, the Grand et Savoy Hotel Universe, with an annex above the adjacent Frey's Chocolate Shop. There purposely was no sign over the door identifying the BIS, so visiting central bankers and gold dealers used Frey's, which is across the street from the railroad station, as a convenient landmark. It was in the wood-paneled rooms above the shop and the hotel that decisions were reached to devalue or defend currencies, to fix the price of gold, to regulate offshore banking, and to raise or lower short-term interest rates. And though they shaped "a new world economic order" through these deliberations, according to Guido Carli, the governor of the Italian central bank,, the public, even in Basel, remained almost totally unaware of the club and its activities.

In May 1977, however, the BIS gave up its anonymity, against the better judgment of some of its members, in exchange for more efficient headquarters. The new building, an eighteen story-high circular skyscraper that rises over the medieval city like some misplaced nuclear reactor, quickly became known as the "Tower of Basel" and began attracting attention from tourists. "That was the last thing we wanted," Dr. Fritz Leutwiler, its president told me, when I interviewed him in 1983. "If it had been up to me, it never would have been built." While we talked, he kept his eyes glued to the Reuters screen in his office, which signaled currency fluctuations around the globe.

Despite its irksome visibility, the new headquarters does have the advantages of luxurious space and Swiss efficiency. The building is completely air-conditioned and self-contained, with its own nuclear-bomb shelter in the sub-basement, a triply redundant fire-extinguishing system (so outside firemen never have to be called in), a private hospital, and some twenty miles of subterranean archives. "We try to provide a complete clubhouse for central bankers ... a home away from home," said Gunther Schleiminger, the supercompetent general manager, as he arranged a rare tour of the headquarters for me

. The top floor, with a panoramic view of three countries, Germany, France, and Switzerland, is a deluxe restaurant, used only to serve the members a buffet dinner when they arrive on Sunday evenings to begin the "Basel weekends." Aside from those ten occasions, this floor remains ghostly empty.

On the floor below, Schleiminger and his small staff sit in spacious offices, administering the day-today details of the BIS and monitoring activities on lower floors as if they were running an out-of-season hotel.

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