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Lunch with BS: Liaquat Ahamed

Lord of finance-turned-author

T N Ninan  |  New Delhi 

Liaquat Ahamed

From making films to running think-tanks, this bond trader has moved between strangely disparate worlds with aplomb.

What does a man who has an education from Cambridge and Harvard, who chucked up a PhD programme that was 80 per cent done because he met the girl of his dreams, who has made a packet running a bond trading firm on two continents…what does such a man do when he has a mid-life crisis? No, he does not go and buy a red Ferrari at 50. Instead, he makes a movie, writes T N Ninan.

Meet Liaquat Ahamed, the amiable impresario with whom I am having at the Oberoi’s 360 in New Delhi. Liaquat is bemused by the format of this “lunch” and asks, “Are you going to report what I eat?” He then proceeds to choose a club sandwich of all things, while I opt for the fish.

Liaquat and wife Meena Singh are very much a power couple in Washington, as a part of the Beltway liberal set. He is on the board of Brookings, while she is active with Medecins Sans Frontieres and organisations that work with street children. She is also an intrepid traveller into the badlands of Af-Pak, coming back with many stories of her travels. They are contributors to various election campaign funds. He sits on some boards (to keep his hand in, as it were), and she is a hostess on whose list you very much want to be.

But we are having because, other than making a movie, Liaquat has just written a book that is making waves — on the four men who ran the world’s financial system 90 years ago, after World War I, and who tried to prevent and then deal with the Great Depression (Lords of Finance: The bankers who broke the world). It is a widely praised story of four “characters” from four countries (one neurotic, another arrogant, a third xenophobic, and so on), but also a story about money, told with great mastery of detail and nuance, in a manner that even non-specialist readers will enjoy.

Talk of timing, since the book has been published bang in the middle of the greatest recession after the Depression of the 1930s. But Liaquat started work on the book in 2004, long before anyone knew that the global economy was headed for a bust-up, and he seems to have done a great job with his first effort. There have been appreciative reviews in the leading newspapers and magazines, the book has been the toast of the financial world these past few months, more than 50,000 copies have been sold, with half-a-dozen printings already, and the book has still sold mostly in the US. It was released in India last week.

So how does a bond trader become a best-selling author? Simple, says Liaquat, “You have to tell a story.” And the research? That’s easy too, because all the newspapers have digitised their archives, going back a 100 years or more…the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time…So you sit in your study, get into their websites, plough into the archives and dig. He makes it sound like a job for every man, though it couldn’t possibly be.

We’ve moved to dessert, and Liaquat orders what turns out be a very inviting goat cheese tart, and then a double espresso. I ask him if he has now found his real calling, as a writer, and Liaquat agrees, even though it is his second career, as he puts it. He wants to keep writing now (more economic history coming up, it seems), and to stay involved with think-tanks. Why them, I ask. “It’s better than golf,” he says with a laugh. “The question was whether I wanted to put my money into a golf club, or think-tanks.” He choose the latter, and in the last couple of years he and Meena have travelled with the Brookings board to both India and China, on study tours that like all such things are both an education (private sessions with decision-makers) and a holiday.

More than Brookings, though, the think-tank that he seems to be really involved with is the New America Foundation, which has set itself up with the unusual objective of creating a trust fund for every American child. As the Foundation’s website says, “Every child would automatically receive a $6,000 deposit into an ASA at birth — and also be eligible for dollar-for-dollar matching funds for voluntary contributions up to $500 a year. Over time, ASAs will evolve into a broad system of saving accounts that all Americans, and especially low-income Americans, can tap to meet their asset needs throughout their lives, enabling them to invest in higher education and lifelong learning, purchase a first home, start a small business, and build a nest egg for retirement.”

Mulling over what this could mean, I ask Liaquat whether he thinks the US is in relative decline, compared to China, and he disagrees vehemently. American debt may have climbed, he admits, but the money is being invested, and invested well. “People only see the debt climbing, they don’t see the other side of the balance sheet,” Liaquat argues.

I turn to the subject of the movie. The production company was called Red Wine Productions (“As you might guess, we had had too much wine to drink when we took the decision, hence the name”), and the movie they made was on Iraq. Not the American view, but the story of an ordinary Iraqi family and what happens to it when “freedom” comes marching along with all of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. Called The Situation, it is a taut story, well told and filmed in Morocco (which seems to have a flourishing side-business in offering movie locales and bit actors). But the Iraq war had gone very wrong by the time the film was released, and no one in America wanted to go see a film on Iraq of all things. It won one minor award, the reviews said it was too didactic, and Liaquat and his company lost a million dollars (more than two-thirds of their investment).

It must have been a courageous thing, I suggested, to have been a Muslim in America making a film on the Iraqi point of view. With his shirt sleeves rolled up halfway up his forearm, and leaning back, Liaquat says, “I had insurance. My two co-producers were Jews!”, and laughs.

So he gave up on films (but not wine), and took to writing a book. Why a book? “Because I always wanted to. And I like telling a story.” He had, back in 1999, seen a Time cover photograph of three economists (Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers) under a headline that said rather pretentiously “The Committee to Save the World”. This was after the Asian financial crisis, but in one of life’s ironies, history has been re-written since then: Many observers now blame Summers for the devastation wrought on Asian economies, just as the US financial turmoil of the past year is now laid at the door of Alan Greenspan.

But Liaquat’s imagination had been stirred; reading and research then took him back to a more real “committee” that tried to save the world in the last century, and the book project was born.

Now with authorial success under his belt, Liaquat has the relaxed air of someone who has tasted success many times over and has learnt not to take it too seriously; his face is creased in a smile most of the time, and he wears his achievements lightly, though you can tell that he is chuffed about the reception that Lords of Finance has got. As they say, people who face a mid-life crisis change either their wives or their jobs. Liaquat changed not just jobs but careers, and now seems to be having the time of his life — without either a golf club membership or a red Ferrari.

First Published: Tue, May 19 2009. 00:24 IST