Entry 4

Travel is a big part of my job. I spend about a third of my time out and about—meeting government officials, opposition leaders, media types, and otherwise talking with people in the field. Then there are visits to see clients and the occasional lecture. I try to avoid conferences—an old Harvard friend and colleague, professor Roman Szporluk, once told me their draw on his time led him to declare konferenzverbotbesuch, which seemed to me a smart move.

Today, I’m heading back from a half-day in Boston and writing on the Delta Shuttle, over a cranberry juice. It seems appropriate.

I grew up just across the Mystic River, in working-class Chelsea. It’s a simple pleasure to go back on business, a visitor in your own hometown. My work is in the Financial District, which is all of a few downtown blocks, a postage stamp in already-walkable Boston. Mona Hartos, my assistant, thinks this means there is no need to schedule transit time, so I have four meetings in four hours.

In Boston, all of my clients are in finance. The buildings are modern, clean, and decidedly non-descript, in marked counterpoint to the rest of the city. For some reason, most of the elevators have TV monitors in them that cycle headlines, weather, and markets. People watch them attentively, and I alternate between watching the people watching the screens and watching the screens directly. I don’t see sports, which strikes me as odd—especially given the sports fanaticism of the typical Bostonian. Maybe I keep catching the wrong 30-second loop.

I saw some of our institutional investor clients—Putnam, Fidelity, and a couple of others. Sometimes the meetings are with only one or two people, and the atmosphere is very informal, conversational; sometimes I have to make a presentation for 20. Today was a little of both. One client was conducting an annual strategy session and asked me to show up and help them work on long-term global scenario planning. It sounded interesting, and we’re flattered to be invited to an otherwise internal workshop, so I went.

There are always a lot of economists in the meetings but never a fellow political scientist. Political scientists don’t work at banks—which is a problem. As political issues become more important for the markets, analysts at banks are asked all sorts of questions they don’t have the ability to answer. And if you’re getting paid to answer questions—as analysts at banks are—you never want to be in the position of saying you don’t know.

Whenever I’m speaking with a group of investors, I love to start with a disclaimer about my background. If they ask me where the dollar should be pegged against the euro, I say I don’t know and I won’t tell them. I’m not an economist. On the other hand, if they ask a global economist on Wall Street the impact of the upcoming Iraqi elections on stability in the Middle East, the economist doesn’t know … but will tell them.

The financial world can be a challenging one for political scientists. Traders can have distressingly short attention spans—so it’s critical that your thesis sentence comes first. The ideal presentation covers the entire world in five minutes or less (China down! Turkey up!), prompting focused questions from the client to keep them directly engaged. The Blackberry-enabled trader can be particularly volatile and distracted during a meeting; it’s important to parse out their reactions to news on the little screen from those to your own conversation.

There’s also the problem of language. Most political scientists (myself included) do not know the most basic market terms: “short vol” (selling options); “hedging the tails” (taking out insurance); “swapping the proceeds” (raising money at a fixed interest rate and then exchanging for a floating rate); “value at risk” (the loss that might result from a trade). …

And just when you’re feeling smug that you’ve mastered the jargon, you’re befuddled once more. Last month, several of our analysts were in a meeting with Paul Tudor Jones, the founder of Tudor Corporation (and one of the financial world’s rock stars), in which he responded to our analysis by telling one of his traders he should “go 5 yards at a clip.”

John Green, confident in his knowledge of a yard
John Green, confident in his knowledge of a yard

The sudden infusion of landscaping terminology was disconcerting. Perhaps it had something to do with the lush Greenwich acres surrounding the Tudor corporate manse? At the end of the meeting, John Green—our analyst who heads up Asia—asked one of their analysts what it meant. The analyst, bless him, wasn’t sure. This made us feel a little better.

We did a bit of research, and it turned out that “5 yards at a clip” means to trade 5 billion at a time. A yard is FX shorthand (foreign exchange; in finance, even translations can require translation) for amounts of currency, particularly Japanese yen where, at a hundred-plus per dollar, the zeros have the potential to confuse.

As for Mayor Luzhkov, the meeting never happened. His Washington schedule ran long, his New York schedule got savaged, and the would-be attendees got cancellation calls. It’s not a surprise; meetings with visiting dignitaries are always touch–and-go. But Rachael Mark, our programming director, is disappointed. “Bivaet,”I tell her. It happens.