2/12/2010 6:00:00 AM 'Riches' reads like a spy novel with some unrest thrown in
Clark Isaacs KDM contributor
"Riches Among the Ruins" by Robert P. Smith with Peter Zheutlin; 978-0-8144-1060-8; Pages: 243; $24.95; March 2009; Hardcover; Biography; Amacom Books.
Robert P. Smith is the founder and managing director of Turan Corporation in Boston and established an international debt-collection practice.
For more than 30 years, Smith made and lost millions by investing in emerging markets while traveling through many war-torn countries riddled by poverty and corruption. Smith engaged in fascinating adventures while pursuing his quest for money.
Starting in 1984, Smith traveled the streets of El Salvador during its civil war to make money trading dollar denominated bonds. He became the middleman "buying various forms of government debt in the world's battered economies from pessimists and selling to optimists." He performed his job while keeping a low-key profile. He made friends easily and learned from taxi drivers. They always seemed to know about local conditions, from economics to political insight. In these early years, he made $100,000 profit on each trip.
Bob began debt trading in Turkey, a country he describes as "mystical." He remembered the walk through the bazaars where displays of copper and brass, gold jewelry and exotic spice were enjoyed 15 years earlier. Instead, he found Istanbul a ghost town. In 1980, the country went broke and came under military power, with political and financial unrest.
Sent by an American client, Smith was hired to collect a $25,000 debt. He stood to make a lot of money on other claims. He bought and sold Turkish trade claims until 1982, making more than $2 million. Ready for another adventure and looking for more "Riches Among the Ruins," Smith went to Nigeria to make money. In 1988, the onset of computers aided Smith and his partner. He says "the days of keeping crude records were over."
Business became easier and busier. Nigeria intrigued Bob, even with its risks and heavy drug trade. Smith got to be well-known as the "King of the Jungle Bonds" due to his Nigerian connection. In a 3-4-year period, Nigeria bought back about $1.5 billion of its $4.7 billion in debt.
Bob's company sourced more than $1.2 billion of this debt. Never had Bob made so much money as he did in Nigeria.
In 1988, Smith went to Russia to get a feel for the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. Crime was almost non-existent during Soviet days. Moscow had transformed into a grand and elegant city but was fraught with drugs, thugs, gangs, prostitution and organized crime. This seemed the perfect time for Bob to do some business in collecting Russian debts.
Russia was rich with natural gas and oil, diamond and gold reserves, and had $14.5 billion of foreign exchange reserves. Russia became deeply in debt borrowing more than it could repay to investors. Bob's $20 million investment declined to $5 million.
Russia's inflation soared to 100 percent and Smith went back home with Russian debt, including Euro bonds. Smith came out whole when his investments regained their value and he recouped his paper losses.
All of Smith's economic lessons were learned along the way in search of "Riches Among the Ruins," making him a very wealthy man.
"Riches Among the Ruins" reads like a spy novel, and its suspenseful travel episodes make for a very entertaining read.
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