The Writers: Marcus Walker
Tick-tocks in the time of excess – July 1999.
By Marcus Walker
Twenty years ago, fresh out of college, I somehow got a job at Euromoney. Only days earlier, I had never heard of the place.
I decided spontaneously one morning to be a journalist. My sole acquaintance in the trade, The Economist’s defence correspondent, Charles Grant, told me Euromoney was a good place to start, so I applied on spec. An arts graduate with no relevant experience, I must have been a risky hire, even on the subsistence wage of a trainee.
Then deputy editor Pete Lee sat me down on my first day and gave me an idiot’s crash course on finance. There is debt and there is equity, he began. It was all new to me. By the end of the tutorial I knew that the difference between debt and equity, which I previously hadn’t known were different things, can be quite fuzzy.
My confusion ascended to higher levels when editor Simon Brady explained derivatives to me. Soon I was writing about capital markets and interviewing slick investment bankers in my scruffy clothes. Back at Euromoney HQ, I learned all I could about banking from David Shirreff and Brian Caplen.
I admired the aggression with which Euromoney’s best writers went after big-name bankers if they sensed hubris, incompetence or wrongdoing. I read classic finance yarns such as ‘Liar’s Poker’ and ‘Barbarians at the gate’ and wrote rude things about German mortgage banks.
The euro was launched. Despite the pretensions of Frankfurt and Paris, London became the financial hub for continent-wide capital markets whose depth and breadth opened up opportunities for empire-building and self-aggrandizement. Corporate Europe caught mergers and acquisitions fever. London’s investment bankers pitched ever-bolder schemes. Research suggested most mergers created no value, but it mattered little. It felt like anyone could buy anyone and no national champion was safe.
Soon, Europe had its own version of ‘Barbarians at the gate’: the hostile, leveraged, reverse takeover of Telecom Italia by Olivetti. I investigated the gripping saga of financial engineering, intrigue, politics, ambition, brinkmanship and culture clashes. The one thing it wasn’t about, I realized, was how to run a telecommunications business. My painstaking reconstruction over 13 full pages of the magazine was my first stab at a tick-tock – the inside story of famous events, told chronologically with fly-on-the-wall anecdotes.
The contest pitted a financial buccaneer, Olivetti’s Roberto Colaninno, against an old-school industrialist, Telecom Italia’s Franco Bernabè. Each hired an army of investment bankers, lawyers and spin doctors from London, New York and Milan. The Italian prime minister, the German Chancellor and some of the world’s biggest banks became involved. The ruthless Colaninno won but didn’t last long at the helm.
‘The sack of Telecom Italia’, as Euromoney called my story, told the tale in perhaps excessive detail, with a surfeit of characters. But the story remains, I think, an entertaining document of trans-Atlantic high finance around the millennium. It was the start of an era of leverage and risk taking that culminated in the global financial crisis.
As the pan-European capital bonanza took off, I moved on to the Wall Street Journal, where I wrote about everything from Al-Qaeda to Angela Merkel. When Lehman Brothers collapsed and Europe’s cross-border capital flows went into reverse, I found myself with one big advantage over many other political correspondents covering the crisis from Berlin, Brussels or Athens: I knew what a bond was. Hell, I even knew what credit default swaps, naked shorting and haircuts were, thanks to my time at Euromoney.
The eurozone crisis gave me many more tick-tocks to write. Greece’s descent into economic depression, German leaders’ struggle to shed the country’s economic dogmas, the European Central Bank’s hesitant but ultimately decisive intervention and other facets of the euro’s near-death experience allowed me to hone the kind of story telling I first learned at Euromoney.
Reporting that sort of long-form story means navigating between conflicting accounts in dozens of interviews and reams of paper. Most actors in historic events are not outright liars, although some are, but everyone has got something to rationalize. Amid all that, there is a truth of the matter. It might be in the middle or much closer to one person’s claims than another’s and it is usually complex. But there is only one, and the journalist’s job is to hunt it down.
Maybe you never quite catch it. A sign that you got close is when people on all sides of a political or economic struggle grudgingly say your article wasn’t wrong, even though they disliked it. That sort of feedback reassured me after Euromoney published ‘The sack of Telecom Italia’.
The magazine that took a chance on me in 1998 gave me a taste for trying to find the truth in complicated tales of politics and money. Our dysfunctional times look set to supply plenty more of those.
Marcus worked at Euromoney from 1998 to 2000. He has been at the Wall Street Journal ever since, in a variety of reporting and editing roles. He is currently the WSJ’s south Europe bureau chief, based in Rome.