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The idea was floated first by former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, now the chairman of Citigroup. Unless Congress scales back the Bush tax cuts, he argues in a new study, U.S. government budget deficits could lead to a crisis of confidence in the dollar and the stock market and potentially staggering losses for investors.
To conservative economist Bruce Bartlett, Rubin was “laying the groundwork for a political assault on President George W. Bush over his budget policies, hope[ing] to give the Democratic presidential candidate an issue to run on that could propel him into the White House.”
But Wall Street sources say Rubin may have had other designs as well. A consummate insider who talked the market up when he was working for Bill Clinton, Rubin today could be trying to talk the market down.
“This market is thin enough that if you made a big move all of a sudden you could move it,” Bartlett tells Insight. “At some point, something could happen on its own, and then someone like George Soros could turn a minor blip into something else.”
The Hungarian-born Soros is one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at $7 billion earned in part from brazen assaults on world currency markets. He has gained political notoriety for providing $18 million to support a change in the U.S. campaign-finance laws and then using that change in recent months to offer more than $15 million to radical organizations dedicated to defeating Bush this November.
Asked recently by the Washington Post whether he would trade his $7 billion fortune to unseat Bush, Soros thought hard.
“If someone guaranteed it,” he said finally.
Investment adviser and author Don Luskin thinks investors should watch Soros carefully but calmly.
“At least two of three conditions must be met for a speculative attack on the market to succeed,” he tells Insight. “First and foremost, the speculators have to be right.”
When Soros sought to break the British pound by massive currency trades, he played into a market that knew the existing exchange rates were unsustainable.
“So he speculated against the Bank of England, not against the whole damn world,” Luskin says. “You can influence the market by the very act of betting.”
Ideally, Luskin says, there should be technical market conditions that force other players “to take action triggered by what you did, independent of wanting to help you.”
Such was the case during the Oct. 19, 1987, stock-market crash, when computer-driven selling accelerated as the market went down, driving prices down even further. By the end of the day, prices had plunged by 20 percent. Since then, the New York Stock Exchange has installed “circuit breakers” that cut off trading to prevent panic selling.
“Soros believes that if he can force the market down, he will have an effect in the real world,” Luskin says. “If it happens on Oct. 31, people might go into the voting booth with fear in their hearts.”
Insight put two questions to Luskin and to private investment adviser Jim Klima of Klima and Associates in Ellicott City, Md. Should Soros decide to make a power play on the eve of the November 2004 elections, how would he do it? And what is the likelihood he would do so?
Luskin believes Soros could choose to sell stock index-future contracts massively. If Soros succeeded in driving the market down and keeping it down for several days or more, then his early trades would make a profit.
“With this strategy you only lose at the bottom,” Luskin says.
But when the market turns, Soros could lose big, just as he did during the October 1987 crash.
Klima thinks Soros would be more inclined to stick with what he knows best, which is the currency market.
“By playing the futures market, he could win whether the dollar slides further or whether it recovers,” Klima explains.
But Soros could have the most devastating impact on the U.S. economy by betting the dollar higher, not lower. “A dramatic rise in the price of the dollar would dramatically hurt U.S. exports,” Klima says.
These advisers say concerned investors should be watching for increased market volatility, starting in the futures pits, and for futures trading at a discount.
But for all his Bush-bashing bluster, Soros will be thinking long and hard before throwing real money at this market.
“George Soros has gotten his tail burned badly in the U.S. market when he’s been a big seller,” Luskin says. “If he’s wrong, it could cost him several billion dollars.”
But if he’s right, and Howard Dean gets elected president in a panic, his doomsday trading could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as U.S. financial markets collapse. And that would leave Soros even richer than he is today.
“In the end, it could be a pure financial play, not a political play,” Luskin says.
Place your bets.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.