I have a crush on Christine Lagarde. I told my wife that Christine was coming to a Norfolk, Virginia speaker’s forum and I wanted a date with her. She is quite charming I said. And she is one of the most powerful women in the world. My wife thinks highly of Christine Lagarde and can see why I would want a date with her. So she laughed and said “OK, you get a hall pass and can date Christine Lagarde” never thinking I was serious.
Let me fill you in on Christine. She is a French lawyer and Chairwoman and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Prior to that she led the international law firm of Baker and Mckenzie and also held various posts in the French government including acting as the French finance minister. This was a first for a woman. She was elected and then reelected to a second term as the IMF Chairwoman. Another first for a woman. She is a vegetarian and rarely sips alcohol. She was once on the French swim team. She is a global banker, politician and humanist with a warm heart. Her intelligence and playful wit are mesmerizing. Yep, I’m smitten!
I’m a cunning linguist myself. Especially when stimulated by well-educated company. Most educated people display a quick-witted sense of humor that I enjoy. I read that Christine likes a good story. Nothing brings out a good story like being in the cockpit of a sailboat. So, I decided to invite Christine for a day sail on my trimaran. As Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game is on!”
Christine was speaking in Norfolk in June, so I had three months to make this happen. I found her Facebook page and, knowing that she likes a good story, posted a link to a few of the short stories on my publishing site. Not long afterwards, I noticed that I had a new subscription from France. Was it her? Maybe! Maybe not.
I decided to reach out to Madame Lagarde directly on instant message and offered to act as her concierge while visiting the Norfolk area. I said I could arrange for her to stay at the Old Cavalier Hotel and explained that presidents and celebrities have stayed at this elegant hotel over the last hundred years. The hotel is perched high on a sand dune overlooking the ocean in Virginia Beach. Of course, I offered to make sure she arrived in time to speak at The Forum….and then offered to take her sailing the day after the forum!
A month went by and I decided to not pursue Madame Lagarde any further.. Then I saw a notice from my publishing site. Someone had added a comment at the bottom of my essay titled “The Extremely Rare Sound of Silence.” It was from Christine Lagarde! “Bravo” she wrote. “Well expressed and very true.” “CL”. That made my day.
May was here. Warmer days and the bright yellow cacophony of daffodils and pink cherry blossoms made me forget my proposal to Christine Lagarde. Then one day, my cell phone caller ID lit up with a call from a private number. Normally I would let a call like this go to voice mail. However, I was waiting for a business call so answered my phone. It was Christine Lagarde!
“Hello Douglas,” she began. “This is Christine Lagarde.”
“Hello Madame Lagarde,” I exclaimed. “I am flattered you called me!”
“Please,” she said in her French-accented English, “call me Christine.”
“Christine it is.”
“I want to acknowledge your offer to take me sailing when I am in Norfolk. I do love the water,” she explained.
I replied, “I know that about you. I follow you on the Web. After seeing several of your speeches, you strike me as a banker who encourages a healthy capitalism around the world – not just for growth for investors, but for the good of societies and the health of the earth.”
“Nice to be noticed – you sell real estate, yes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I can see from your writing you are more than one thing.”
I realized I was on the phone with the chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund. She has met with presidents, kings, queens, and spoken at countless G-7 summits. And yet she seemed so down to earth. I wanted to be on my best game.
“Yes, I replied, like most people am more than one thing. I have many questions about the economic forces that rock my world. How can you have infinite growth in a finite world? How can capitalism keep from eating itself as it has done over centuries? As it did in 2008? If money is the only thing that is universally sacred, how can we use that to motivate companies and governments to preserve the air we breathe and the water we drink?
Christine stopped me before I got too comfortable on my soapbox, “What do you mean by universally sacred?”
“You interviewed a futurist writer Yuval Noah Harari. He pointed to the Isis fighters in Iraq who blew up an 800-year-old mosque and destroyed priceless art yet when they came upon pallets of cash brought into Iraq by the Americans, they didn’t burn them. They saved them. All those green colored paper rectangles with pictures of American presidents were sacred to them. Money is the only thing that is universally regarded as sacred.”
“Christine,” I continued, “I have admired you from a distance for some time. I think you are one of the good guys…no, let me rephrase that.”
“Please do,” Christine interjected.
“… one of the good women on the planet. That’s why I reached out to you when I saw that you were coming to Norfolk,” finishing my sentence.
“Tell me about your sailboat” she said.
“If you really want to get a guy talking, ask him about his boat,” I laughed.
This is going well I thought as the voice in my head shouted out, “you are talking with CHRISTINE LAGARDE!”
I composed myself. “My boat is a 37-foot trimaran. She is 30+ years old and a beautiful sailor. She is very stable, sailing flat and fast. Very suited to the Chesapeake Bay and June is a perfect month to sail the area. We can sail the Elizabeth River and I’ll show you the waterfront. I know you love the water. I promise safety and good conversation if you will honor me with your presence.”
There was a pause. My heart started beating faster. Then Christine replied, “My staff has taken your recommendation of the Cavalier Hotel. You needn’t worry about my transportation to the Forum. I have a day free after that and I would be delighted to go sailing with you.”
“Fabulous!” I exclaimed.” I will pick you up at 9 A.M. at the Cavalier Hotel.”
“I look forward to our sail,” she replied with smile in her voice.
We hung up.
I texted my wife. “I have a date with Christine Lagarde!”
I got an emoticon back from my wife. It was a face with one raised eyebrow followed by !?
The day of my sail with Christine just happened to land on the same day that the City of Norfolk holds its Harborfest celebration. Tall ships from around the world sail in a long parade along with US Naval Warships and warships from other countries. It is quite the international event. Norfolk doesn’t look any finer than during Harborfest. A large spectator fleet sails along with full colors flying. Now, Christine Lagarde and were going to be a part of the spectator fleet.
I met Christine in the lobby of the Cavalier. We are both in our early 60’s. She has a beautiful coif of short silver hair and is very fit looking. Her apparel consisting of a black one-piece bathing suit over which she had donned blue khaki shorts and a light blue windbreaker. I focused on her shoes.. You need to have shoes that won’t slip on the deck. She had perfect sailing sneakers had a great warm smile as we shook hands.
“Delighted to meet you Douglas,” she said.
“The pleasure is mine! And please call me Doug.”
“Doug it is,” she smiled.
We arrived at the Rebel Marina where I keep our boat. It was a churning with activity as people readied their boats for the Parade of Sail to downtown Norfolk. The lead boat in the parade is the Norfolk Rebel based at the marina. She had all her flags flying and I could hear her big diesel engine purring. I got a few sidelong glances from those I knew on the docks as they checked out Christine. Sailors are the biggest gossips. “Where is the Queen Admiral?” they asked referring to the nickname for my wife.
“She’s not going today,” I said.
“Hmmmm,” was the reply. Mostly from the female crew members.
I had previously prepared the boat for today’s sail and packed some sandwiches, hummus dips and a selection of teas for lunch. Just in case I also packed a split of Champagne to celebrate at the end of the day. Feeding a Frenchwoman puts a lot of pressure on a guy! I read that Christine rarely drinks alcohol, but I am a sailor. Always prepared.
I noticed right away that Christine was light on her feet, easily stepping onto the boat and up into the cockpit. She asked, what could she do? I explained how she could help tend a line on a cleat as we backed out of the slip. It was not lost on me that Christine properly wrapped the cleat. This lady knows her way around a boat!
“You’ve sailed before?” I asked.
“Of course, I am French!” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
We got the mainsail up and motor sailed to join the spectator fleet in the Elizabeth River. The Norfolk Rebel had already started leading the parade, so we fell in with the fleet.
On the portside are the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier piers. And stretching for quite a distance are the U.S. Navy destroyer piers and submarine piers.
I pointed to the long row of piers and ships, “That is the largest naval base in the world.”
Christine took it all in and replied, “That base is one of the results of the United States becoming the world power and leader it is today.” After World War I, the U.S. pulled back and became isolationist. But the world’s troubles are persistent. No country is an island and World War II changed the whole world order.”
“The isolationists all disappeared after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor,” I replied.
“And the world has been intricately connected ever since the war ended,” said Christine. “Especially from a banking perspective.”
“Speaking of wars and banking let me get on my soapbox for a minute,” I began.
“Uh-oh,” said Christine as she settled in the boat’s cockpit.
I was steering the boat and starting to wave my hands around, “In the United States when Greatest Generation (as they are now called) went to war, the government raised taxes to pay for it. They also sold around $180 billion in what were called war bonds. The tax rates varied from 23% for lower income earner to 94% for higher earners. It was a shared sacrifice. Today we go to war and lower taxes! The Iraq war is a great example. The tax rates were lowered to 10% for lower income people to a high of 35% for higher income folks. We started the war with a budget surplus from the dot com economy. But we immediately blew though almost 2 trillion dollars in deficit spending during the war. The ME generation had arrived. And we are still doing it!”
I took a breath, “The public no longer shares the financial sacrifice of any war their country is fighting. I think that any leader who declares a war should be required to declare a war tax to pay for it. That way the public would feel the financial sacrifice of going to war and could debate if this war is warranted.”
“Bravo!” said Christine.
“I relinquish my soapbox, for the moment anyway,” I bowed.
Trading on the River
We continued up the river along with the colorful flotilla of tall ships, their uniformed sailors singing in the rigging. It was magnificent! On both sides of the river the Ports of Virginia International shipping terminals loomed. Huge ships bigger than aircraft carriers are tied up underneath the loading cranes in a well-coordinated ballet of international trade. More goods are being brought in than are going out. Most goods are coming from China.
“So, Christine, you have a unique perch as head of the IMF. You monitor national economies and their fiscal policies. And the IMF steps in to help fund an economy that threatens the world economic stability. What are your worries?”
“How many hours do we have today?” she replied. “You are spot on describing the commitment of The Greatest Generation. The IMF was created from the Breton Woods Agreement in 1944. It set in place an international foreign currency exchange to prevent nations from using the value of their currencies as a weapon against other nations. The purpose of the IMF was then, and still is, to promote widespread and stable global economic growth. For almost 80 years, it has fulfilled its mission.”
We turned to wave at another boat crew motor-sailing just off our starboard side. Boaters do that. We all wave no matter how big or small the boat. There is an egalitarian brotherhood on the water. We are all in the same boat.
“But you asked me what I worry about,” Christine continued. “I worry most that governments spend way more than they take in. Greece is just one of the more glaring examples. The U.S. is treading into deeper waters in that regard. The U.S. is not Greece by any measure. However, the large deficit numbers the U.S. and other nations are accruing will make it very difficult to weather the next economic storm. And there will always be another storm.”
“It seems as if there are always those who tear at the fabric of institutions that provide the stability we all count on.”
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Christine, “From the very beginning there have been two primary competing camps of economic theory. Economist John Maynard Keynes was in one camp and Milton Friedman in the other. Each has had their followers since the 1940’s. Keynes was one of the architects of the IMF. It is among other institutions that the world leans on for peace and financial stability. His macroeconomic theories are the basis for liberal capitalism and have been adopted by almost all capitalist governments.”
“What’s the main difference between the two theories?” I asked.
“In basic form Milton Friedman was a supply sider who felt markets will level themselves. Capitalism will ride booms and bust and occasionally just crash, but private market forces of supply and demand will eventually cause the market to find some equilibrium. Government should not intervene.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. “I don’t like that model. I lost 40% of my invested retirement funds in the 2008 financial meltdown. President Clinton should have never teamed up with Newt Gingrich in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act.”
“Right,” said Christine. “That act was put in place in 1933 after the Great Depression market collapse. It separated commercial banks from investment banks. The repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed those banks to take deposits and invest them in risky derivatives.”
I started waving my hands around again, “It was pure greed on the part of banks! I had a front row seat selling real estate then. Mortgage lenders were offering interest only loans at 110% of the value of the property. They charged big upfront fees and then sold the loans as derivatives. Investors bought the derivatives thinking the collateral was safe American real estate.
“Yes,” Christine replied. “And when America gets a cold, the world gets the flu.”
“America got more than a cold,” I said using Christine’s analogy. “It took almost 7 years for my portfolio to recover its value.” Had there been well regulated banking laws in place to prevent this meltdown, I figure my net worth would be double what it is now. This really hurt the country. The bankers made millions of dollars. Some of the CEOs got $20 million dollar bonuses. The rest of us got caught in their web.”
“So, Christine,” I asked, “Was the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act a rejection of Keynesian macroeconomics and an embrace of Milton Friedman’s Supply Side economics?”
“Yes, and the recovery employed by President Obama was an application of Keynesian macroeconomics. Just as it was employed by FDR after the Great Depression,” she replied.
I remarked, “There is saying from WW II that “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I guess another saying would be “There are no Supply Siders during a depression.”
“Not so,” Christine replied. “The Supply Siders are always there.” Both in the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Great Recession starting in 2008 there were the Supply Siders who argued that any institution should be allowed to fail including banks, the auto industry and the insurance industry – meaning even people with savings accounts could lose their money. The supply siders see opportunity in those failures.”
“So why do governments do it?” I asked. “Why do they lower taxes and force government to borrow money to pay for them?”
“There is a sugar high for the economy from lowering taxes,” she replied. But it is typically short lived, and the data is pretty sketchy on the longer-term stimulus to the economy. “It’s called the “trickle down” theory.. The reduced tax rates benefit the wealthy the most. The spending by the wealthy is supposed to trickle down through the economy.”
“So, the investor class cashes in, but the country is left with a huge deficit to pay,” I remarked. “This I know. If my government had not bailed out the banks and industry, I would never have recovered in time to save enough to retire. And we would not be sailing on this boat today.”
Christine replied “Your investments were not the only thing that recovered. The auto companies repaid the bail-out money and thrived. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who were bailed out to the tune of $180 billion, paid it all back and are now a cash cow to the U.S treasury. $88 billion was added back into the U.S. Treasury so far. Additional billions are still being added each year.”
I decided to get up on my soapbox again, “It frosts me when I see greed triumph and tear down my country. The combined policies of past six presidents created the largest, most prosperous, middle class the world has ever seen. FDR created Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration and the 30-year mortgage. Before that almost no one could afford to buy a home. Truman integrated the military, spreading prosperity. Eisenhower created the interstate highway system investing in the country and seeding future prosperity…..,”
“I like IKE!” Christine jumped in repeating Eisenhower’s campaign slogan.
I wasn’t done yet, ….“Kennedy and the space program. Johnson and Medicare. Richard Nixon signed equal housing laws further adding to the middle class. All these Keynesian macroeconomic programs make me proud of my government. So, it really got to me in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan campaigned on the slogan ‘Government is not the answer. Government is the problem.’ A huge disservice to this country. He sowed a lasting cynicism that is still hurting the country today.” Now, I yield my soapbox”.
Music from a boat next to ours floated across the water. It was a vintage Sonny and Cher tune.
“The beat goes on”, she said.
“The beat goes on”, I replied.
The Norfolk Southern Railway coal export piers were on our port side as we rounded the final bend towards the skyline of downtown Norfolk. I offered Christine the wheel of the boat. She jumped right in and took command. I watched her pilot our ship and saw she had it. I sat back and pointed to the coal export piers receding in our wake and asked, “Care to role play with me?”
“What part do I play? Christine replied.
“You are Madame Venture Capitalist looking to invest in the energy business. Here is my pitch. I propose to open coal mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio. Mostly surface strip mines. I will build a rail system to transport the coal to power plants and to export terminals 300-500 miles away. The coal will load on ships and travel 12,000 miles to power stations overseas. Questions?”
Madame Venture Capitalist replied. “How much do you pay coal miners?
“Average $60k a year,” I replied.
Madame VC: “And do you supply benefits like health insurance?”
Me: “Yes. We pay into lifetime health insurance and pension fund.”
Madame VC: “Lifetime? Isn’t mining very dangerous? Many of them get black lung disease?”
Me: “True. But if the insurance pension fund runs dry, the federal government steps in and funds it. It is called The Promise. It’s an exchange for providing a stable energy source.”
Madame VC: “What are the environmental costs? Don’t these mines create a big toxic mess?
Me: “Yes. Mining obliterates the area. Chemicals like mercury, arsenic, sulfur and uranium drain into the waterways for decades. But all we must do is put up a bond that says we will clean up the area. We clean the best we can, then get an inspector to sign off and we get our bond money back.”
Madame VC: “So, you transport the coal by train and by ships. That’s a lot of power to generate power? Seems inefficient.”
Me: “It is. But the consumers will pay the cost.”
Madame VC: “The power plants also generate air pollution.”
Me: “Yes, the smokestacks emit arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium. You get the picture. But we don’t have to worry about the cost of those. Not on our balance sheet.”
Madame VC: “What about the ash generated by the power plants?”
Me: “We store it. Pretty much forever. Of course forever means it leaks into the waterways.”
Madame VC: “What about the Co2 generated by the power plant? I read that the build up of Co2 is contributing to the climate changing.”
Me: “Again. Not our cost. Not on our balance sheet.”
Madame VC: “To summarize your proposal. Your business model extracts coal, transports it, and burns it to generate power. The Full Cycle Accounting of this business plan does not include the full health cost of the miners, does not include the real cost of maintaining a clean mine site, or the full cost of restoring the mine site. It does not include the cost of pollution to the air and water. So, your business profits from the upside and the tax payers pay for the downsides. Sounds like a good return on the dollar.”
Me: “Yes, the sacred dollar.”
The spectator fleet of boats had arrived in the harbor between the cityscapes of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. Christine went to the bow of the boat to take in the waterfront panorama. Thousands of spectators were crowding the festival to watch the parade of boats pass by. Horns and whistles were blowing. Tugboats spouted big water plumes from their firefighting cannons. Tall ships, with crews in the rigging and bands playing on deck added to the cacophony in the harbor. Everyone waving to everyone!
Lunch at Anchor
We dropped anchor in Crawford Bay in order where to watch the activity along the Norfolk waterfront. I set up the cockpit tables for lunch and passed Christine some caprese sandwiches. From the galley I produced a tray of olives, cut carrots, radishes and some spicy pickles. We sat opposite each other and took in the view of the Norfolk.
“Norfolk is a beautiful city,” I said. “It’s going to be facing some serious challenges due to the changing climate.”
“Most areas around the world are in the same boat, some are flooding, some are drying up, some areas are getting hit with super storms they have never have experienced before,” replied Christine.
“This city is dealing with continually rising water. It some areas a regular high tide on a nice day is flooding properties. I worry that people are taking 30-year mortgages on properties that will be uninhabitable at the end of the loan term,” I said.
Christine remarked, “There is a financial case to change the way we generate energy and the way we construct buildings.”
“Explain the building construction part.” I said.
Christine replied, “Even though the way we generate energy gets all the attention for adding greenhouse gases to the biosphere, it’s only 35% of the story. Population growth and the building boom will add an area the size of New York City every 40 months doubling the world structures footprint by the year 2060.”
“It will take a lot of energy to build and power all that. They better be net-zero buildings, or the planet is going to get really hot!” I exclaimed. “Is there a financial incentive to build that way?”
Christine answered, “Until there is a universal agreement that this needs to be done, it is a big challenge. Bill Gates’ investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures is teaming up with the European Commission to help companies solve these issues. There are many others working in that direction.”
“My country is not leading on this,” I said, “We pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Christine cheered me up, “Yes, but it’s a global market for transportation and energy. Companies are bringing energy efficient vehicles and energy production solutions to satisfy the demand in the 185 countries that did sign the agreement. Due to market forces, the U.S. will follow along anyway. As you said on the phone, those green paper rectangles with presidents’ pictures on them are sacred even if the environment is not.”
“What about financial incentives to keep other countries from destroying essential forests like the Amazon rainforest? 20% of the planet’s oxygen comes from there. The new president of Brazil says he will allow it to be forested. Can the world banking system establish a monetary value on a forest and create a fund to pay them to preserve the rainforest?” I queried.
“Chaos from climate change is the challenge of this century,” replied Christine.
I replied “Let me challenge you. There are climate models that show we may be heading to a 4 degree raise in global temps by the year 2100. That’s in the life span of millennials and their children. At 4% warming we may reach a tipping point releasing huge amounts of carbon and methane from the artic permafrost causing a caustic environmental feedback loop. The displacement of millions of people due to flooding and extreme heat would cause a financial disaster for the global economy. The state of Florida would be swamped up to Tallahassee. Washington D.C. and New York City would be under water. And that pretty city we are looking at would be gone.”
“Pretty grim,” remarked Christine.
“So,” I continued, “I noticed on the IMF webpage there is a Capacity Development Agreement with the European Commission to deal with exogenous shocks. Meaning shocks from outside the organism or developing from external factors. Would preventing the displacement of millions of people and loss of billions of green paper rectangles with presidents’ pictures be an exogenous shock?
She replied “That reminds me of a quote from H.G Wells. ‘Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ Would you like to convince your Congress and President to step up to the challenge?”
“I’m afraid the pockets of my country’s politicians are lined by mining and fossil fuel corporations who can support them anonymously with unlimited sacred cash. It’s called the Citizens United Ruling. The only thing us citizens can do to combat it is to vote. And the big corporations do everything they can to gerrymander the vote in their favor.”
The Sail Home
We finished lunch and I noticed the boat had swung on her anchor. The tide was running in our favor for the sail back down the Elizabeth River. And we are going fly back down the river! The wind came up to a perfect 15 knots from the west. I started the diesel engine to motor us out of the anchorage. Christine worked the mainsail halyard and we raised the sail. I could tell she enjoyed the activity after our lunch.
We let out the headsail and I shut down the diesel. The engine noise was replaced by the satisfying sound of the boats three hulls picking up speed down the river. I was standing next to Christine at the wheel. We both had our hands on the wheel. I quickly realized she was not about to yield piloting our ship to me. This woman is used to being in charge. I let go and adjusted the sails to the course Christine set. Looking aft, I saw that we were picking up speed. Where we once had three wakes from the three hulls, we now had just two wakes. The windward hull was now out of the water. We were in perfect trim.
“Christine, you are one of the few women in positions of power and leadership around the world.”
Yes, it’s raining men,” she replied sardonically.
“I grew up with three sisters. My mother was ahead of her time in the 1960’s. She was smart, articulate, well informed and had a career. She passed her intellectual curiosity on to all of us.”
“I would have loved to meet her.”
“In a way she is here now.”
Christine smiled, “Your mother would like that I and others have shown that by bringing women into the fold the world economy would benefit from their talents, skill, perspectives and ideas. Bring women in boosts GDP and leads to higher wages for all. One study shows that adding one more woman in senior management or a corporate board adds a return on assets by 10 basis points.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Women on banking boards result in greater financial resiliency and stability. They don’t bet the house! They require larger capital reserves to ride out rough periods than men do.”
“You mean like not loaning 110% of the value of a property?!”
“Good example,” replied Christine.
We were really flying now. We made the bend in the river passing the coal export terminal. Christine set a new course and I adjusted the sails to her new course. Soon we were passing the International Shipping Terminals where we had to alter course to dodge one of the huge ships. Our windward hull was still flying, and the leeward hull was kicking up spray as we approached the Naval Base. A security boat with its blue light bar flashing came roaring out to defend its territory around the aircraft carriers. We made the entrance to Willoughby Bay and jibed the sails for the final leg back to Rebel Marina.
Christine had a broad grin on her face that you only get from a perfect sail. “Well done!” she said.
“Bravo!” I replied.
We put the boat away and I drove Christine back to the Old Cavalier Hotel. We didn’t touch the split of Champagne. Who needs Champagne when you are already high?
In the lobby of the hotel I turned to Christine, “Thank you for spending your precious time with me. You can’t invest time and get more time in return. You can’t build or manufacture more time. Time is the rarest of all things. You chose to spend your limited time with me today. I’m honored.”
Christine leaned in to kiss me on the cheek, “It was an honor to be with you today.”
We parted and I went home to my wife. She looked at me and saw that I was glowing.
She smiled, “You know that hall pass was not free. You owe me a two-week cruise on the boat.”