26 MAY 2007, Page 36

Hot tips in the World Bank stakes: Blair, Bono, Clarkson ... but not me

Shortly after the death of John Paul II in 2005, the wise and amiable Father Dominic Milroy, former prior of the Benedictine college in Rome, leant across a dinner table and said, ‘Martin, you’d make a good candidate for Pope.’ ‘But father,’ I protested, ‘I’m not even a Catholic.’ ‘Oh don’t worry,’ he responded, ‘We can soon see about that.’ Likewise I’m glad to discover that not holding a US passport does not rule me out as a candidate to succeed Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank when he departs next month, so long as I’m prepared to convert: his predecessor, Australian-born James Wolfensohn, took American citizenship in order to secure nomination by Bill Clinton in 1995. That helpful precedent opens the way not only for me but also for the runner tipped by former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz: Tony Blair, whose decade-long spiritual journey will surely be all the more complete if he now becomes an American as well as a Catholic.

More conventional candidates, at this stage, include Robert Zoellick, the former US trade representative and deputy secretary of state, now at Goldman Sachs; Stanley Fischer, a former IMF chief who is now governor of the Bank of Israel; plus a clutch of US academics and senators. Ethnically alternative suggestions include former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (who would be the first woman in the post) and Ashraf Ghani of Kabul University. The joy of this process, however, is that mischief-makers can throw in all sorts of unlikely names — such as John Bolton, the grim neocon hardliner who failed to secure Senate confirmation as UN ambassador, and Bono, the anti-poverty rock star with the sunglasses — purely to watch them echo around the blogosphere. If The Spectator were to tip, say, Jeremy Clarkson, I’ll bet you that within 24 hours a dozen internet obsessives (most of them World Bank staffers with worryingly little else to do) would post detailed assessments of his qualifications for the job.

Come to think of it, Clarkson’s just the sort of cut-the-crap action-man the Bank needs at this juncture — so go to it, bloggers. But will I be filling in an application form myself? Well, I did once consider applying for a post in one of the World Bank’s sister organisations, the Asian Development Bank in Manila. But I confess the chief attraction of working for the ADB in those days was that it was largely staffed by beautiful, well-educated Filipinas who were all allegedly keen to form relationships with eligible expatriate managers. Like the World Bank today where according to one Wolfowitz apologist, it’s possible to count more than 160 employees who are romantically involved with colleagues — the institution was more effective as an international dating agency than as an instrument of Third World development. But somehow I don’t think that observation will win me a place on the Washington short-list.

Free enterprise, Russian-style

Russia doesn’t seem to have got the hang of this globalisation business. As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, exports of energy and imports of all the consumer goods his citizens crave are to be regarded not as examples of what free markets can do for Russian prosperity, but as potential weapons in the exercise of Russian power over its neighbours, especially the irritatingly free exComecon ones. Cross-border gas pipelines are turned off at the Kremlin’s whim, while in the current spat with Estonia provoked by the removal of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, Estonian cheeses and liqueurs have suddenly been banned from Moscow shops. Imports of Polish meat, Georgian wine and Latvian sprats have all suffered similar interventions. But there is at least one unregulated Russian export that is making a positive contribution to economic life elsewhere, chiefly in the world’s most troubled places: the Ilyushin II76 freighter aircraft. A doctor back from a stint with Médecins Sans Frontières in a refugee camp in Darfur tells me that if you want emergency supplies or anything else moved across a war zone or a disaster area in almost impossible conditions, the answer is to call in an ex-Russian air force Ilyushin, which will carry a 60-tonne payload for $500 dollars a day cash. There are lots of them available, he says, because back in the 1990s the nearbankrupt government in Moscow failed for months at a time to pay the wages of remote military units — to which Ilyushin aircrews responded by stealing the planes, flying straight out of Russian airspace and becoming freelance operators anywhere too dangerous for conventional freight-carriers. Stateless as sea gypsies or the crew of Red Dwarf, they live aboard and spend vodkasodden nights bewailing that they can never return to the motherland. Free markets can have strange human consequences, but that’s no reason for Putin to stand in their path.

Bubble leads to wobble

The Chinese stock market has gone crackers. Shanghai’s CSI 300 index has almost quadrupled in two years; its shares now trade on dotcom-like price-earnings multiples more than double the average for shares across the Asia-Pacific region. This is being driven not by foreigners trying to jump belatedly on the China bandwagon, nor by mysterious ‘big hands’, but by a stampede of small investors who opened no less than five million new brokerage accounts in April alone. I had the opportunity to study the Chinese punter-in-the-street’s approach to stock-market analysis during my days in Hong Kong, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. Much of it was about betting on lucky numbers, while the cheapness of a share was judged by its absolute rather than relative price, which meant that a $9 share was always cheaper than a $10 share. It was Joseph P. Kennedy, chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1930s, who remarked that he knew it was time to sell before the Great Crash when his shoe-shine boy started offering him share tips. I doubt there are any shoe-shine boys left on the streets of Shanghai, because they’ll all be in the brokers’ offices playing lucky numbers. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s most durable tycoon, says this ‘must be a bubble’. Will it burst? You can bet it will. Will that be the signal for Western markets to plunge as well? Not catastrophically, I hope, but we’re certainly in for another Shanghai wobble. Sell in May and go away? With not much of May left, it’s worth thinking about.