Eugene Rotberg

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Gene Rotberg, a lawyer and international investment banker, is an expert on risk taking, interest and exchange rates, financial market regulation, and the role of international development institutions. He served as vice president and treasurer of the World Bank from 1968 to 1987, responsible for overall funding and investment operations.


  • Banks are unprofitable because they make too many bad loans and their good loans have little profit in them. They also have the dubious advantage of an awful set of accounting conventions—“a rolling loan gathers no loss”—that permits them to mask their mistakes and hold assets without marking their value to market. Spreads are narrow, costs are high and there is too much reliance on insured deposits, with the accompanying incentive to take risks with someone else's money.
  • Sigmund Freud would have been a wonderful witness here. He would have explained the use of derivatives as denial and rationalization—the pretense that we are doing one thing when we really mean to do something else; the relationship between the banker and its client as one of ambivalence and reliance on the father figure; the use of accounting conventions as repression and the absence of reality testing; the work environment as the pleasure/pain principle—current pleasure for future damage, let someone else pick up the pieces; leveraging and doubling our bets as counter-phobic behavior; termination therapy as what happens when the CFO and Treasurer get caught; and, of course, transference—how the trader seeks to shift responsibility to his or her superior when the string runs out.
  • Freud, Galileo and Darwin told us, at different times and in different ways, that we are not the center of the universe; that we do not have control; that we do not fully understand our motivations; that we are not all that special. They did not have an easy time of it—for each society wants to believe that it can exercise control over its own destiny and over others. I suspect their findings apply not just to science or personal behavior, but to the way power and leverage can be exercised by nation states. Yours, I suspect, will be the first generation which will have to achieve results with neither military nor economic predominance—no matter where you sit.
  • “Admit we are not sure of all the risks. . . .
  • Show some humility. . . .
  • Figure out what we are really trying to do. . . .
  • Try to understand why a transaction makes sense to your counterparty. . . .
  • Ask ‘what if?’ Quantify ‘what if?’ . . .
  • Ignore accounting conventions. They are not useful risk management tools; they are designed to make our lives easier and comfortable.
  • Always measure opportunities lost.”[1]


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