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Jun 30, 1998

Encounters: Making friends and influencing people

Societal philosophy is all so easy when you've downed a few rakis

Some things only work in context. Hawaiian shirts may seem cool to the hedonists on Waikiki. But once the plane takes off for the mainland, they are revealed as the ultimate in naff.

So it is with raki.

Sipped on the shores of the Bosphorus, it makes you feel like a millionaire - but then, with over 200,000 lira to the dollar, that doesn't take much. It also brings loquacity, illumination and wisdom. The bottle you pick up in the duty-free at Istanbul airport and try at home never has the same effect. In fact, it tastes disgusting.

Two particular gems of wisdom came to me as I was sharing a bottle of raki and eating stuffed mussels in a bar in Otokoy. The first was the similarity between today's investors and the herdsmen of the plains. The second revelation was that the musical Oklahoma is an investor relations textbook.

The begetter of this insight was my drinking companion, Mehmet, an anthropology professor. We were sitting in a bar in the shadow of the Bosphorus bridge, looking across the water from Europe to Asia. There are bigger bridges in the world, and perhaps more elegant ones. But none more symbolic, spanning, as it does, two continents.

Aided by my raki, I was expounding on the significance of bridging cultures when Mehmet interrupted me. The real conflict, he told me, was not between Asia and Europe but between settlers - the people who built cities - and the nomads who roamed the great plains which stretched from the Danube to Mongolia.

In this most ancient of cities, he was making the point that major events in history, like the fall of Byzantium and Constantinople, were merely episodes in the continuing conflict between nomads and settlers. It was a conflict which infused out mythology, from Cain, the planter, and Abel, the shepherd, onward.

So where are the parallels with investors? They came to me as Mehmet was explaining the fundamental differences between planter and nomadic societies. If the farmer leaves his fields, his crops wither. But nomads have to constantly move their animals to fresh grazing or they die. The land has no meaning for them once they've moved on. As he explained this, my thoughts turned to emerging markets.

Settlers developed ways of safeguarding themselves against the ravages of nature and their enemies. They learned how to store and preserve food and developed water supplies and irrigation systems. They developed physical defenses, advanced weapons and the rule of law to settle disputes between strangers.

Nomads were faced with annual lean seasons when their animals were at their weakest - ritualized as Pentacost, Lent and Ramadan. And if the lean season went on too long, the animals would die. And they also faced predators - human and animal - who could attack at any time. The only real safeguard for nomads was to increase and guard their stock fanatically.

How often have I wondered why a George Soros, say, having made more money than most of us could dream of, continues to pursue his profession so obsessively?

Today's remaining few true nomads, like the Quashgais in Iran and the Masai of Kenya, are facing the ultimate crisis at the hands of the fence builders and law makers. No longer do the citizens of Vienna and Beijing live in fear of the insurgent Mongols and the Huns. Can we see ravaged cities despoiled by Genghis Khan in the burning and looted shops of today's Jakarta?

Without the raki, the answer is clearly not. How can investors be today's nomads? After all, for the most part, they live in cities and they own real estate. But in a virtual world, we can all be many incompatible things at the same time.

In a virtual world, we can't define physical boundaries between the 'civilized' and 'barbaric' worlds. But we should not forget that corporate raiders are still described in terms of barbarians at the gate.

And there is one other thing we shouldn't forget. In the Old Testament, which is full of pastoral metaphor, we are told that Jehovah preferred Abel's offering of a 'firstling of the flock' to Cain's 'fruit of the ground'.

But perhaps Oscar Hammerstein got it right. The farmer and the cowboy should be friends. And perhaps, after a few rakis next to the Bosphorus, I might suggest that that is what investor relations is all about. Hic.

Staff Writers

The staff writers on IR magazine are from our team of highly experienced journalists.