The official bad guy of globalism is retiring. George Soros is the bête noire of the right and some of the left, and, to his detractors, he is the embodiment of the negative Jewish stereotype. Last week, the financier, handed over control of his multibillion-dollar empire to his son, Alexander. The U.S. tycoon showed all his power with his attack on the pound sterling in 1992, which earned him a billion dollars in one day and brought the Bank of England to its knees. “I was lucky,” he recounted much later, not giving it any importance. It was neither the first nor the last of his risky speculative maneuvers. Today, his fortune is estimated at $25 billion.
The 1992 episode was but a foretaste of the turbulence to come on the international financial scene. But above all, it made Soros a target both for his wealth — or rather his way of accumulating it — and his support of liberal causes, starting with the promotion of democracy behind the former Iron Curtain through the Open Society network of foundations. Established a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was able to operate in Hungary, Soros’ home country, without major interference under the Communist government. This was in stark contrast to what happened later in a theoretically democratic regime under the rule of the illiberal Viktor Orbán: the Central European University, one of the jewels in the crown of Soros’ empire, had to leave the country after a law against foreign-funded NGOs was passed. Two years earlier, the institution had been expelled from Russia as “undesirable.” At the turn of the century, the Open Society network operated in more than 70 countries, and as of 2017, had received $18 billion in funding.
Visionary, audacious, a feared speculator and a generous philanthropist, Soros still casts the shadow of a survivor. In 1944, he emerged unscathed from the Nazi occupation of Hungary. His family had fled in disarray to avoid the concentration camps, an experience that marked that 13-year-old boy for life, as he has confessed many times. An unfathomable threshold of risk has characterized his way of doing business. Soros is considered a wizard of financial engineering, even from before it was defined as such. His particular philosophy (he trained with Karl Popper in London, where his family arrived in 1947) combines uncertainty and profit or, more simply, the worse, the better: meaning, that the more tense a situation is, the less it takes to reverse it and the greater the potential for profit. Abandoning his intention to become a philosopher — the name of his foundation pays homage to the “open society” advocated by Popper — and after an internship at a small London bank, he crossed the Atlantic and in 1956 settled in New York, where he worked as a securities analyst before making a name for himself. Six decades later, his English still carries a strong foreign accent.
He established Soros Fund Management in 1973, a hedge fund later renamed Quantum. The name is reminiscent of both a James Bond novella and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. His bold investments quickly multiplied his fortune. But not all of his bets were successful. Soros correctly foresaw the global stock market crash of October 1987, but he was wrong to predict that Japanese stocks would suffer the most. Something similar happened with the Brexit vote in 2016: he did not really believe that the U.K. would choose to leave the EU, so the result of the British referendum caught the tycoon on the back foot, and long on the pound. He bet on its strengthening, but in two days, the currency lost almost 12% against the U.S. dollar. He also predicted a market downturn following a Donald Trump victory in 2020. He made a mistake and lost. In the late 1990s, he was linked to the Thai bath and Malaysian ringgit attacks, but his involvement could not be proven. He was also investigated and fined for insider trading in a transaction with Société Générale. When the technology bubble burst, his risky business style became more prudent.
Soros, a big tennis fan, is a well-known Democratic donor. He contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 and Joe Biden’s 2020 campaigns and spent $128.5 million during the November midterm elections, making him the largest single donor in that election cycle. His political and social activism soon placed him at the center of a supposed global conspiracy, of which he would be both the architect and beneficiary: from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement; the refugee crisis of 2015 and Black Lives Matter, all the acute or systemic shocks of the last few decades are supposedly the result of his machinations.
But he is not only singled out by the right, he is also the target of friendly fire from fellow Jews. In 2010, he contributed $100 million to Human Rights Watch, which has been heavily criticized among some American Jewish circles, as evidenced by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal in which Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard professor emeritus, claimed that the financier has done more than anyone else to turn Americans against Israel. “Elon Musk [who has called Soros “Magneto,” the villain from the X-Men saga] is absolutely right, and it is not anti-Semitic [to say so],” the academic concluded. “His Jewishness shouldn’t shield him from criticism. Further, no single person has done more to damage Israel’s standing in the world, especially among so-called progressives,” said the columnist, alluding to the activism of Human Rights Watch.
If the causes he defends have put him in the spotlight, the “more political” profile of his heir Alexander, 37, may offer an even better target to the American right. His intention is to “boost his support for voting rights and abortion,” two hot topics on the country’s political and judicial agenda. Alexander taking the throne came as a surprise — it was supposedly destined for the firstborn, 52-year-old Jonathan, son of Soros’ first wife — and, apart from his life of partying in his twenties, little is known of Alexander’s résumé that is not linked to his father’s companies (he was named chairman of the Open Society network in December). He holds a B.A. in History from New York University and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 2018.
The philanthropic side of the legendary Soros Sr. is for some a shield behind which his true agenda is hidden: to manipulate politics and the economy for his own benefit. But despite the controversy he causes, no one in the financial market questions his merit as an investor. For Soros, just as for the 13-year-old boy frightened by Nazi soldiers passing through the streets of Budapest, investing is about survival: learning to be conservative, taking losses, not entering the market if it is not clear, and playing hard when the opportunity presents itself. Fleeing forward, perhaps. “Instead of submitting to our fate, we resisted an evil force that was much stronger than we were — yet we prevailed. Not only did we survive, but we managed to help others. This left a lasting mark on me, turning a disaster of unthinkable proportions into an exhilarating adventure. That gave me an appetite for taking risk,” he recounted in an essay in The New York Review of Books in 2011.
In the 1990s, speculators like Soros almost won the battle against the states. Three decades later, frozen in the memory of that black Wednesday in September 1992 when his attack on the pound destabilized the markets, the legend of old Soros lives on like the frequent but diminishing aftershocks of an earthquake.
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