In Tokyo or London, New York or Frankfurt, teams of bankers, brokers, and traders -- loyal perhaps only to the bottom line -- zip billions of dollars around the world in microseconds. Computers, light-speed telecommunications, and ballooning institutional savings are driving this global financial revolution. To understand who controls the flow of wealth that funds the businesses that employ workers in the late 20th century, read on. MINDING the world's money, they arrive at work early, stay late, and work on multibillion-dollar deals.
Their battle stations are computer consoles and sophisticated telephone networks.
Speaking Japanese, Chinese, German, English (most of all English), they trade with their international counterparts -- who, like them, are mostly young men and women not averse to working flat out in the high-pressure business of investing, hedging, and angling for any advantage for their clients' money.
These technicians each day trade a complex array of government bonds, corporate paper, currencies -- and, increasingly, huge blocks of stock -- in an international financial market that follows the sun around the globe.
Currency, bond, and stock trading opens in the early-morning hours in Tokyo, the city that dominates Asian financial markets and increasingly influences global financial trends.
The day's action soon moves on to Hong Kong, where gold and foreign exchange are big items. As dawn comes up on the Strait of Malacca, Singapore joins in, along with smaller money centers and stock exchanges in Asia and India.
Asia closes for the evening just as brokers, bankers, and underwriters are arriving in Frankfurt, Geneva, and other European cities -- especially London, which is emerging as the financial headquarters of the Eastern Hemisphere.
The Europeans pick up on trends set in the Far East, react to events or rumors in Europe and the Middle East, and anticipate what will happen in North American business and economics. Fortunes are made and lost on an insight, a tip, or a guess.
Hours later, Wall Street and the financial communities of North America start work, acting on trends established in Europe and Asia and reacting to what happens during the business day in the United States -- and to what the all-important US government does that affects global economics.
The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is the busiest, wealthiest market on earth. Regional exchanges in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Toronto bustle, too.
The day wears on. Finally, there's a brief lull after the last of the regionals, the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco, closes.
Then, west of the international date line, Tokyo and Hong Kong take their bearings from what happened in the US the day before and go at it again.
Like this, day after day, capital is shuttled around the globe. INVISIBLE HEADQUARTERS
London was the hub of world finance in the 19th century, investing in cocoa plantations and railroads, factories and shipping fleets worldwide when Britannia ruled the waves. Sterling was the currency of commerce.
New York has dominated most of the 20th century -- especially the years after World War II. But for the most part, Americans have chosen to invest in the huge US economy and have been as reluctant economically as politically to become involved in the larger world economy. There are signs this is changing.
At the same time, Tokyo is emerging as a financial superpower. It will become still stronger as Japanese banks and corporations seek new business opportunities and move into the Pacific Basin countries. Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo estimates that Japan's share of world lending will grow from 18 percent today to 30 percent in 1995 -- equal to the present share of New York.
But Tokyo will probably never dominate the globe as did London and New York. Instead, a relatively decentralized global financial system is emerging.
The system is essentially trilateral, with its key bases in London, New York, and Tokyo. There are important second-tier centers in Frankfurt, Geneva-Zurich, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, and a dozen other money centers. But actually the headquarters is invisible. Capital moves from place to place by computer and satellite links.
The global financial system is supranational. At its best, it may be seen as knitting the globe more closely together as one planetary economic community. Just as a awareness of the globalness of earth's ecosystem has caused nations to view acid rain and carbon-dioxide buildup as planetary problems, the economic gains and losses of one country are increasingly seen as affecting many others.
At its worst, this new global financial order is accountable to no one. Sharp-eyed young technicians handle billions of dollars of money each day, often without really knowing whom that money belongs to. They are intensely profit-oriented and arbitrary, and the money they control can be subject to wild flights or harrowing crashes based on rumors and hunches.
This is an international revolution of capital that seems to echo the worldwide labor revolution predicted by Karl Marx.
``It's rather like the old Marxist international vision, but capitalism is providing the means,'' observes Prof. Zannis Res at London's City University. ``It's rather bizarre that we're meeting his vision this way.''
There are three key actors causing the working capital of the world to unite:
Big brokers and bankers.
Institutions, banks, and corporations are not exactly cuddly and warm sounding. But the little guy is there if you look closely.
Institutional investments consist of money that comes from millions of individual workers and investors throughout the free-market world. The money goes into savings accounts, pension funds, mutual funds, insurance, and big private investment portfolios.
The pool of private pension funds of the 24 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development is $1.4 trillion. In five years, it is expected to grow to $3 trillion.
Professional investors must look for the best possible deal for the money they sit on, balancing risk with return, so that when the little guy withdraws his funds, he has made money on his money and can retire, send the kids to college, or put his savings to other uses.
It used to be that a portfolio of various American stocks was enough to score a decent return. No more. A slow-growing US economy, volatile exchange rates, unstable interest rates, and better opportunities abroad have caused investors to look beyond national boundaries.
Here's why: If the US economy flags, there's no reason the Japanese or German economies will. In fact, even during the current bull market, American stocks have been outshone consistently by overseas stocks. And because free-market economies are becoming more closely linked through world trade, professional investors must think globally.
If a mutual fund or pension fund wants to buy a packet of auto stocks, can it really look only within the borders of one country any longer?
An American pension fund may decide to buy shares of Ford, Toyota, or Fiat. A Japanese fund may buy Procter & Gamble, Nestl'e, or Cadbury-Schweppes. British investors may go for Cathay Pacific, TWA, or Lufthansa.
In the middle, executing these buy and sell orders, are big broker-dealers: Merrill Lynch, Nomura Securities, Morgan Stanley, S. G. Warburg. In countries with liberal banking laws (Germany, Switzerland, Britain), banks are the big brokers of virtually all financial transactions. In the US and Japan, at least for now, brokerages alone do this.
At the other end of the transaction are multinational corporations: General Electric, Mitsubishi, British Petroleum, Daimler-Benz, etc. With their global reach they now sell bonds or stocks in the Far East, Europe, and North America simultaneously, seeking the lowest-cost capital. US companies raised $134.4 billion in the Eurobond market last year -- 10 times what they raised a decade ago.
``The stark fact,'' NYSE chairman John J. Phelan Jr. told securities regulators earlier this year, ``is that while we were [still] thinking about it, round-the-world, round-the-clock trading arrived. And it has been growing at an ever-increasing rate in an unplanned and barely regulated way for years.''
The internationalization of investments follows on the heels of the internationalization of trade and industrial development in the post-World War II years. It's first sign was international currency trading that arose after the Bretton Woods monetary agreement collapsed in the early '70s.
``Money markets are truly global already,'' notes Professor Res. ``But the globalization of capital markets is only scratching the surface. The international equity market is very embryonic.''
But it will mature. There is an important reason: Behind globalization is the desire of its most important customers to seek profit and lay off risk wherever it may be. ``Few people analyze it,'' says Yoshio Iwata, senior managing governor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, ``but 24-hour trading is being driven by international institutional investors.
``They want to sell a huge amount of stock and want to sell it right now, while Japan is sleeping, so they sell to a broker, and the broker wants to get rid of the risk, so he comes to Tokyo. But it all starts with the institutional investors.'' SYSTEM RISK
Where is all this taking us?
The emerging global stock market is eroding national economic boundaries. It channels excess savings from developed countries (Japan, West Germany) to emerging ones (South Korea, India, China) or to ones with special needs (the US with its deficit-spending policies of the early 1980s).
Since the international debt crisis has slowed the flow of official development capital to the third world, the desire to attract private investment is great. Hence more and more nations are liberalizing ownership and exchange controls, privatizing, and trying to promote foreign investment.
But nations cede sovereign power when they allow foreigners to own key industries, or when money can leave their country on a millisecond's notice. As chairman Phelan notes: ``Money leaks through and flows around national boundaries and regulatory barriers much more easily than manufactured goods can.''
Nationalism and expropriation have to be set aside if a country is to attract capital for its own growth. But when the pressures mount at home, will that last? This is part of the risk money managers must assess. They must be students not just of corporate profits but also of international politics.
But the financial revolution is happening so fast, and on such a global scale, that it is outstripping governmental ability to regulate the system.
In 1984, a rumor on the commercial paper market in Tokyo prompted a run on Continental Illinois Bank in Chicago. The rumor was unfounded, but by the time the sun rose over Lake Michigan, the bank's deposit base was a shambles.
Since then, notes Takashi Kiuchi, an economist with Japan's Long-Term Credit Bank, ``the governments say they have made a great improvement in monitoring the system. But it's impossible for anyone to monitor the system.''
Mr. Kiuchi is referring only to commercial paper and banking. Global stock, equity, and currency trading are vastly more complex. There is no global government to watch the global financial market.