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Unemployed finance guys in Buenos Aires

Interesting article. I've visited Buenos Aires a couple of times for a total stay of four months. What the article describes squares with my knowledge of the place (though I didn't, er, exactly go through the same experiences).

By Spencer Morgan
Around October, when the economy went into free fall, a bunch of out-of-work finance guys in their 20s descended on Buenos Aires, where you can have the penthouse, the steak dinners and the bottle service at ridiculous nightclubs and still save money renting out your apartment in New York or London.

Lifestyle arbitrage, baby! The word got out, and the party built on itself, making the fantasy it offered all the more intoxicating: Come spend a month—or four—in Buenos Aires, where you really are a master of the universe, where nights are sleepless and potential business deals are all scams and the clubs teem with unemployed expat bankers looking for their identities in piles of cocaine and the bloodshot eyes of hookers and thieves.

Jason got to the party four months early. That's not his real name. This is his story.

“ They all enjoyed a few snorts of coke, then had a threesome. ” He remembers May 15, 2008 as the worst day of his life—up to that point, at least. That was the day he got laid off from his dream job. Jason was an investment banker in New York City. He remembers leaving the office building after he was let go, and it was as if everything was muffled. He couldn't really hear anything. He was walking along West 57th Street in Manhattan when he ran into a friend from college who was giddy about a hilarious new speed-dating service he had discovered.

"I just didn't hear anything that was coming out of his mouth," Jason recalls. "I was so shell-shocked."

Then he was on Fifth Avenue. He swears to God all the big buildings looked as if they were curving in above him. The trees formed a canopy, and their leaves seemed to be laughing at him. Fifth Avenue was the street he used to walk down each time he got to the next level. There had been many.

After graduating from a Big Ten state university in 2003, Jason told his college counselor he thought he might like finance because the entrepreneurial spirit and cutthroat competition of investing appealed to him—especially since he had been a star athlete and all. She suggested institutional sales. He started out at a public accounting firm, but he didn't want to be an accountant. He worked his way up, rising in the bullish years. Institutional sales, institutional sales, institutional sales, he would tell himself on the bad days. He worked in the back office at Lehman Brothers as an "ops monkey," doing the accounting work behind the trades being executed in the front office. He spent two years at Morgan Stanley, where he was technically in the front office but not really. A little less than a year ago a foreign bank that had recently entered the U.S. market gave him his own trading desk. He was on top of the world. He dressed the part. His first day at work he wore a gray Theory suit he had just bought for $950, a pair of Ferragamo loafers ($425) and a light blue BCBG button-down he'd had custom fitted.

This city can't **** with me, Jason would say to himself. This city can't beat me. I'm a kid who went to a state school, with no cash in this world, and I'm ******* dealing. There were bottles and tables at Marquee and Tenjune with fellow banking friends. Jason likes to think he enjoyed the scene differently than the Ivy League kids who were handed their plum positions at investment banks, hedge funds and private equity funds. Jason's mother is a schoolteacher; his father works for the city of Syracuse. He delighted in acting the part and partying like his bonus could buy your ***.

On May 15 the city beat Jason. He was unemployed. He ducked into Bloomingdale's that day and bought three pairs of Ferragamos: one pair of casual white ones—he liked white Ferragamos—and two pairs of dressy work loafers. I'll wear these again one day, he told himself.

Unable to get a job in New York, Jason began looking at emerging markets—Buenos Aires, Prague, São Paulo. If he could get something substantial going abroad, create a market in a country where there was none, he could build a bridge back to Wall Street and come out on top. Risk and reward. A friend sent Jason's résumé around to a few people he knew in Buenos Aires.

In June he flew down for an interview, and a friend from Morgan Stanley tagged along. The interview did not result in an offer.

Jason and his friend booked a room in a posh boutique hotel in Palermo Soho for $150 a night. That weekend they wound up at a party in another gringo's suite with a couple of girls who turned out to be hookers. The girls stole everything in the kitchen, which amounted to about $1,000.

“ The cop pointed a shotgun at them and told them they were going to make a tour of ATMs. Two hours and $3,000 later, the cops set them free. ” At the airport the next day Jason's friend was shocked when Jason told him he wasn't getting on the plane. The 20-minute cab ride from Ezeiza International Airport back to the city offers views of the villas miserias (shantytowns) that surround the downtown area, as well as a fancy soccer facility, a training ground for the nation's top-ranked team, whose coach is the legendary Diego Maradona—a notorious ex–coke addict.

By local standards Jason got bilked when he rented an apartment for a week for $500 from Apartments BA, a leading developer that has in the past decade purchased, largely through foreign investors, roughly half a billion dollars in properties, in cash. There is no credit in Buenos Aires, no loans, no mortgages. Every transaction is in cash. This is because banks here have no money to lend because they have no capital because no one in his right mind keeps much money in the bank since the government defaulted on its public debt during the 2001 financial crisis, robbing its citizens of some $93 billion. Since the latest financial crisis, short-term rentals have gone down, while month-to-month rentals are up 15 to 20 percent. Apartments BA chief executive Michael Koh doesn't ask, but clients often tell him, "I just lost my job in finance."

A friend of a friend put Jason in touch with Jordan Metzner, a 25-year-old gringo from Sherman Oaks, California who had come to Buenos Aires three years earlier to pursue his dream of starting a small business. At that time Jordan had one burrito restaurant in Microcentro, the Buenos Aires equivalent of the Wall Street area. Jordan happened to have a spare room for rent, and Jason jumped on it.He spent the first few months alone in his room, watching soccer and hunting for jobs on the Net. Every so often he would have a meeting with this real-estate fund or that wind-power start-up. Nothing smelled right, but he wasn't in a hurry. He enjoyed not working 12-hour days, instead taking time to nurse body and soul back to health. "I was reflecting on who I had become after six years in finance," Jason says.

Their friends were all bankers. Says Jordan of the people he graduated from college with, "Chris went to Goldman Sachs, Philippe went to J.P. Morgan, John went to Blackstone, Lindsey to Bear Stearns. I could just keep going on and on. David, Merrill Lynch. Matt went to J.P. Morgan. Anyway, they all got jobs in investment banking, wearing suits and ties. Most of my best friends made $200,000 the first year out of college."

Toward the end of August Jason met a young hotelier named Gabriel Gruber, co-founder of the Tailor Made Hotel. Gruber invited him to look at a deal he was putting together for a new boutique hotel in Las Cañitas, a posh neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars. The financials were solid, and Gruber was a local with a great track record—exactly what you want if you're investing in an emerging market. Finally, an investment deal Jason could put his full weight behind. He lined up a few interested New York investors. The next step was to figure out where the fund would be based. (Bringing money into Argentina is difficult if you want to avoid going through the sketchy Central Bank and paying huge taxes.) That's when things went very wrong.

Jason met a cocky 22-year-old porteño named José Rodrigo. José worked for a New York–based private equity group as its representative in Montevideo, Uruguay, which is three hours east of Buenos Aires by water taxi and home to a number of legal tax shelters. José was happy to set up some meetings for Jason with the tax shelter operators he knew and offered to accompany him on his trip. What a guy.The trip was productive, and Jason was eager to get back to Buenos Aires.

José said that since they were already in Uruguay they should spend an afternoon in Punta del Este, a well-known resort town a mere hour-and-a-half drive—along the completely barren coastline—from Montevideo. They lunched at the famous Parador La Huella. Jason got up to use the bathroom. After lunch he suggested they hit the road. José asked him if he was feeling all right. When Jason said he wasn't, José said it was probably best to head home.

Twenty minutes out of town Jason asked José to stop the car. He was feeling queasy and his legs were numb. As soon as he got out of the car he fell to his knees and began vomiting. José drove off. Jason could not believe his eyes.

It was dark and cold, and he was alone. He thought he was going to die. He crawled two miles to a bus station. After five buses passed, a driver took pity on him and allowed him to ride for free. The driver radioed ahead to a hospital that he had a sick passenger. At the hospital Jason realized he had no money. He remembers a nurse had to get someone who spoke English. "You're in Uruguay," they told him. "Medical care is free." Diagnosis: He had been poisoned.

Two days later Jason finally made it back to the Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires. At José's apartment the police found Jason's stuff, except his computer, which was all that mattered (though the police reports did make fine souvenirs).

A couple of days later Jason was still feeling like hell. Jordan came into his room: "Guess what, man." He told him Bank of America had acquired Merrill Lynch. Not long after, Lehman Brothers went under. The finance industry was crumbling; the demise was stunning in its breadth and immediacy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between January 2008 and April 2009 some 276,000 Americans with jobs in the finance industry were handed their walking papers. Jason and Jordan started to get phone calls from their banker buddies in the States. Many of them were headed for Buenos Aires.

After being poisoned and left for dead, Jason gave up trying to put together deals in Buenos Aires. Building a bridge back to Wall Street wasn't happening.

On October 21 Argentina's leftist government nationalized the $30 billion private pension system. The stated purpose was to protect investors from losses resulting from the global market turmoil. Another effect was that trying to raise foreign capital, even for a tourism venture, became pointless; no one wants to invest in a country that recently nationalized $30 billion in private investments. Besides, tourism was sure to go down, because social upheaval and violence would likely ensue.

Meanwhile Jason started going out more—what the hell else was there to do?

He spotted more and more bankers everywhere he went. He went to Crobar in Palermo Chico, next to the Rose Garden park where he used to jog in the halcyon days of winter (summer in New York). While waiting to get in—the nightclubs open at two a.m.—he noticed a group of about seven guys, in blazers and expensive loafers, whose eyes seemed to be popping out of their heads. They wanted help getting into the club and explained that they were from New York, worked in finance and had moved to Buenos Aires for a couple of months. At Bahrein, a club in Centro, Jason encountered another pack of blazers, who were waving money at the doorman, trying to jump the line. He had a good chuckle later that night when he saw them invite two very convincing transsexuals to join them at their table. Another night, at Rumi, he was at a table with a couple of friends and a bunch of hot girls. Four American-looking dudes started hovering, trying to mack on their women.Jason had to break up a fight between his friends and one of the dudes, a blond guy in a blazer and V-neck T-shirt. Jason is six-five. The guy explained to him that it was all good; he was also from New York and had "voluntarily" left his job at Lazard. Then the guy offered Jason some coke he had bought from the taxi driver on the way over.

"There's a Banker" became a game Jason played with his friends. The expat bankers weren't difficult to spot: "You see these kids in their sports jackets. Their jaws are clenched tight. They're in a ******* club where there's amazing techno music. They don't even know what the hell it is. They're wearing ******* sports jackets, and they just look like idiots. They're ******* sitting there with their eyes popping out of their heads, and they're ****-faced drunk. Girls are like, 'What the **** are these…?' You know? They don't party like that down here."

During his time in Buenos Aires Jason met only one local drug dealer. His name is Marcello. "There are more gringos in my city every day," says Marcello in a brief interview in Palermo Soho. He has a shaved head and a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm. He speaks from the saddle of his motorcycle. "I don't particularly deal with them every day, but I have told my employees to target them in the clubs. As far as bankers go I have been to many parties where American bankers have been. They all buy coke from me and blow it immediately. That's the American way—consume, consume. They don't respect the drug the way Argentines do. We use it when we are tired and want to keep dancing. These guys do a gram in an hour, and it's not even12 a.m. yet. For me it's good because I always have more to sell to them."

Marcello says his guys find most of their gringos at Crobar, Pacha and Jet on the weekends. "Expats are always at tables and spend a lot of money on drinks and are bad dancers and always too drunk. So it is easy for my guys to find them. They just go up to the tables, find the biggest gringo and ask him if he wants ecstasy, coke, MDA or ketamine." Gringos are mostly into coke, with ecstasy a distant second, Marcello says. He sells his goods by the gram: 50 pesos for local customers and up to 120 pesos for gringos.

"The gringos all ask me if I am a real drug dealer," he says. "I don't tell them, but I ask them what they do. They say they are some big banker from London or New York, and I tell them that I am too. They like me better, and then I sell them more coke."

In early December, at a holiday party at his friend Nell Hutchins's place, Jason was forced to confront the extreme bias he had developed against his fellow ex-bankers. Nell, a 27-year-old New Yorker, said that in her nine months in B.A. four of the seven guys she went on dates with turned out to be bankers. Half the guests at the party seemed to be unemployed finance guys. Until then Jason had avoided any serious conversation with other bankers he'd encountered because he associated them with the system that had chewed him up and spit him out. But at this intimate gathering conversation could not be avoided. He was surprised at how comforting it was to talk to people who were going through the same career and identity crises. The industry they had all fought so hard to be a part of, that had in a way defined their generation and that they'd assumed would fund their futures lavishly, was simply gone. What next? More than ever Jason appreciated the sharp intellect and aggressive attitudes of his counterparts, in particular a guy named Mat Levine. Mat also wore white loafers.

Like so many young bucks in the finance world, Mat, 27, is big, brash and physically fit—he was the leading scorer three years running on the Emory University soccer team. He is a fiend for action. When the credit markets first began to freeze up, in December 2007, he grew dissatisfied with the returns he was getting on his 12-hour days at a Park Avenue hedge fund. He found himself sitting on his hands with a six-figure savings account smoldering under his Herman Miller office chair.

After a full year of traveling the world he arrived in Buenos Aires earlier that month and rented an apartment in Palermo Hollywood. It had a doorman, a beautiful pool, a double balcony, a massive bedroom with views of the city, a huge open kitchen, a huge living room and three flat-screen TVs. He says it was the sort of place that would have cost $10,000 a month in Manhattan; it cost $1,800 a month in Buenos Aires.

For Mat, there would be no afternoons spent lounging in the Plaza de Mayo, gazing up at Casa Rosada, where Eva Perón rallied the masses, no lazy Sundays perusing the many booths at the antiques market in San Telmo, no midnight gawking at the milongas, the outdoor neighborhood parties where locals dance the tango. ¡Que auténtico! Screw that ****.

Here's how Mat describes his life in Argentina: "My average day was waking up at, let's say two—maybe three but let's say two—and going to lunch, which consisted of going to a nice restaurant and having a big steak. Then I would get back to my place at, say, four, 4:30 and spend the afternoon at the pool. I would maybe go for a short walk or most likely have some friend over to the pool.

And then I would meet up with friends at, like, 10ish to go to dinner, and you go to another one of the top restaurants. Dinner ends at midnight or one. Then you go to a bar for an hour, maybe two. Then you go to a nightclub. Usually the clubs start to empty out around six or seven in the morning."

Jason fell into the routine. He found himself dining at one of the most expensive Argentine steakhouses, even though he couldn't afford it, and then hitting the clubs. Suddenly his cell phone was crammed with the numbers of expats. He was going out five nights a week. He differentiated himself from the posse by venturing out from the VIP section to join the masses in back-and-forth hip-swivel dancing, which expats commonly refer to as the washing machine. Also, his banker gear was long gone, save for the white Ferragamos. The new uniform was tight Rock & Republic jeans and colorful long-sleeve T-shirts of local design, topped with floppy, flaxen locks. He did, however, take up the banker-mentality competition for who could consistently bring home the hottest babes. At last count Jason was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 girls.

Mat and his crew—which included two Aussie i-bankers, Duncan and Dan—took the games to a new level with the " Olympics," which involved various Herculean feats with girls at bars: remove an item of her clothing in a bar; make out with a girl without uttering a word, in a bar. Others, who shall remain nameless, assumed superhero identities: Batman would point a flashlight at a lucky lady, illuminating her shadow against the wall before the romance ensued; Spider-Man would jerk off in his hand and cast out his progeny in a fashion similar to the way his namesake unleashes his web.

All through spring and summer more expats arrived. Jason spent Christmas day alone in his apartment. Now six months in Buenos Aires, he was feeling the hangover. For the first time in his life his parents wanted to get off the phone with him. He said he had never felt so alone and helpless. He contemplated his options: return to New York, which was experiencing one of its coldest winters and where he would blow through his savings in two months while job hunting in the worst employment market since the 1930s.

"I decided I would hang myself if I went back there," he says. He resolved to make the most of the next two months. "I sort of took refuge in the banker community."

On New Year's Eve Jordan hosted a traditional asado, an all-day barbecue around a charcoal grill, on his rooftop. He estimates that about half the 20 people who came were from the finance world. One attendee, David, a 26-year-old J.P. Morgan casualty, sent an e-mail home describing the events of the night.

"At about 1:30 a.m. we all left to go to the nightclub. One of the most unforgettable experiences of my life," read the missive. "I have partied in many cities, from Tel Aviv to Rome to Los Angeles, and nothing would prepare me for what was about to come. Pacha nightclub is a monstrous three-story building set just on the edge of Buenos Aires, with two huge dance floors, including an outdoor patio and balcony with complete views of the ocean. The club was amazing. We got in at two a.m. and the music was already bumping. At one point I was dancing on a balcony overlooking the ocean and staring down at a sea of people jumping up and down to electronica as the sun began to rise behind them. I have never seen anything like it."

"In New York people leave before the music stops. In Buenos Aires the music stops at eight a.m., and then everyone leaves with their sunglasses on. Some decide to finish their night in the morning and others continue to an after-hours club, which opens at eight a.m. and closes at three p.m....Such a drug culture here. Getting a drink is a pain. You need to first put in your order and pay at the register. Next they give you a ticket to wait in another line so you can give the ticket to the bartender to fill the order. It's a huge pain in the ***, so everyone says **** it and does lines and rolls ecstasy. But you don't need to be on something to have fun, as the adrenaline rushing through your system from the thousands of people dancing around you is enough to get you high. I met this Brazilian girl from São Paulo who was visiting, and we hit it off immediately. Dancing to techno all night and grinding hard.... Smoking hotttyyyy making out and touchy-feely all night.…"

In the Pacha VIP section, Jason fell in with a clique of gringos he had never met before. One of them was a commodities trader from Texas who was wearing a Versace suit and snakeskin boots and had more coke than he knew what to do with. Jason gave him the nickname Dallas. After a brief sojourn at Dallas's suite at the Philippe Starck–designed five-diamond Faena Hotel in the Puerto Madero neighborhood, the group of new friends set out in search of an after-hours club they had heard about called Kites. At around11 a.m., after a meandering 45-minute cab ride, they arrived at the monstrous fortress.

Around two a.m. Jason and two Argentine girls he had met there arrived at an apartment in Palermo Hollywood. He remembers walking in and seeing a scuzzy-looking porteño hipster dude in a white V-neck and tight jeans sitting on a couch next to a beautiful young Argentine girl with wavy brown hair and large breasts. He gave Jason a sleazy look, as if to say "Watch this," then cupped the young woman's breasts with one hand, dumped some cocaine on her cleavage and plunged his face in there.

The girls took Jason into a bedroom, where they all enjoyed a few snorts and then a threesome. An hour or so later Jason was back on the streets. The 20-minute walk home was one of the darkest 20 minutes of his life.

"I decided right then and there that I had to get back to New York," he says. After another equally soul- crushing night with a former Goldman Sachs banker, he booked a ticket for the end of January. He never got on the flight.

Through January and February Jason began hearing more stories of expats getting robbed or being kidnapped. One friend, Mike, who had worked at a now-defunct hedge fund in San Francisco, and another guy were leaving a bar in Microcentro, doing bumps off their hands as they walked. A cop car pulled up. They thought they were going to jail. The cop in the passenger seat pointed a shotgun at them and told them they were going to make a tour of ATMs, which are few and far between in this city. Two hours and $3,000 later, the cops set them free.

Prostitution is a huge industry in Buenos Aires. The whorehouse district is across the street from the historic Recoleta Cemetery, a major tourist attraction, on Vicente López. The street is lined with "cabarets." Customers pay a charge at the door; inside, the bars are full of working women. What you do from there is your business.

Gabriela, a manager at the M&D Hippopotamus cabaret, tells me she has seen a significant increase in American expats at the club since the financial crisis. She says the young Americans are the worst. "They think they are the best," she says.

"Sometimes they tell you what they want.…" She makes a grabbing motion with her hands. "They don't ask for it."

Jason hit bottom the night he visited Hippopotamus in late February. Up until then he had had no cause to visit a cabaret, but his friend Abdullah (a nickname, on account of his Middle Eastern heritage) was in town. Abdullah had lost his job at Lehman Brothers a few days earlier. When Jason heard the news, he persuaded Abdullah to come down to Buenos Aires. The poor bastard was in no condition to enjoy paradise. As soon as he arrived at Jason's apartment he hijacked the computer and spent the rest of the day job hunting. The two finally made their way to a bar, where Abdullah proceeded to order shot after shot of tequila.

At one point a girl asked him what he did. Jason was like, "Say it, dude. Say it."

Later that night, Jason looked over at his friend and saw him sitting there, drunk and crying in public. The next night Abdullah was wasted again, threatening to kick everyone's ***. Then he turned to Jason and barked, "Take me to a whorehouse!" Jason says he was so frustrated with his houseguest that he was happy to facilitate a decision Abdullah would regret.

Once inside Hippopotamus, Abdullah became grumpy again and said he wanted to leave. Jason had another idea: He found an attractive-enough girl with a big brown front tooth, gave her 50 pesos and told her to walk up to his friend and grab his cock. Back at the apartment, Jason stayed up to make sure she didn't steal anything on the way out.Around three p.m. the following day Abdullah emerged from his room and immediately started bitching: "Why did you take me there? I didn't even want to go! This is exactly why I didn't want to visit you, because I would end up in these situations. I am trying to change my life around for the better." Abdullah booked a flight out of town that day.

Jason made it back to New York on March 1. The Ferragamo work loafers he bought on that fateful day in May 2008 remain in a box in his parents' house upstate.
 
I wish you had mentioned that so I could have saved my time - the article went nowhere fast.

That's a good description. It was amusing at first, but got really monotonous. I thought there would be some great revelation or some kind of plot resolution at the end.

Not much insight either. If you want to go into an emerging Latin market, Chile is probably your best bet. Not a country that's famous for defaulting on it's bonds in 2001, and again in 2008, and then again in 2009.
 
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