Valley Of Shadows – Snippet 04


All banks, and for that matter major companies of every stripe, as well as government organizations the world over, prepare for a variety of possible crises of varying severity. Localized environmental events, regional wars, massive global inflation, multiregional wars between major nations–all of these will interrupt “normal” life for a time. Post 9/11, national regulatory agencies required market makers–major actors on the exchanges whose activity facilitated the daily movement of cash money throughout the economy–to have plans to cope with these “mundane” catastrophes. Even the recent Paris scenario or the “nuclear event in the Caribbean” that the PI team strongly suspected hadn’t been a hoax represented manageable events, for values of the word manageable.

To comply with their “market maker” status, BotA and all its peers had the ability to shift trading activity between widely separated and redundant physical trading floors, complete with identical work stations, data feeds and trading turrets. These facilities were located at radii of increasing values from the “main facilities,” which always resided in very large cities: London, New York, Tokyo etc. During a truly major event that might cause trading to be temporarily suspended for a day or three, the banks could “pass the book” to other regional offices located on other continents, allowing trades actually in progress to be completed. The financial sector practiced these routine sorts of emergencies every year.

However, a few entities, mostly nation states and very large multinationals, extended their planning further.

How does one preserve civilization in the event of a smallish planetary comet strike? What if the Yellowstone supercaldera lets loose just enough to stop the next growing season? How do you cope with the use of several major EMPs detonated in near Earth orbit? These events wouldn’t merely perturb markets for a short while. Globally integrated economic activity could cease for an indefinite period. Without the ability to finance fuel, fertilizer, spare parts and transport, the system that fed, clothed and healed the world would degrade very rapidly and even perhaps shut down across entire regions.

Thus, Plan Zeus.

In the event that market activity was projected to be suspended for a significant period, and the reopening could not be accurately forecasted, BotA had a “Go To Hell” strategy. In a nutshell, it would rapidly exercise long-term options on certain properties and stocks of materials. It would dispatch personnel for long-term duty at hardened data centers in order to preserve an image of global financial activity and capital reserves, to the level of individual retail transactions, enabling a restart at some future point. Certain high-value private banking customers would be notified and offered personal options. In short, the bank would function as a parachute for such of its staff and customers that could either afford the cost, were senior enough to negotiate this as a perk or possessed an indispensable skill needed to execute the plan.

Although Tom had actually enjoyed working through the minutia needed to fill out Plan Zeus, he knew that refreshing the basic concept for the decision makers would require carefully reviewing and then explaining the rationale for the project. Once he had called the meeting, most NYC staff filtered into the secure conference room. A larger number were Skyping from London, Singapore and Zurich.

However, the agenda that he had envisioned for the Gold call hadn’t survived two minutes. First, the meeting had been relocated to a large, bright executive briefing room with a multibillion dollar view of Manhattan, blowing his careful information security plans out of the water. Second, the first objection appeared before Tom finished his basic brief.

“I’m not saying that this is a paranoid distraction that we don’t need on a Friday, but chrissakes, Rich!”

Herbert Elliott, the regional chair of the Americas wasn’t raising his voice, much. However, his whining tone grated on Smith’s nerves. Titularly junior to the CEO, Elliott controlled a region that punched above its weight in revenue and that bought him quite a lot of leeway.

Bateman smiled as though he didn’t take any offense at the outburst. He kept his tone mild, which his staff knew was Step One on the way to getting angry. Bateman trusted Smith, but he needed to get a sense for how his Board and Operating Committee were going to react.

“Herb, maybe you could unpack that a little more helpfully.” The CEO replied smoothly. “Fill in the blanks.”

Elliott moderated his tone a little and readdressed Smith. His angry squint didn’t change, however.

“Rich, Tom, look–I understand. No, let me finish!” Elliott said, raising one hand though Tom hadn’t made any move to interrupt. “I understand that we need to accept the possible financial and morale costs of distributing our expensive antivirals on a global basis, even in places where we aren’t supposed to have them–and that is going to raise hell in Mexico City, I can tell you. I can even accept that we start with social distancing and send half of our non-business-critical staff to work from home.”

Herb warmed up, sounding more confident.

“I can even understand that we need open the recovery sites in case we elect to send staff there.” The tubby executive gestured magnanimously. “I’ll stretch as far as a sign off on the approval for the charge strings for this unbudgeted exercise, just in case there is something to it. What I can’t wrap my head around is that Tom wants to activate this insane, paranoid plan to exercise options for the haven sites at a cost of…” he consulted the briefing slides in front of him “…a hundred forty-five million dollars. Christ, that is our entire profit margin for the first quarter! And that’s just for the Americas region.”

Tom carefully watched all the players without being obvious. Bateman kept his peace as well, but glanced at Smith. Clearly, he was reserving his personal capital and allowing some in the group to let off steam before he weighed in. Besides, Tom suspected that he enjoyed watching the gladiatorial style politics play out among the sharks on his staff.

That’s how you bred better sharks, after all.

Rolling his shoulders to relieve the tension, Tom abused his suit jacket seams and answered.

“Herb, first, thank you, sincerely, for supporting the initial steps.” Tom’s polite smile was precise. “To your question though–this will rapidly become a ‘use-it-or-lose it’ proposition. If we don’t exercise the options soon, and by that I mean before the information that we have becomes public knowledge, the cost will jump substantially. If the assets remain available at all. We’re on the cusp of the weekend and rumors are going to have three days to build fear and uncertainty.”

“Tom, pardon me, but that is bullshit speculation,” Elliott retorted angrily. “How many people died in the avian flu? Under a hundred? How much business disruption did we see from swine flu? Barely any. Why do we need to stampede to an expensive decision now?”

“Herb, if I may?” Another voice cut in.

Bradley Depine III, another managing director and the senior acquisitions officer for the Americas happened to be visiting from his L.A. office.

“I want to congratulate Tom on being on top of this situation,” Depine said, his blotchy jowls jiggling as he spoke up. “The first new reports are only now becoming public–so we beat the news cycle again. We took a position on some pharma indexes which look to pay off nicely. Well done to the Security and Emergency Response Team.”

He paused before he slipped the knife in. It never hurt to keep the regional chairs sweet–you never knew when you would need a favor and he knew Herb would remember this one.

“However, I agree with Herb that we have the entire weekend ahead to monitor the situation and gather more information.”

He affected a neutral pause before continuing unctuously.

“Tom, this seems like an overreaction. How do we know that this situation is so different from what we have seen and weathered before?”

Tom stayed cool. He knew that he was being played. What he wanted to do was roll his stapled brief into a rigid cylinder and then shove it down the visitor’s wobbly throat, where it could cohabitate with the Delmonico’s twenty-ounce sirloin and the half bottle of claret that Depine had likely inhaled during lunch. But, politics aside, these were smart people after all–he just needed to explain carefully.

“I have to drop in to lecture mode for a bit–sorry.”

Tom drank some water and composed his reply.

“I was running security and risk operations during both outbreaks,” Tom said. “So let me address the comparisons to the avian flu from 2003 and the swine flu in 2009. Yes, it’s true that only about sixty people died in 2003 from H5N1–and actually about six hundred more since then. What made, hell, still makes H5N1 so scary is that it has a sixty percent mortality rate–but it isn’t terribly communicable as these diseases go. That’s a bit of luck. Swine flu, or H1N1, was much more communicable and therefor widespread but it had a very low mortality rate. Estimates are that more than a billion people have developed a strain of H1N1, and that it killed as many as two hundred thousand people over the course of fix or six years–but the geological and chronological distribution of deaths, as well as the booming global birth rate, made them nearly a global nonevent.”

Blank stares.

“One was deadly, but hard to catch,” Tom said, standing to make his point. His heels sank into the soft carpet so he braced himself by leaning upon the smooth, polished tabletop. “The other sort was really easy to catch, but it was merely a bad head cold for most of the afflicted. One or the other isn’t too bad. As of the start of this meeting, I’ve had about two and half hours to gather as much information on this disease as I can. What I know is that it’s damn scary. It looks like a flu at first–and simple flu is something that we know how to deal with. However, this seems to be different in a few critical ways: it appears to have a broad distribution, like swine flu.”

Smith paused, and glanced around the room, reading his audience. There was a surfeit of skepticism, anxiousness and a bit of hostility. What he didn’t feel was a receptive vibe that might make it worth it to introduce a discussion of zombielike symptoms.

“It also appears to have a very high mortality rate, like avian flu.” On the fly, he elected omit the Z-word and resumed. “It may be a two part disease where extreme symptoms occur later. Finally, the timing on the simultaneous emergence of a previously unknown pathogen with a high mortality rate in several places is strongly suggestive of an artificial event. In my opinion, and that of our intelligence staff, the likelihood that this disease arose purely due to natural causes is precisely zero.”