George Soros: The man who broke the Bank

He'll always be best known for making a mint on Black Wednesday, but George Soros has a burning desire to give away his billions. Rose George meets the outspoken philanthropist
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George Soros has always wanted to be more than the sum of his money. Despite his $6.9bn (£4.9bn) fortune – No 37 on Forbes magazine's billionaires list – his reputation as the 20th century's greatest financier and his establishment of a network of foundations as vast as his bank balance, he has always wanted, constantly and anxiously, to be understood. There have, consequently, been seven published books, and now an eighth – George Soros on Globalisation – which explains why the famously enigmatic billionaire is granting an audience. Interviews with him have been prefaced with "exclusive" since 24 October 1992, when one newspaper printed a stock photo of a grinning Soros and the headline "I Made a Billion!" Actually, his notorious bet that sterling would leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism made him £1.5bn, overnight. It also translated his celebrity status from the arcane financial world to the public, turning him irrevocably into the Man Who Broke the Bank of England.

We are in his Kensington townhouse, second time lucky (he stood me up the day before, due to a scheduling mix-up). The last time I was in a house this big, it was the Jordanian Embassy. Decoratively speaking, they are similar; both calm and sedate, rather like Soros himself, the only hint of his status being a grey pinstriped suit, and the fact that he doesn't seem to have been told about his own no-show. He is courteous, ageing (72, now), and going rather deaf. "I won't be able to hear you from there," he says. "Would you sit on the sofa next to me? Would you mind?"

Of course not. It's the nearest I'll ever get to ineffable wealth, even if the price to pay has been several hours cramming the finer points of international institutional reform and globalisation. His other books have been mostly poorly received (the Nobel prize-winner Robert Solow dismissed one as "embarrassingly banal"), but Soros has hopes for this one. "My last book was too general. This is a set of proposals that could actually be implemented." It is aimed at "you and Tony Blair", he says, then asks, "Have you read it? I don't know what you think, I don't want to ask." I understood it, more or less. "Oh, good," he replies. "I'm told it communicates."

The book's core is a proposal to reform international development finance, by suggesting that rich donor countries donate to poorer ones using the International Monetary Fund's de-facto currency (Special Drawing Rights). The layperson's view: it all seems like common sense for the common good. Rich countries would lose nothing by giving away SDRs, poorer countries would gain a lot, and the inequities of globalisation – where the international finance markets favour rich countries over poor – would be slightly redressed.

It makes sense, so it'll probably never work. Soros will take the proposal later this month to the UN Conference on Financing for Development, where 44 heads of state, including the uncharitable George Bush, will be present. What's the chance that they'll listen? He grins. "I would say it's a low probability."

It's unexpected modesty in a man whose financial success has been dizzying – $100,000 investment in his Quantum hedge fund in 1969 would have grown to $353m in 1997. But Soros has always confounded stereotypes, which may be why he's a public figure, and his fellow hedge fund superstar Julian Robertson is not. The most common Soros adjective, apart from "rich," is "enigmatic". That's unfair, he says. "Actually, I've been very open, perhaps even too open, about my actions and my motives." (He has called his mother a Jewish anti-Semite, said his grandfather was a paranoid schizophrenic, and admitted that his best financial decisions – despite his financial theories – have come after his aching back tells him how to act). "Perhaps that has made me enigmatic, because we're all full of contradictions and I have not hidden them."

True. But he hasn't shouted about them either. It has taken him decades to give his approval to a biography, soon to be released by the New York Times journalist Michael T Kaufman, though his life story is a publisher's dream, zooming if not from rags to riches, then from imaginable, modest wealth to the soaring, immodest kind, with war and deprivation along the way.

George Soros was born in Budapest in 1930, to Jewish parents Tivadar and Erzebet. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, Tivadar procured false papers (for his family and later, for many others) and hid them with non-Jews. They survived, and Soros often refers to the time as a great adventure to which nothing has since been comparable, an experience that formed his single-mindedness, his delight in taking risks, his belief in free society, everything.

After the war, young George moved to London, seeking excitement. But he hated the poverty and loneliness, and only really enjoyed the London School of Economics, where he met his lifelong mentor Karl Popper, who later confessed that he didn't remember any George Soros, and probably wouldn't recognise him if they met. Despite this, Soros, with characteristic stubbornness, has named scholarships after Popper, and his Open Society foundations – part of a Soros Foundation network that is active in 30 countries – owe their name to a Popper book.

There were then a couple of decades of becoming seriously rich on Wall Street, a marriage, children. The philanthropy only started properly after a mid-life crisis in the early Eighties. It was sit-com predictable – all that money, and no happiness. He divorced amicably from his wife, and began to bridge his "amoral" activities (making money) with the moral (giving it away).

Slowly, he started speaking publicly of his convictions – that open societies were the ideal; that an open society was one where the government listened to its people. He began meeting dissidents from the Soviet bloc, the most obviously closed societies of the time, and funded fellowships and trips abroad. In 1988, he gave a rare speech in East Germany in front of dignitaries including William Waldegrave, then a Foreign Office minister under Margaret Thatcher. Communism would soon implode, he said, and the world would need another Marshall Plan to cope with fall-out. He was laughed at and dismissed as an unworldly rich dilettante. It stung. So he proceeded with his own Marshall Plan, beginning with Open Society foundations in Hungary, and the gift of hundreds of photocopiers to a country where dissidents were until then unable to disseminate information. It was a fell swoop that almost single-handedly kick-started civil society in the Eastern bloc countries.

Since then, his foundations have made Soros a hallowed name from Central Europe eastwards. He has funded the Central European University in Budapest, obstetrics clinics, refugee centres, newspapers, radio stations, even nomadic television in Mongolia. In Russia, his foundation gave $100m to keep Russian scientists in the country, and his name has entered the vocabulary – sorosovat means to apply for a grant. In Serbia, his support of independent media helped overthrow Milosevic. In the United States, he is known as the one citizen who has his own foreign policy, and actually implements it.

There are other mega-rich philanthropists – Bill and Melinda Gates, who established a $17bn foundation, and Ted Turner – but none as involved, as stubbornly dedicated as Soros. He flies to projects constantly, appoints staff personally, is as hands-on as he can be without actually crossing palms with his silver. He is impetuous and mercurial, donating $100m on the strength of a half-page memo, hiring someone then firing them within weeks. He has given $2bn to good works, and wants to give away the rest by 2010.

Why? "Most people are passive because they don't see how they could implement things," he says. "I'm in the happy position that I can at least delude myself that I'm doing something." We are all good, he thinks, despite evidence to the contrary. With similar optimism, he hopes the US will "rise to the occasion" with the SDR proposal, though Congress has been unable to sign the bill since 1997. "I went to a UN conference, and I saw how countries fight over words. It's a game that diplomats play and I really don't have too much patience for it." Despite the philosophy and the theory, he relishes the practical: within the Soros foundations, being a "doer" is the highest form of praise.

There have been failures. He lost millions in Russia when the foundation he had established imploded into corruption, and $2bn when he bet the wrong way on the Russian default of 1998. Some critics would rather the lost millions were put to more careful use, but Soros prefers to err on the side of generosity, in accordance with his "imperfect knowledge" philosophy (crudely put – if you can't understand reality perfectly, you have to learn from your mistakes).

But now things must change. "At the time I got involved [as Communism was imploding], there was a revolutionary moment," he says. "The network had to be fully funded by me or it would not exist. Now, it's better to start an organisation that has the vitality to exist without me as well." Hence his re-invention as a policy reformer. "I spend, let's say $50m a year in the Balkans. The international community spends billions. If we can use that $50m to influence the billions, that is leverage."

But does he have enough? He won respect with Black Wednesday, when presidents started returning his calls, and he was invited to sit on the great and good committees. But something still nags. "What hurts me the most is when my ideas are written off as the self-indulgence of a rich man. I've made so much money that people respect me, and that gives me a platform for expounding my ideas. But they are less critically examined than they should be." He either gets "sucking up" or uncritical dismissal, and both rankle.

So the "nut who wants to make an impact" will keep going. "There's a lot I can still do," he says. "My regret is that it took me this long." That's not many regrets for someone who aspires to philosophy, excels in philanthropy, yet will be remembered for breaking a bank. "Look, you develop a public persona – or other people develop a view of you that feeds on itself," he says. "It's a fascinating relationship, because the persona begins to shape you." He pauses, considers the public George Soros, then says with a Hungarian lilt, "Yah! You know, I think I rather like it."

'George Soros on Globalisation' is published by PublicAffairs Ltd, £12.99