In business and beyond, George Soros barely stops for breath

George Soros turns 85 in a few days. A few weeks ago, he celebrated the happily imminent event with a lively gathering of hedge-fund managers and their fellow travellers at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It was, I am told, lovely to see all those Brits cheering “the man who broke the Bank of England” in 1992, when he famously bet against the pound sterling – and won. His third wife, Tamiko Bolton, a mere 40 years his junior, looked as splendid as she had during their somewhat over-the-top wedding celebrations two years ago.

One could imagine that at 85, Mr. Soros would have slowed down somewhat, but that would be wrong. His net worth is estimated by Forbes at $24.2-billion (U.S.), 17th among the richest people in America. He established his own hedge fund – renamed Quantum after Heisenberg’s famous theory – in New York in 1969 with $12-million and grew it, exponentially, to what it is today, despite having given away $15-billion to his philosophically grounded charities.

Although Mr. Soros is the most successful currency trader in the world, he is known as much for his underlying philosophy of life and investing (he calls it “reflexivity”) as for the fast, opportunistic moves that have left his competitors baffled.

“The prevailing wisdom is that markets are always right. I take the opposite position. I assume that markets are always wrong,” he said. He went on to elaborate that, while the markets may often be right, it is on those occasions when errors are corrected that he can foresee a dramatic change. “I know what is wrong with it while the market does not. I am ahead of the curve.”

But his son Robert, president and deputy chairman of Soros Fund Management, has said that, theories be damned, his father “changes his position on the market because his back starts killing him. It has nothing to do with reason,” and much to do with instinct.

George Soros is a contrarian.

While he has taken advantage of tax-deferral schemes, offshore filings and very smart accounting, Mr. Soros speaks convincingly about how the rich must pay more taxes, how the 1 per cent cannot continue to increase its wealth at the expense of the 99 per cent, and how those who believe that the markets are self-correcting suffer from the dangerous delusion of “market fundamentalism” – one that has caused such disasters as the 2008 financial crisis and is likely to cause similar meltdowns. Investor behaviour will cause the market to overshoot on its way up and crash on its way down.

Whether because of instinct or theory, Mr. Soros is one of the most celebrated investors in the world, perhaps the only hedge-fund manager to have earned $40-billion in profits for his investors. According to Market Watch, his Quantum fund’s gains exceeded those of all other hedge funds. As recently as in 2013, they led the other funds with $5.5-billion in net gains.

In philanthropy, as in the markets, Mr. Soros has been governed by a combination of philosophy and instinct. His foundation, Open Society, operates on the basis of his conviction that democratic principles of free speech, respect for human rights, a diversity of opinion, an independent judiciary, elected governments and market economies are best for the world.

In an uncharacteristically modest moment, he has described himself as a failed philosopher. Yet, in 1993, when he decided to donate $50-million to bring water to Sarajevo’s beleaguered citizens, his intervention was driven by instinct. Aryeh Neier, who ran the Open Society Foundations for almost 20 years, said in an interview that their interventions have often been opportunistic, and that unlike other foundations, they had the ability to turn on a dime.

Mr. Soros and his highly educated employees have spread his ideas. There are offshoots of his foundations in a hundred countries. My recent book, Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, attempts to gauge what effect all these philanthropic activities have had – from Myanmar to Poland, Liberia to the International Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, in his 85th year, Mr. Soros has barely stopped for breath.

He advocates a number of options for the European Union’s survival in these troubling times. He has been critical of the way bureaucrats have taken over a group originally united by far-seeing statesmen in the wake of two devastating world wars. In the current situation, the EU has degenerated into two groups: creditors and debtors. Since the publication of his book, The Tragedy of the European Union: Disintegration or Revival?, the prospects for an amicable solution to the European problems have become even dimmer. Sadly, he told me, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not been reading him or listening to him.

He focused on Europe’s refugee crisis this week in a Financial Times op-ed titled While Failing To Help Refugees, Europe Fails Itself. Europe has not come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the crisis, thus leaving each member country to develop its own methods of dealing with asylum seekers. France and Austria, he said, have reinstated passport controls and Hungary is building a fence.

He has extended financial support to Greeks through “health and solidarity centres” that offer health care and legal advice. It is a pity that Greek tycoons with offshore funds have not followed Mr. Soros’s example to help their fellow countrymen. But even if they had done so, it might be too little, too late.

He has advocated both financial and political support for Ukraine. “If Ukraine flourishes, that will tell the Russians that their problems are created by [President Vladmir] Putin,” not by the West, he has said. Putting his money where his words led, he has given millions through his International Renaissance Foundation to Ukraine.

At the end of March, Mr. Soros declared that he would invest $1-billion in Ukraine if the West helped to improve investment conditions.

“The West can help Ukraine by increasing the attractiveness for investors. Political risk insurance is necessary. This could take the form of mezzanine financing at EU interest rates – very close to zero,” he said in one interview.

This is the kind of assistance he advocated for Russia when the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Soviet Union ceased to be. Then, as now, those in a position to make a significant difference have declined to do so.

During one of our interviews, he spoke of the role he had tried to play in the former Soviet Union and, subsequently, in Russia. One of Mr. Soros’s more endearing characteristics is that he does not hide his disappointments and failures. Mr. Putin’s Russia is a case in point.

“Sadly,” he had said, “democratic elections do not necessarily bring open societies. They could, as easily, bring the opposite.”

At a May event titled When Societies Open, organized by the Asia Society, Mr. Soros and moderator Orville Schell talked about the democratic transitions in a dozen countries where Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations have actively sought to help. “There are windows of opportunity,” Mr. Soros said. “And when they are open, you want to walk in.”

Myanmar has been such a place. Open Society played an active role in pushing for regime change and supporting Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi while she was in exile in her own country. Since her release and the ruling military’s agreement to affect reforms, Open Society has supported non-governmental organizations, spent more than $10-million on documenting human-rights initiatives and urging the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide aid packages. Sadly, Ms. Suu Kyi has not done much to help racial minorities under attack, nor the growing floods of desperate refugees.

In a July essay for The New York Review of Books, Mr. Soros echoed earlier warnings by Henry Kissinger about the inevitability of U.S.-China conflicts. “Rivalry between the U.S. and China is inevitable,” he said, “but it needs to be kept within bounds that would preclude the use of military force.” He argued for a closer relationship between the United States and China, and said he admires Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to bring China closer to the West. This, despite China’s deplorable human-rights record and its form of government that could not be farther from Mr. Soros’s own model of a tolerant, open society.

In the United States, he is viewed as a left-wing liberal, a very dangerous man in the opinion of Republicans of all stripes. “For traditional-minded Americans, George Soros is public enemy No. 1,” Bill O’Reilly declared on Fox News.

Americans who have interviewed me seem surprised to learn that most of his attentions have been turned outward, rather than toward the United States. Even at home, his funding of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Baltimore Institute, the Project on Death in America, even the Drug Policy Alliance has been overshadowed by partisan politics. In 2004, he partnered with a fellow billionaire in a fund meant to defeat George W. Bush’s hopes for a second term in the White House. He failed. He had donated to President Barack Obama’s campaigns and is now helping to raise funds for Hillary Clinton’s team. He contributed $1-million to American Bridge 21st Century, another Super PAC supporting her.

Despite his age, Mr. Soros is singularly uninterested in discussing his legacy. He seemed irritated by questioning along these lines. He has never wished for buildings or institutes named for him, and has not become a monument builder. At the end of his 85th year, he is as peripatetic and nimble as ever, flitting between countries and ideas, doling out his cash to those who propagate his philosophies while continuing to make billions.