Robert P. Smith ’62 died on January 7, 2019, in Boston, Massachusetts.
(The following was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 25, 2019:)
Robert P. Smith Searched for Overseas Adventure—and Distressed Bonds
Boston lawyer scooped up government debt in Nigeria, Guatemala and El Salvador to resell at a profit
By James R. Hagerty
Robert P. Smith was looking for a life of adventure. He found it in government bonds.
Not the kind issued by the U.S. Treasury, though. Mr. Smith—decked out, at times, in a toupee and a $99 seersucker suit—went shopping for bonds in turbulent countries like Nigeria and El Salvador, scavenging for bombed-out government obligations shunned by other investors.
A childhood stamp collection had infected him with wanderlust, he wrote in a memoir. But that wasn’t the whole story. He was determined to avoid turning out like his father, a button-down lawyer in Brookline, Mass. He also wanted to make a fortune and, as he put it, prove to his wife that he wasn’t a loser.
Paunchy, balding and standing 5-foot-9, Mr. Smith was no Indiana Jones. He stayed in second-tier hotels, including one with dead cats floating in the pool, to avoid attracting the attention of thugs. Still, the Boston-based bond dealer had a talent for schmoozing with the locals and figuring out, as he often said, “who was doing what to whom and for how much.”
Mr. Smith, who died Jan. 7 of a heart attack at the age of 78, favored debt whose value was anyone’s guess, reflecting doubts over whether it would ever be repaid. He figured out who wanted to sell the debt and who might buy it. As the middleman, he pocketed the sometimes huge difference between buying and selling prices.
The profits allowed him to collect art, live in a 4,500-square-foot apartment overlooking the Charles River in Boston and donate to educational and health-care causes.
“The tools of my trade were the rotary phone, the telex and an airline ticket,” he wrote in “Riches Among the Ruins.” By the time he completed that 2009 memoir, his business was going the way of the rotary phone. Traders in London or New York could call up Third World debt prices on their screens. There was less to gain from flying to dangerous places to gather intelligence. Mr. Smith had made his name as a maverick; he was ready to retire.
Robert Peter Smith was born on Feb. 18, 1940, and grew up in Brookline. “My parents aspired to nothing more than middle-class Jewish respectability,” he wrote. His destiny was to disappoint them. Unable to get into Harvard, he went to Bowdoin College in Maine, before earning a law degree at Boston University in 1965.
Barred by weak eyesight from military service in Vietnam, he went there anyway, as an employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Eighteen months in Saigon taught him the ways of black markets.
USAID later sent him to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Brazil, where in 1971 he met Salwa Aboud. She was 19, the daughter of well-to-do Lebanese-Brazilian parents. He was 31 and a persistent suitor. They married in 1973 and moved to Boston, where Mr. Smith briefly followed his father’s footsteps as a lawyer helping clients collect debts.
Soon he was bored and craved an exotic escapade. He found one when a client asked him to collect a debt in Turkey.
Mr. Smith flew there and learned that the debtors couldn’t pay their U.S. creditors because Turkey’s central bank was short of dollars. He came up with a way to buy, at a steep discount, the claims for payment from the Americans, then sell those claims at a higher price to people in Turkey who could be repaid in local currency. He estimated that his firm, Turan Corp., made more than $2 million on such transactions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A trip to Guatemala in 1983 led to another bonanza. Mr. Smith put small ads in The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times seeking potential sellers of government bonds. He advertised in Guatemalan papers, looking for buyers. He bought low and sold much higher.
The market was so murky that he once bought Guatemalan bonds from one arm of a British bank and sold them, at a hefty markup, to another unit of the same bank.
In the mid-1980s, he discovered promissory notes issued by the Nigerian government. Mr. Smith snapped up as many as he could after learning the government planned to buy back the notes at face value. When others caught on, the value soared.
He also profited from El Salvador government bonds amid civil war there in the 1980s. Eager for a list of bondholders, he showed up uninvited at the country’s central bank and struck up a conversation with a secretary, who happened to have a son studying in the U.S. Mr. Smith said the son could call him anytime he needed help. The secretary turned over the list of bondholders.
That list gave him names of potential sellers. He found buyers by putting ads in San Salvador newspapers. To complete deals, he had to collect bond certificates—there were no electronic settlements then—and carry them in his briefcase to the buyer. Often, transactions required him to exchange currencies in black-market deals with no documentation.
In the 1990s, Mr. Smith was bullish on Russian debt. He estimated that he lost $15 million when the Russian government delayed debt payments in August 1998 but said he earned that back, and more, by holding on for the eventual rebound.
Mr. Smith is survived by his wife, Salwa, two children and two grandchildren. “He wanted something different,” Salwa Aboud Smith said a few days after he died, “and he certainly got it.”