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Tina Fordham: ‘As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, global finance will not be able to work with Russia’ – Financial News

Tina Fordham’s time is in demand. The first and one of the only chief political analysts at a Wall Street bank, she is going it alone after more than 20 years at Citigroup to start her own geopolitical consultancy — just as Russia is launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Fordham has styled herself as an expert on Russia, advising three-star generals, finance executives and prime ministers on the impact of geopolitical tensions over the course of her career. For the past few weeks, her phone has been ringing off the hook.

“It is the biggest volume of requests I have ever received,” she says, fielding calls from private equity firms, insurers and asset managers attempting to digest the implications of the war.

International companies have pulled the plug on their Russian operations en masse over the past month, responding to public outcry against the conflict, as western governments slapped Russia with an unprecedented array of sanctions aimed at crippling its economy and ability to fund the war.

READ Russian lawyers rush to set up new firms amid exodus and fears for future

Consultancies, law firms and retail companies have been quick to cut ties with the country. But the banking sector — which has a web of trades, loans and custody obligations and up to $100bn in exposure — has been slower to pull the plug.

“That hesitation actually makes a lot of business sense,” says Fordham. “It reflects the notion that an event like this will be short-term and reversible. But that is very much not the case. Russia made an unprovoked attack on a country it is now trying to force into surrender. There really aren’t two sides to this.”

One example of this flip-flopping was Deutsche Bank’s decision to pull back from Russia just days after chief executive Christian Sewing sent a note to staff saying a retreat from Russia would “go against our values”.

Goldman Sachs’ boss David Solomon told Time magazine on 13 March that it was not the job of the financial sector to “ostracise Russia”. Three days later, he issued a statement saying that the US bank should lead the way in supporting international efforts to “punish Putin and his regime for the invasion of Ukraine”.

“As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, global finance businesses will not be able to work with Russia,” says Fordham. “And banks with franchise operations are therefore in a tough spot.”

READ BlackRock’s Larry Fink predicts Ukraine war will end globalisation

Banks have been reluctant to take a stance on geopolitical issues until now. In 2018, they briefly pulled back from Saudi Arabia after international outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — only to return around a year later to court the kingdom for new business.

But Fordham says the Russia conflict and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 are ushering in a “new era of corporate political responsibility” in the financial sector.

“There’s often that disconnect between Wall Street sentiment and the public at large, and some recent statements have been out of step with the public mood,” says Fordham. “The post-Cold War notion that economic and commercial imperatives trump all is increasingly under pressure. Then there’s the question of what is the template? What rule book do they follow? There’s been such a visceral reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Fordham said that she maintains a “wall of worry” — a sort of bingo card of risks related to Russia and other geopolitical situations — that was quickly filling up at the tail end of last year. She expected Putin to make a move in the first quarter of 2022, but says she never anticipated a full-scale invasion of this magnitude. However, she says that now Russia has made its move, people who expect a quick resolution to the conflict have a lack of “historical memory” about other wars.

“Ukraine is doing well and has momentum in its David vs Goliath underdog struggle. But Russia literally hasn’t brought out the big guns yet,” says Fordham. “I see a pretty ghastly few weeks ahead. Putin does not want a diplomatic settlement. He wants to win. And he needs to win. And, frankly, he can win.”

Fordham adds that the risk of Russia deploying a chemical weapon — or even a tactical nuclear weapon — in Ukraine is now a “plausible risk”.

For such a huge geopolitical event, Fordham says she is surprised about the relatively muted market reaction.

“For the past 20 years, if you interpreted any kind of global friction as a buying opportunity, that would have been a good strategy — buy the dip,” she says. “One of the things that always kind of sends a chill in the banks is that if you are a 35-year-old trader who comes from a developed country, you have probably never experienced risk in your lifetime.”

She adds that the Russia conflict is the biggest geopolitical risk in 30 years.

READ How Russia’s war on Ukraine is pushing European bulls to trim investments

Fordham admits that launching her own consultancy has given her the freedom to express more forthright views than during her 17 years working for a large Wall Street bank. She joined Citi in 2003 as the first chief political analyst at a major financial institution, advising its clients across investment banking, corporate banking and wealth management. But it took five years before the bank became comfortable enough to publish some of her written work, she says.

The daughter of immigrants who never had professional jobs, she says the prospect of banking or similar careers never occurred to her until the opportunity arose. This background and her gender have helped her carve out a place in the “blokey world of geopolitics”, she believes.

“I’ve always brought in the human side,” she says, adding that it was a mission in life to go “beyond the nuts and bolts” of geopolitics and help people see the full picture.

Putin brushing aside sanctions, doubling down and creating his own narrative on the Ukraine war is an example of this, she says.

“Investors just think nobody does anything that’s not in their economic self-interest,” she says. “And I’ve been on a one-woman crusade to try and overturn that idea for all of my career.”

CV

Born

May 1968

Education

1999

Master of International Affairs, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, New York

1988-91

BA in English & World/Comparative Literature, San Francisco State University

Career

March 2022

Founder, Fordham Global Foresight

2020-22

Partner and head of global political strategy, Avonhurst

2003-20

MD and chief global political analyst, Citigroup   

1999-2003

Head of global political risk, Eurasia Group, New York & London

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Paul Clarke

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