From financial powerhouses to the houses of power

AUSTRALIA has one as prime minister-in-waiting, while across the Tasman, New Zealand is actually led by one. And it is happening in Asia, too. It seems that bankers don’t retire, die or get sent to Guantanamo Bay, as many victims of the global financial crisis might prefer, but get their careers and millions repackaged into a political calling.

Former bankers are emerging as political leaders across a region that could desperately use the economic smarts of expert high-financiers, perhaps fixing the impact of mistakes made by colleagues elsewhere.

New Zealand PM John Key was once what Wall Street chronicler Tom Wolfe described as a ”Master of the Universe”. Through much of the 1990s, Key ran Merrill Lynch’s global foreign exchange operation from London and New York, earning millions. Such was his authority in the forex markets, he spent three years at the centre of US monetary policy as a member of the influential foreign exchange committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the largest of the Fed’s regional associates. Having made his pile, Key was lured back to NZ in 2001, was elected to Parliament the following year, and became National Party leader in 2006, winning power from Labour’s Helen Clark in November’s elections.

The political trajectory of Key’s fellow ideological traveller on the Australian right, the former Goldman Sachs partner Malcolm Turnbull, seems to have stalled for the moment, but Turnbull’s segue from banking to politics has been similarly meteoric. After a career in law and business, Turnbull became a Goldman partner in 1998 and left the firm in 2001 to prepare for a political tilt. In 2003, he won pre-selection for Wentworth, a safe Liberal seat in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, becoming its elected member in 2004, the then PM John Howard’s parliamentary secretary a year later and was appointed to cabinet in early 2007.

A year ago, after the Liberals were vanquished from power, Turnbull became Opposition Leader. His 17 per cent poll rating suggests the next step is some way off, but Turnbull doesn’t appear to lack ambition.

Popularity is also an issue for Thailand’s Korn Chatikavanij, the former Bangkok country chief for US investment bank JPMorgan. The aristocratic Finance Minister is arguably the more capable of a double act leading Thailand, with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Those two have Bangkok housewives swooning with their urbane good looks but the Government they lead remains shaky; the fourth in Thailand since the royalist coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

At 45, Korn has a CV that seems more appropriate for political office in Britain than Thailand. The grandson of a Thai privy councillor, Korn was born in London and educated at some of England’s smartest schools. While at Oxford, he met Abhisit, also studying at St John’s College.

Thailand could use a bit of the stiff upper lip Korn acquired with his English upbringing. After coups, years of turmoil, rampant corruption, death squads and an economy plunged into one of the world’s deepest recessions by a catastrophic airport blockade that cost the country $10 billion, Thailand is on life-support. Korn’s Democrats are approaching their first year in office, and so far Korn has won plaudits from business for helping arrest the recession and the huge protests that followed the Thaksin coup. The blockades crippled trade and tourism and still reverberate in the region.

Despite their youth, in many ways Abhisit and Korn are a throwback to the ”old-school” Thai past. Abhisit insists he is his own man but his rule depends on the patronage of the palace and its aristocracy, the military and Bangkok’s patrician business elite. But for the moment, Korn and Abhisit are projecting themselves as safe hands, working the international circuit to assure the markets and the media that their Government is secure and that Thailand is returning to normal – whatever that is.

Korn’s old JPMorgan colleague in Jakarta, Gita Wirjawan, is also turning heads. He’s been described as an Indonesian Barack Obama, partly because of a passing resemblance to the lanky US President, but 44-year-old Wirjawan also presents as an example of the Indonesia that is possible: smart, clean (so far), moderate and successful.

US-educated Wirjawan ran JPMorgan in Indonesia through much of this decade, and became a close adviser to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after his election in 2004. He left Morgan last year to set up his own Islamically-inclined private equity company, Ancora Capital, which has been active in the resource sector. Yudhoyono recently appointed him to the board of the long-troubled state oil company, Pertamina, with a brief to reform an enterprise with a tradition of political patronage. Though he says he doesn’t covet a political career, Wirjawan is tipped to be elevated to the re-elected Yudhoyono’s cabinet when it is announced next month.

He’s been mentioned as a possible finance minister, or central bank governor, but he’ll be more likely responsible for reforming the mess that is the Ministry of State Owned Enterprises. That’s a big job in Indonesia, and one that would likely mean Wirjawan has less time for another great love – he is one of Asia’s most accomplished jazz musicians and producers.

In Manila, another banker has his eye on office. Manuel ”Mar” Roxas worked on Wall Street for 12 years with prestigious investment bank Allen and Co. He worked on some of the Philippines’ biggest deals, and became a senator in the process, in the path of his grandfather, who was the first president of the independent Philippines in 1946. With President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo due to step down next year, Roxas was eyeing his own tilt at the Malacanang Palace but recently stepped back to become running mate to former president Corazon Aquino’s son, Benigno.