When Robert Rubin was Secretary of the United States Treasury, he often wandered around his office with his shoes off, pondering matters of global importance. Now he putters around his temporary office at the Council for Foreign Relations on East 68th Street in his stocking feet, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.
He’s not the only one wondering. Everyone wants to know what Mr. Rubin is going to do next. He is New York’s most eligible potential executive, a headhunter’s dream, an idle power broker with a trader’s mind and a Cabinet member’s connections. Best of all, he has enough money already (an estimated $100 million) to keep him from having to be a glutton, unlike a long list of former Cabinet members who have dropped back into the private sector with their well-greased palms already upturned.
Ever since Mr. Rubin returned to the city after resigning from the Treasury in July and taking an Alaskan salmon fishing trip, he has been popping up around town. He causes a stir, in a way that few of his predecessors at the Treasury ever would have. He’s a handsome guy. Women seem to respond to him the way they must have responded to Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary to whom he is often compared. “I saw him the other day at 11 Madison Park,” said a woman who works at a major investment bank. “He looked tan, rested. And his charisma in person was palpable. He was on his cell phone. I think he was chewing gum. There was a twinkle in his eye. The people I mentioned it to were all very impressed. Women especially. Women find him very attractive.”
But the real parlor game is trying to guess his next gig. He seems to pop up as a candidate for every major position that may be vacant some day, from governor of New York to president of the World Bank to head of the soon-to-be-merged New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets.
Mr. Rubin declined to discuss his employment prospects. “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” he told The Observer . But he has indicated that he wants to return to Wall Street, and this is where the parlor game gets serious.
Mr. Rubin could probably work anywhere he wants. Before he joined the Clinton administration in 1993, he was co-chairman of Goldman Sachs & Company, perhaps Wall Street’s most illustrious investment bank. Before that, he was the firm’s star arbitrageur. He went to Harvard, Yale and the London School of Economics. He is brilliant, patient and-you won’t find much of this on Wall Street-legendarily self-effacing.
So, of course, Mr. Rubin is being courted by nearly every major Wall Street firm, and (so the chatter goes) by a long list of major corporations like Microsoft and IBM, who would love Mr. Rubin to serve on their boards. “The recruitment of Bob Rubin reminds me of pro teams going after the Heisman Trophy winner,” said his friend Robert Hormats, a Goldman vice chairman.
“Everybody in my industry would be at least interested in sitting down with him,” said Paul Beirne, a principal at Sanford Bernstein & Company and a big fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. “If you hear that he’s interested in the money management field, we’d like to talk to him.”
Others feel similarly about Mr. Rubin’s prospects, but are a bit less effusive. “I have absolutely no comment,” snapped Alan (Ace) Greenberg, chairman of Bear Stearns Companies. “I’m sure he’ll do just fine.”
Mr. Rubin doesn’t seem to be in a great rush to make up his mind. He rose through the ranks at Goldman as a trader. Traders fall into two camps: the plungers who rely on their gut instincts, and the scholarly types like Mr. Rubin who take a more studious approach. He once told The Washington Post that he listed each trade’s upsides and downsides on a “mental yellow pad” before pulling the trigger. So people who know him say he spends his time these days fielding calls and doing a lot of listening-filling up page after page in the yellow ledger of his mind.
“Everybody and his brother has approached him,” said an executive at a major Wall Street firm who is close to Mr. Rubin. “Bob’s nature is so meticulous that my guess is he would have some kind of preliminary discussion with pretty much anybody. My sense is he’s not on the verge of a decision.”
It’s not just the big investment banks, either. Mr. Rubin has friends from Wall Street and the Clinton Administration who are doing quite well for themselves and who are in a position to provide him with a nice quiet context in which to make gobs of discreet money. Some speculate that Mr. Rubin might be inclined to join the Beacon Group, a private equity and merger firm, founded by former Goldman partner Geoffrey Boisi, or AEA Investors, a buyout fund led by former Goldman senior partner John Whitehead. Another rumor has him thinking of joining forces with former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who is now an investment banker at Forstmann Little & Company. “I’m a partner at Forstmann Little,” Mr. Bowles told The Observer . “I’m happy as a partner at Forstmann Little, and I’m gonna stay at Forstmann Little. But Bob and I are very close friends. You know, we’re talking about what he may do. He has a lot of options.”
Oh, so many options, so many rumors. What about that pair of big-time hedge fund managers who have recently suffered from languishing returns and untimely redemptions: Julian Robertson and George Soros? Their beleaguered funds might benefit by hiring a financial star of his stature (if not a trader with his macroeconomic background), and so people have speculated that he might be talking to them. One Wall Street executive even swore he’d heard that Mr. Rubin has been talking to Thomas Weisel, the San Francisco-based investment banker. Not likely.
“Bob Rubin is not a name you can take to Silicon Valley and bring back a piece of business with,” said a West Coast investment banker.
“I’m not sure he wants to run something, even if there are those kind of jobs available,” said a friend. “But my sense is he doesn’t want to be a figurehead. It’s just not his style.”
And what of his commitment to good works, as reflected in his current job description as chairman of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a support group for community development corporations?
“Is this the time when he makes the perfect synthesis of his public and private skills?” asked William Mulrow, a senior vice president of Gabelli Asset Management Company who is involved in Democratic Party politics. “I hope so. Because it would be good for all of us.”
Good for all of us, good for Bob-these are separate entries on the yellow pad, but he’d like to make them one. University president has a nice ring to it, but then he would have to spend his waking hours in the public eye, hustling for dollars. For a public figure, he is a private man. He has just slipped out of the limelight. He may not want to step back into it right away.
Yet given his stature, people seem to want more of him than just a handful of board appointments and a lucrative gig at a private equity fund.
After all, this is a man who managed a remarkable feat: he left Washington with an even better reputation than he had when he arrived. While his colleagues in the Clinton administration were flayed alive by special prosecutors and political enemies, Mr. Rubin became a globetrotting superhero able to quell foreign economic crises in a single calming euphemism.
He rescued the Mexican peso. He prevented the implosion of the South Korean economy. He kept Wall Street from panicking when Russia collapsed, and again during a Brazilian currency crisis. In an era in which monetary policy has overtaken foreign policy on the global stage, Mr. Rubin accumulated the sort of power and mystique once reserved for the likes of Henry Kissinger and Dean Acheson.
And he performed well on the domestic front, too. It was Mr. Rubin who persuaded Bill Clinton to focus on deficit reduction, a policy that has done more than anything to justify his Presidency and save his ass.
Now here’s the problem: that could all work against Mr. Rubin. He is eminently qualified to run any major investment bank. But when last we checked, there weren’t many openings. So somebody would have to step aside for Mr. Rubin, or be forced out. It isn’t likely that, say, Douglas (Sandy) Warner, chief executive of J.P. Morgan & Company, or Bear Stearns & Company chief James Cayne, or Henry Paulson, head of Goldman, would happily move aside to let Mr. Rubin take over their posts. “Most firms have people in the jobs that he would be qualified for,” said Leslie Gordon, managing director of Korn-Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm. “While they might not be as good as he is, they might not want to give up their jobs.”
Then there are all the heirs apparent, who would probably be less inclined to cheer on the new guy, Mr. Rubin. “If you were one of the folks aspiring to be the C.E.O., I’m sure you would be grateful that you would have the opportunity to work with him,” said former Goldman chairman Jon Corzine, a friend of Mr. Rubin. “But you might be frustrated that such a capable person would be in the position you aspire to.”
Another column in the yellow pad must be devoted to the possibility of failure. Just look at what happened to Frank Newman, who basically ran Bankers Trust Corporation into the ground before escaping with a $70 million payout. It may be hard to be believe now, but Mr. Newman, a former deputy treasury secretary, was once known as “Mr. Credibility” by his colleagues.
Mr. Rubin may be too savvy for that. Flopping in pursuit of Mammon would kill the golden-boy image he has crafted. Upon returning to Wall Street, he might find it a dull and narrow place. The business of grappling for deals and negotiating fees can’t possibly match up to his adventures as Treasury Secretary. So he may have to lower his sights and raise his standards.
“You have to remember Bob’s career,” said a Wall Street banker who knows him well. “Bob spent years as a real day-to-day manager. I don’t think he wants to do that again. Before that, he was doing risk arbitrage and trading. I don’t think he wants to do that again. He’s not going back to Goldman. I think when he comes back, it’s going to be in a different kind of role. My guess is it would be as some kind of a senior statesman, a little bit of rainmaking, a little bit of policy adviser. He’s probably a little out of date about what goes on on Wall Street, but he’s so up-to-date on what goes on in the rest of the world, most people would think he could make a contribution.”
Jobs like that don’t come along every day, and Mr. Rubin may be getting a little impatient. “I think he’s had enough,” said a friend. “That’s my sense. But, look, he’s very careful. He’s very careful. And I just don’t think he’s going to do anything until he’s sure it’s the right thing.”
“Bob is doing his usual job of looking at the plusses and minuses of all of his options,” said Mr. Bowles, his Clinton Administration pal. “Once he walks through those mental gymnastics, he’ll make a great decision. He always does.”