Soros is chairman of Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Institute and is also a former member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also one of three initial funders of Center for American Progress, and is represented on the board. His funding and organization of Georgia's Rose Revolution was considered by Russian and Western observers to have been crucial to its success, although Soros said his role has been greatly exaggerated. In the United States, he is known for having donated large sums of money in an effort to defeat President George W. Bush's bid for re-election in 2004.
George Soros has made his mark as an enormously successful speculator, wise enough to largely withdraw when still way ahead of the game. The bulk of his enormous winnings is now devoted to encouraging transitional and emerging nations to become 'open societies,' open not only in the sense of freedom of commerce but—more important—tolerant of new ideas and different modes of thinking and behavior.
George Soros was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of the Esperantist writer Tivadar Soros. Tivadar (also known as Teodoro) was a Hungarian Jew, who was a prisoner of war during and after World War I and eventually escaped from Russia to rejoin his family in Budapest.
The family changed its name in 1936 from Schwartz to Soros, in response to growing anti-semitism with the rise of Fascism. Tivadar liked the new name because it is a palindrome and because it has a meaning. Although the specific meaning is left unstated in Kaufmann's biography, in Hungarian, soros means "next in line, or designated successor", and in Esperanto, it means "will soar". His son George was taught to speak Esperanto from birth and thus is one of the rare native Esperanto speakers. George Soros later said that he grew up in a Jewish home, and that his parents were cautious with their religious roots.
George Soros has been married and divorced twice, to Annaliese Witschak, and to Susan Weber Soros. He has five children: Robert, Andrea, Jonathan (with his first wife, Annaliese); Alexander, Gregory (with his second wife, Susan). His elder brother, Paul Soros, a private investor and philanthropist, is a retired engineer, who headed Soros Associates, an international engineering firm based in New York, and established the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for Young Americans. George Soros' nephew Peter Soros, a son of Paul Soros, is married to the former Flora Fraser, a daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser and the late Sir Hugh Fraser, and a stepdaughter of the late 2005 Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter.
Native Hungary, and move to England
Soros was thirteen years old in March 1944 when Nazi Germany took military control over Hungary. For two days, Soros worked for the Jewish Council, which had been established during the Nazi occupation of Hungary to forcibly carry out Nazi and Hungarian government anti-Jewish measures. Soros later described this time to writer Michael Lewis:
The Jewish Council asked the little kids to hand out the deportation notices. I was told to go to the Jewish Council. And there I was given these small slips of paper...It said report to the rabbi seminary at 9 a.m....And I was given this list of names. I took this piece of paper to my father. He instantly recognized it. This was a list of Hungarian Jewish lawyers. He said, "You deliver the slips of paper and tell the people that if they report they will be deported.
To avoid his son's being apprehended by the Nazis, Soros's father paid a Ministry of Agriculture employee to have Soros spend the summer of 1944 living with him and posing as the godson. Young Soros had to hide his Jewishness even as the official was overseeing the confiscation of Jewish property.
In the following year, Soros survived the battle of Budapest in which Soviet and German forces fought house-to-house through the city. Soros first traded currencies and jewelry during the Hungarian hyperinflation of 1945–1946.
Soros emigrated to England in 1947 and graduated from the London School of Economics in 1952. While a student of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros worked as a railway porter and as a waiter. A university tutor requested aid for Soros, and he received 40 pounds from a Quaker charity. He eventually secured an entry-level position with London merchant bank Singer & Friedlander.
Move to the United States
In 1956 he moved to New York City, where he worked as an arbitrage trader with F. M. Mayer from 1956 to 1959 and as an analyst with Wertheim and Company from 1959 to 1963. Throughout this time, Soros developed a philosophy of "reflexivity" based on the ideas of Karl Popper. Reflexivity, as used by Soros, is the belief that the action of beholding the valuation of any market by its participants, affects said valuation of the market in a procyclical 'virtuous or vicious' circle.
Soros realized, however, that he would not make any money from the concept of reflexivity until he went into investing on his own. He began to investigate how to deal in investments. From 1963 to 1973 he worked at Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder, where he attained the position of vice-president. Soros finally concluded that he was a better investor than he was a philosopher or an executive. In 1967 he persuaded the company to set up an offshore investment fund, First Eagle, for him to run; in 1969 the company founded a second fund for Soros, the Double Eagle hedge fund.
When investment regulations restricted his ability to run the funds as he wished, he quit his position in 1973 and established a private investment company that eventually evolved into the Quantum Fund. He has stated that his intent was to earn enough money on Wall Street to support himself as an author and philosopher - he calculated that $500,000 after five years would be possible and adequate.
He is also a former member of the Carlyle Group.
Soros is the founder of Soros Fund Management. In 1970 he co-founded the Quantum Fund with Jim Rogers, which created the bulk of the Soros fortune. Rogers retired from the fund in 1980. Other partners have included Victor Niederhoffer and Stanley Druckenmiller.
In 2007, the Quantum Fund returned almost 32%, netting Soros $2.9 billion.
On Black Wednesday (September 16, 1992), Soros's fund sold short more than $10 billion worth of pounds, profiting from the Bank of England's reluctance to either raise its interest rates to levels comparable to those of other European Exchange Rate Mechanism countries or to float its currency.
Finally, the Bank of England withdrew the currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, devaluing the pound sterling, and Soros earned an estimated US$ 1.1 billion in the process. He was dubbed "the man who broke the Bank of England."
The Times of Monday, October 26, 1992, quoted Soros as saying: "Our total position by Black Wednesday had to be worth almost $10 billion. We planned to sell more than that. In fact, when Norman Lamont said just before the devaluation that he would borrow nearly $15 billion to defend sterling, we were amused because that was about how much we wanted to sell."
Stanley Druckenmiller, who traded under Soros, originally saw the weakness in the pound. "Soros' contribution was pushing him to take a gigantic position."
In 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad accused Soros of using the wealth under his control to punish ASEAN for welcoming Myanmar as a member. Soros has denied bin Mohamad's accusations.
Soros' May 2008 book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, described a "superbubble" that had built up over the past 25 years and was ready to collapse. This was the third in a series of books he's written that have predicted disaster. As he states:
I have a record of crying wolf…. I did it first in The Alchemy of Finance (in 1987), then in The Crisis of Global Capitalism (in 1998) and now in this book. So it's three books predicting disaster. (After) the boy cried wolf three times . . . the wolf really came.
He ascribes his own success to being able to recognize when his predictions are wrong.
I'm only rich because I know when I'm wrong… I basically have survived by recognizing my mistakes. I very often used to get backaches due to the fact that I was wrong. Whenever you are wrong you have to fight or [take] flight. When [I] make the decision, the backache goes away.
In February 2009, George Soros said the world financial system had effectively disintegrated, adding that there was no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis. "We witnessed the collapse of the financial system[...]It was placed on life support, and it's still on life support. There's no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom."
Insider trading conviction
In 1988, he was asked to join a takeover attempt of the French bank Société Générale. He declined to participate in the bid but did later buy a number of shares in the company. French authorities began an investigation in 1989, and in 2002 a French court ruled that it was insider trading, a felony conviction as defined under French securities laws and fined him $2.3 million, which was the amount that he made using the insider information.
Punitive damages were not sought because of the delay in bringing the case to trial. Soros denied any wrongdoing and said news of the takeover was public knowledge.
His insider trading conviction was upheld by the highest court in France on June 14, 2006. In December, 2006 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the 14-year delay in bringing the case to trial precluded a fair hearing.
In 2005, Soros was a minority partner in a group that tried to buy the Washington Nationals of the National League. Some Republican lawmakers suggested that they might tamper with baseball's antitrust exemption if Soros had any interest in any baseball team. In 2008, Soros' name was associated with AS Roma, an Italian soccer team but the club was not sold. Soros was also a financial backer of Washington Soccer L.P., the group that owned the operating rights to Major League Soccer club D.C. United when the league was founded in 1995, but the group lost these rights in 2000.
George Soros (left) and James H. Billington.
Soros has been active as a philanthropist since the 1970s, when he began providing funds to help black students attend the University of Cape Town in apartheid South Africa, and began funding dissident movements behind the iron curtain.
Soros' philanthropic funding includes efforts to promote non-violent democratization in the post-Soviet states. These efforts, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, occur primarily through the Open Society Institute (OSI) and national Soros Foundations, which sometimes go under other names (such as the Stefan Batory Foundation in Poland). As of 2003, PBS estimated that he had given away a total of $4 billion. The OSI says it has spent about $400 million annually in recent years.
Time magazine in 2007 cited two specific projects - $100 million toward Internet infrastructure for regional Russian universities; and $50 million for the Millennium Promise to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa - while noting that Soros has given $742 million to projects in the U.S., and given away a total of more than $6 billion.
Other notable projects have included aid to scientists and universities throughout Central and Eastern Europe, help to civilians during the siege of Sarajevo, and Transparency International. Soros also pledged an endowment of €420 million to the Central European University (CEU). The Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and his microfinance bank Grameen Bank received support from the OSI.
According to National Review the Open Society Institute gave $20,000 in September 2002 to the Defense Committee of Lynne Stewart, the lawyer who has defended alleged terrorists in court and was sentenced to 2⅓ years in prison for "providing material support for a terrorist conspiracy" via a press conference for a client. An OSI spokeswoman said "it appeared to us at that time that there was a right-to-counsel issue worthy of our support."
In September 2006, Soros departed from his characteristic sponsorship of democracy building programs, pledging $50 million to the Jeffrey Sachs-led Millennium Promise to help eradicate extreme poverty in Africa. Noting the connection between bad governance and poverty, he remarked on the humanitarian value of the project.
He received honorary doctoral degrees from the New School for Social Research (New York), the University of Oxford in 1980, the Corvinus University of Budapest, and Yale University in 1991. Soros also received the Yale International Center for Finance Award from the Yale School of Management in 2000 as well as the Laurea Honoris Causa, the highest honor of the University of Bologna in 1995.
Political donations and activism
Activities in the United States
In an interview with The Washington Post on November 11, 2003, Soros said that removing President George W. Bush from office was the "central focus of my life" and "a matter of life and death." He jokingly said he would sacrifice his entire fortune to defeat President Bush, "if someone guaranteed it." Soros gave $3 million to the Center for American Progress, $5 million to MoveOn, and $10 million to America Coming Together. These groups worked to support Democrats in the 2004 election. On September 28, 2004 he dedicated more money to the campaign and kicked off his own multi-state tour with a speech: Why We Must Not Re-elect President Bush delivered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The online transcript to this speech received many hits after Dick Cheney accidentally referred to FactCheck.org as "factcheck.com" in the Vice Presidential debate, causing the owner of that domain to redirect all traffic to Soros's site.
Soros was not a large donor to US political causes until the 2004 presidential election, but according to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2003-2004 election cycle, Soros donated $23,581,000 to various 527 groups dedicated to defeating President Bush. A 527 group is a type of American tax-exempt organization named after a section of the United States tax code, 26 U.S.C. § 527. Despite Soros' efforts, Bush was reelected to a second term as president.
After Bush's re-election, Soros and other donors backed a new political fundraising group called Democracy Alliance which supported the goals of the U.S. Democratic Party.Soros supported the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which many hoped would end "soft money" contributions to federal election campaigns. Soros has made soft money donations to 527 organizations that he says do not raise the same corruption issues as donations directly to the candidates or political parties.
In August 2009, Soros donated $35 million to the state of New York to be ear-marked for under-privileged children and given to parents who had benefit cards at the rate of $200 per child aged 3 through 17, with no limit as to the number of children that qualified. An additional $140 million was put into the fund by the state of New York from money they had received from the 2009 federal recovery act.
Activities in Eastern Europe
According to Neil Clark in the New Statesman, Soros's role was crucial in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. Clark states that from 1979, Soros distributed $3m a year to dissidents including Poland's Solidarity movement, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union; in 1984, he founded his first Open Society Institute in Hungary and pumped millions of dollars into opposition movements and independent media.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Soros' funding has continued to play an important role in the former Soviet sphere. His funding and organization of Georgia's Rose Revolution was considered crucial to its success by Russian and Western observers, although Soros has said that his role has been "greatly exaggerated." Alexander Lomaia, Secretary of the Georgian Security Council and former Minister of Education and Science, is a former Executive Director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation (Soros Foundation,) overseeing a staff of 50 and a budget of $2,500,000.
Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili wrote that institutions like the Soros Foundation were the cradle of democratisation and that all the NGOs which gravitated around the Soros Foundation undeniably carried the revolution. She opines that after the revolution the Soros Foundation and the NGOs were integrated into power.
Soros' support of pro-democracy and pro-transparency NGOs has been decried in several semi-authoritarian countries: Some Soros-backed pro-democracy initiatives have been banned in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Ercis Kurtulus, head of the Social Transparency Movement Association (TSHD) in Turkey, said in an interview that "Soros carried out his will in Ukraine and Georgia by using these NGOs...Last year Russia passed a special law prohibiting NGOs from taking money from foreigners. I think this should be banned in Turkey as well. In 1997, Soros had to close his foundation in Belarus after it was fined $3 million by the government for "tax and currency violations". According to the New York Times, the Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko has been widely criticized in the West and in Russia for his efforts to control the Belarus Soros Foundation and other independent NGOs and to suppress civil and human rights. Soros called the fines part of a campaign to "destroy independent society".
Activities in Africa
The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa is a Soros-affiliated organization. Its director for Zimbabwe is Godfrey Kanyenze, who also directs the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which was the main force behind the founding of the Movement for Democratic Change, the principal indigenous organization promoting Regime change in Zimbabwe.
Drug policy reform
Soros has funded worldwide efforts to promote drug policy reform. In 2008, Soros donated $400,000 to help fund a successful ballot measure in the state of Massachusetts known as the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative which decriminalized possession of less than 1 oz (28g) of marijuana in the state. Soros has also funded similar measures in California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Maine. Among the drug decriminalization groups that have received funding from Soros are the Lindesmith Center and Drug Policy Foundation.
Soros donated $1.4 million to publicity efforts to support California's Proposition 5 in 2008, a failed ballot measure that would have expanded drug rehabilitation programs as alternatives to prison for persons convicted of non-violent drug-related offenses.
Death and dying
The Project on Death in America, active from 2001-2003, was one of the Open Society Institute's projects, which sought to "understand and transform the culture and experience of dying and bereavement." In 1994, Soros delivered a speech in which he reported that he had offered to help his mother, a member of the Hemlock Society, commit suicide. In the same speech, he also endorsed the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, the campaign for which he helped fund.
Education and beliefs
Soros has a keen interest in philosophy, and has stated that he entered finance to be able to support himself as a philosopher. His philosophical outlook is influenced by Karl Popper, under whom he studied at the London School of Economics (LSE). His Open Society Institute is named after Popper's two volume work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Soros's ongoing philosophical commitment to the principle of fallibilism (that anything he believes may in fact be wrong, and is therefore to be questioned and improved) stems from Popper's philosophy. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Soros stated that he did not believe in God.
Reflexivity, financial markets, and economic theory
Soros' writings focus heavily on the concept of reflexivity, where the biases of individuals enter into market transactions, potentially changing the perception of fundamentals of the economy. Soros argues that such transitions in the perceptions of fundamentals of the economy are typically marked by disequilibrium rather than equilibrium, and that the conventional economic theory of the market (the 'efficient market hypothesis') does not apply in these situations. Soros has popularized the concepts of dynamic disequilibrium, static disequilibrium, and near-equilibrium conditions.
Reflexivity is based on three main ideas
1. Reflexivity is best observed under special conditions where investor bias grows and spreads throughout the investment arena. Examples of factors that may give rise to this bias include (a) equity leveraging or (b) the trend-following habits of speculators.
2. Reflexivity appears intermittently since it is most likely to be revealed under certain conditions; i.e., the equilibrium process's character is best considered in terms of probabilities.
3. Investors' observation of and participation in the capital markets may at times influence valuations AND fundamental conditions or outcomes.
A current example of reflexivity in modern financial markets is that of the debt and equity of housing markets. Lenders began to make more money available to more people in the 1990s to buy houses. More people bought houses with this larger amount of money, thus increasing the prices of these houses. Lenders looked at their balance sheets which not only showed that they had made more loans, but that their equity backing the loans—the value of the houses, had gone up (because more money was chasing the same amount of housing, relatively). Thus they lent out more money because their balance sheets looked good, and prices went up more, and they lent more. This was further amplified by public policy. Many governments see home ownership as a positive outcome and so first home owners grant and other financial subsidies - or influences to buy a home such as the exemption of a primary residence from capital gains taxation - mean that house purchases were seen as a good thing. Prices increased rapidly, and lending standards were relaxed. The salient issue regarding reflexivity is that it explains why markets gyrate over time, and do not just stick to equilibrium—they tend to overshoot or undershoot.
View of potential problems in the free market system
Despite working as an investor and currency speculator, he argues that the current system of financial speculation undermines healthy economic development in many underdeveloped countries. Soros blames many of the world's problems on the failures inherent in what he characterizes as market fundamentalism. His opposition to many aspects of globalization has made him a controversial figure.
Soros claims to draw a distinction between being a participant in the market and working to change the rules that market participants must follow. According to Mahathir bin Mohamed, Prime Minister of Malaysia from July 1981 to October 2003, Soros - as the hedge fund chief of Quantum - may have been partially responsible for the economic crash in 1997 of East Asian markets when the Thai currency relinquished its peg to the US dollar. According to Mahathir, in the three years leading to the crash, Soros invested in short-term speculative investment in East Asian stock markets and real estate, then divested with "indecent haste" at the first signs of currency devaluation. Soros replied, saying that Mahathir was using him "as a scapegoat for his own mistakes", that Mahathir's promises to ban currency trading (which Malaysian finance officials hastily retracted) were "a recipe for disaster" and that Mahathir "is a menace to his own country".
In an interview regarding the economic crisis of 2008, Soros referred to it as the most serious crisis since the 1930s. According to Soros, market fundamentalism with its assumption that markets will correct themselves with no need for government intervention in financial affairs has been “some kind of an ideological excess”. In Soros´ view, the markets´ moods — a “mood” of the markets being a prevailing bias or optimism/pessimism with which the markets look at reality — “actually can reinforce themselves so that there are these initially self-reinforcing but eventually unsustainable and self-defeating boom/bust sequences or bubbles”.
Views on antisemitism
At a Jewish forum in New York City, November 5, 2003, Soros partially attributed a recent resurgence of antisemitism to the policies of Israel and the United States, and to successful Jews such as himself:
There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that. It's not specifically anti-Semitism, but it does manifest itself in anti-Semitism as well. I'm critical of those policies... If we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish. I can't see how one could confront it directly... I'm also very concerned about my own role because the new anti-Semitism holds that the Jews rule the world... As an unintended consequence of my actions... I also contribute to that image.
In a subsequent article for The New York Review of Books, Soros emphasized that
I do not subscribe to the myths propagated by enemies of Israel and I am not blaming Jews for anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel's policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism. At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel's policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby's success in suppressing divergent views.
Authored or co-authored