Friday, March 6, 2009

A fisherman turned banker, now back to Fishing

Lean and hungry-looking, wearing genuine rather than designer stubble, Alfsson still looks more like a trawler captain than a financier. He went to sea at 16, and, in the off-season, to school to study fishing. He was made captain of an Icelandic fishing trawler at the shockingly young age of 23 and was regarded, I learned from other men, as something of a fishing prodigy—which is to say he had a gift for catching his quota of cod and haddock in the least amount of time. And yet, in January 2005, at 30, he up and quit fishing to join the currency-trading department of Landsbanki. He speculated in the financial markets for nearly two years, until the great bloodbath of October 2008, when he was sacked, along with every other Icelander who called himself a “trader.” His job, he says, was to sell people, mainly his fellow fishermen, on what he took to be a can’t-miss speculation: borrow yen at 3 percent, use them to buy Icelandic kronur, and then invest those kronur at 16 percent. “I think it is easier to take someone in the fishing industry and teach him about currency trading,” he says, “than to take someone from the banking industry and teach them how to fish.”

He then explained why fishing wasn’t as simple as I thought. It’s risky, for a start, especially as practiced by the Icelandic male. “You don’t want to have some sissy boys on your crew,” he says, especially as Icelandic captains are famously manic in their fishing styles. “I had a crew of Russians once,” he says, “and it wasn’t that they were lazy, but the Russians are always at the same pace.” When a storm struck, the Russians would stop fishing, because it was too dangerous. “The Icelanders would fish in all conditions,” says Stefan, “fish until it is impossible to fish. They like to take the risks. If you go overboard, the probabilities are not in your favor. I’m 33, and I already have two friends who have died at sea.”

It took years of training for him to become a captain, and even then it happened only by a stroke of luck. When he was 23 and a first mate, the captain of his fishing boat up and quit. The boat owner went looking for a replacement and found an older fellow, retired, who was something of an Icelandic fishing legend, the wonderfully named Snorri Snorrasson. “I took two trips with this guy,” Stefan says. “I have never in my life slept so little, because I was so eager to learn. I slept two or three hours a night because I was sitting beside him, talking to him. I gave him all the respect in the world—it’s difficult to describe all he taught me. The reach of the trawler. The most efficient angle of the net. How do you act on the sea. If you have a bad day, what do you do? If you’re fishing at this depth, what do you do? If it’s not working, do you move in depth or space? In the end it’s just so much feel. In this time I learned infinitely more than I learned in school. Because how do you learn to fish in school?”

This marvelous training was as fresh in his mind as if he’d received it yesterday, and the thought of it makes his eyes mist.

You spent seven years learning every little nuance of the fishing trade before you were granted the gift of learning from this great captain?” I ask.


“And even then you had to sit at the feet of this great master for many months before you felt as if you knew what you were doing?”


Then why did you think you could become a banker and speculate in financial markets, without a day of training?

“That’s a very good question,” he says. He thinks for a minute. “For the first time this evening I lack a word.” As I often think I know exactly what I am doing even when I don’t, I find myself oddly sympathetic.

“What, exactly, was your job?” I ask, to let him off the hook, catch and release being the current humane policy in Iceland.

“I started as a … “—now he begins to laugh—“an adviser to companies on currency risk hedging. But given my aggressive nature I went more and more into plain speculative trading.” Many of his clients were other fishermen, and fishing companies, and they, like him, had learned that if you don’t take risks you don’t catch the fish. “The clients were only interested in ‘hedging’ if it meant making money,” he says.

-Wall Street on the Tundra

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