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Excess in Vegas

Last updated on: March 25, 2008 14:48 IST

Anyone remotely familiar with Las Vegas knows that it is all about numbers. It is known as the 'sin capital' of the world, panders to every vice known to man, and yes, to woman too, but gambling is its lifeblood.  

Its 197,144 slot machines, at the last count, are designed to lure a staggering thirty eight million visitors a year, to bet on numbers. Win or lose, don't count the money, but keep looking at the numbers -- at the gambling machine, on the roulette or crap tables and a hundred other variations: this is its central theme.

But why am I, an Indian diplomat, writing about the numbers, about Las Vegas? Have I lost my sanity or do I have a wish for early retirement? No. It is not these numbers, coursing through the arteries of Las Vegas that I had in mind. Rather it is the more respectable numbers: dollars, euros and rupees, and the esoteric world of high finance that took me to Las Vegas. Here is what happened.

One day, I was surprised to find an invitation in my office to be a keynote speaker at the annual convention of the American Association of Certified Public Accountants, known as CPAs in the US.

This is the term for what we call chartered accountants in India, but the concept is the same: specialists in all kinds of accounting, masters of the arcane art of book-keeping, also known with the slightly pejorative words as number-crunchers, or bean counters. A highly paid profession, indispensable to both government and the corporate world, but totally alien and mysterious to me. 

The invitation said the convention was to be in Las Vegas. This was not too much of a surprise as Las Vegas apart from all its dubious activities -- may be because of it -- is also the number one location for conferences and exhibitions in the US. The surprise lay in why I was getting this invitation to address this large conference. The subject suggested was 'The changing profile of India'.

A careful reading of the documents sent by the organisers gave some answers. This meet was specially focussing on 'personal wealth management', in other words was for professionals who specialise in managing the wealth of the special species amongst us called HNWI -- High Net Worth Individuals.

Supposing you have a million dollars and are busy making the next million. You don't have time to think about managing what is called your 'assets' and hire someone with skills to do precisely that. Typically such personal finance managers only look at individuals who have at least a million dollars, though that figure is for starters. They will not even sniff at you and me. This convention in Las Vegas was bringing several thousands of such managers together. Very impressive. But, why me? Why this interest in India?

A little bit of research gave clues to the underlying rationale. I discovered that India now had more billionaires in dollars than any other Asian country, including Japan and China. According to the Forbes report of 2007, we had 36 billionaires compared to 24 in Japan and then came Hong Kong and China. But dollar billionaires, the likes of Ambanis and Mallyas, are rare, and are not the reason for the newfound excitement among wealth managers.

India, I discovered to my own surprise, had more than one hundred thousand millionaires in dollar terms and the numbers were growing at an astonishing 20 per cent. In other words, money was growing rampant in India and the American money managers knew it. It was still true that this was a microscopic part of India's population, but when you are a billion strong, small percentages still give pretty substantial absolute numbers. So I was left with the next question: In this setting, what can be my pitch?

The professionals knew that I was not one of them. They did not expect me to know money, its varied nama, rupa and lakshana, their world of assets, fixed or movable, frozen or invested etc. In the conference they would have money mantras coming out of their ears, literally, they told me. What they wanted was a macro view of India, a way of looking at India, its politics, its society, customs and culture. This, I could do. This, I am paid to do. So it is thus that I landed in Las Vegas among counters, not at its casinos, but in a convention hall.

On the day of my keynote presentation, I wandered in soaking up the atmosphere at Caesar's Palace, one of the fabled hotels in Vegas. The major hotels in Las Vegas are themselves an attraction and each one with several thousand rooms has a 'theme'. Luxor evokes Egypt with the hotel itself built like a Pyramid; Paris has a sizable Eiffel tower; New York New York -- the name of another hotel has the Manhattan skyline; and the most dramatic visage is that of Venetian where within the hotel are water canals with Gondolas and a fabulous artificial sky above made of fibreglass. My hotel, Caesar's, had the Roman theme with giant statues of Apollo and David and what not, and scores of attendants of both sexes, wearing short togas.

Despite all the variations in themes and costumes, the ground floor of all the hotels have the same sight and sound. The sight of hundreds of men and women in all kinds of wear and tear feeding money into gambling machines and the sound of  these machines whirring, ringing and every once in a while gurgling out a cache of coins or chips, as someone lucky has won. This is a 24x7 activity 365 days a year and as I made my way to the elevators at seven in the morning, I still saw so many bleary-eyed gamblers compulsively feeding their dollars.

The conference hall upstairs was a different scene altogether. If I felt overdressed in my suit at the ground level, here, amidst the bankers and the wealth managers, I felt underdressed in an ambience of expensive aftershaves, gleaming leather briefcases, exquisite designer watches and bespoke suits and ties. You can't be a money-manager and look like a used car salesman, as an American would have said.

There was still time for my session in the main ballroom and I wandered around the adjacent committee rooms listening to what was going on. I can only give the titles of different talks that were in progress:  'Wealthy Americans: who are they and how to address their financial needs?' was the overarching theme emblazoned on a wall. Under it, in different smaller sessions, bright and eager eyed specialists were doing PowerPoint presentations on different subjects: 'Financing your kid's college tuition -- is it a tax write-off?', 'Pre-nuptial agreements -- can you marry without one?', 'Divorce settlement -- how to come out smiling?', 'Next generation of investments -- Art, Wines or Horses?'

Wherever I turned the air buzzed with talk of debt-equity ratios, balancing portfolios, value propositions, pay roll taxes, multiple-asset-class investments. I went to have a free coffee in a room bedecked with a banner: 'Get rich, Stay rich and Pass it on.' Too late for me, I thought to myself, remembering the lessons of 'Rich dad-Poor dad' recounted by me earlier in Get up and get rich.

It was time for my speech and I was a little nervous with all this money-talk swirling around me. But, staying true to what was asked of me, I presented a perspective on the changing profile of India, our successes and challenges, bright spots and warts. As I spoke, I could discern curiosity, attention, interest, even if I say all this myself. Question time came. I was dreading that this group of hard-nosed professionals would ask me, a novice, on rates of return, rupee appreciation against dollar and such like. No. All this they did not need from me.

They asked about caste and class, how India manages to stay united despite all the diversity, why so many are illiterate despite all the bright Indians that they saw around them, and the inevitable queries about China and India.

Their interest in the larger socio-political issues was a revelation, their questions probing, and their curiosity about what was happening in India, unlimited. I finished exhilarated and in a way validated that in a world of specialists, an informed overview was still appreciated.

What else did I do in Las Vegas apart from lecturing to the accountants? I must obey the famous dictum of the place: 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.'

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at cg@cgisf.org

B S Prakash