The Abu Dhabi Hustle

Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone political columnist and would-be Hunter S. Thompson, wrote a book about corporate double-dealing called Griftopia. In it, he singled out Chicago’s parking meter deal as an example of an investment bank’s “bait and switch.” It was not a new story, but Taibbi laid out how Morgan Stanley made the $1.1 billion to buy our parking concession for 75 years, then went fishing for investors to fund it.

[The investment] process involved [Morgan Stanley]'s Infrastructure group going on a road tour to ask people with lots of cash to pony up. It was these guys from Morgan's Infrastructure desk who took their presentation to the Middle East and pitched Chicago's parking meters to a room full of bankers and analysts in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, who ultimately agreed to purchase a large stake.

So basically Morgan Stanley found a bunch of investors, including themselves, to put up over a billion dollars in December 2008; a big chunk of those investors then bailed out to make way in February 2009 for this Deeside Investments, which was 49.9 percent owned by Abu Dhabi and 50.1 percent owned by a company called Redoma SARL, about which nothing was known except that it had an address in Luxembourg.

In other words, when you spend $5 to park for two hours on a Sunday, the main beneficiary is the Middle Eastern emirate of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Now, before you conservatives get all excited, Abu Dhabi is not one of those Arab countries that uses its oil wealth to fund terrorism. It uses the money to fund religious structures, including the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest and most ornate. And before you liberals get all excited, Abu Dhabi is also not one of those Arab countries that singles out women for exclusion from voting. It doesn’t allow anyone to vote. The emirate is governed by the ruling Al Nahyan family.

Despite all that, I think that if Mayor Richard M. Daley had told the City Council, “We’re going to sell our parking-meter concession to an oil-rich Arab monarchy,” the debate would have lasted a lot longer than 48 hours. It would probably still be going on.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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