SEATTLE - Bankers aren't noted for their lightheartedness, but those attending this week's International Monetary Conference in the drizzly weather of the Pacific Northwest seemed to find especially little to cheer about.
Japanese bankers, preoccupied with a growing mountain of bad real estate loans at home, appeared particularly subdued.
U.S. bankers were wondering mainly about what their local competitors are up to and which way interest rates will bounce next.
The most cheerful lot appeared to be the Germans.
Deutsche Bank chairman Hilmar Kopper, who presided over the conference, went to such length with his jokes about Seattle's rain and Puget Sound drownings that the guest of honor, Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, threatened to respond in kind about Frankfurt's weather during an upcoming trip to Germany.
Fifty-one years after holding its first meeting at Harriman House in New York State, this august gathering of central bankers and the heads of the world's biggest banks once again debated the weighty problems confronting banking and finance.
What went on behind closed doors at meetings titled "Economic Regionalism and its Influence on Banking," "Crossing Tomorrow's Frontiers with High-Tech Banking," or "Funds and Financial Markets" is anybody's guess.
Yet between the inscrutability of the ponderous remarks and the blandness of the prepared speech texts, a few flashes of honest concern emerged.
As one irate French banker grumbled to no one in particular on his way from a meeting room to the elevator at the Four Seasons Hotel: "I keep wondering what bad news we're going to hear next."
One of the most outspoken bankers turned out to be Yoh Kurosawa, president of the Industrial Bank of Japan. He warned that if nothing is done to halt the gradual move away from the dollar as an international reserve currency, the world risks a crisis and the United States a collapse in the value of the dollar comparable to the one Britain experienced in the 1960s when many countries gave up holding pound sterling in their reserves.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Kurosawa observed, 80% of the currency reserves held by the world's central banks were in U.S. dollars. Today, only 60% of an estimated $1.2 trillion in such reserves is in dollars.
"We can recall the nightmare of the sterling pound crisis which happened 35 years ago," Mr. Kurosawa warned. Since then, he pointed out, the value of the British pound has fallen from above 1,000 yen to around 137 yen.
"We earnestly hope the United States will draw a lesson from this history," Mr. Kurosawa said.
A similar flash of honesty emerged from former J.P. Morgan & Co. chairman Dennis Weatherstone, who was asked whether a limited focus on a restricted number of operations or a broad diversification into many different activities made the most sense for banks. "It's basically a matter of fashion and the current fashion is to be very focused," he responded.
Mr. Weatherstone also introduced a refreshing note in his remarks by observing that in the mad rush for greater computer firepower and mathematically based logic, a number of banks seemed to have overlooked the role of common sense in managing risk.
"Will mathematics replace experience and common sense?" Mr. Weatherstone asked. "(The answer) is clearly no. If we think otherwise, then I suggest we enjoy this conference while we can and promptly thereafter take a short position in bank stocks."
Last, but not least, Microsoft Corp. CEO William H. Gates showed up to expound on his theories of electronic commerce and how banks, given the kinds of technology they are still using, are doomed to follow the fate of the dinosaurs.
But Mr. Gates, under the stern gaze of Citicorp chairman John Reed, former Federal Reserve Bank of New York president E. Gerald Corrigan, and Lord Younger of Prestwick, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, hastened to observe: "The dinosaurs did last for 200 million years."