NOT MANY Goldman Sachs partners seek out citizenship in a tiny Caribbean island to speed through airports. Ali Meli wasn’t your typical Goldman partner.
Couch-surfing inside the investment bank, an almost $10-million paycheck as a junior trader and clashing with peers are all parts of the legend of Meli, described by colleagues as an unlikely figure in Wall Street’s most elite club: Abrasive but brilliant, subversive but successful, and above all one of its most “eccentric” figures.
Now, after exiting the investment bank last year, Meli is setting up his own venture in some of the most treacherous markets in generations. The 38-year-old plans to recreate a model of doing business that he learned in an especially profitable part of Goldman’s trading division, putting together complex financing deals.
“Everything about Ali was unusual but he was one of the most incredible people we’ve ever hired,” said Ram Sundaram, who brought Meli into his team, which went on to become the Principal Funding & Investments group. “He could think through all aspects of a deal to a degree that was abnormal. He was in a league of his own.”
Meli is now seeking the backing of many of his former mentors as he looks to raise money for a structured credit fund, ramping up at a time of severe economic disruption.
As companies seek out capital amid market distress, Meli hopes he finds himself in the center of transactions, borrowing a playbook from his Goldman days.
Born in the shadow of the Iran revolution, Meli’s earliest memories of Tehran, where he spent 20 years, was the conflict with Iraq, as his family shuttled between houses to shield themselves.
Meli’s ticket to escape the mandatory deployment in Iran’s army was a world physics competition. He later left the country altogether on a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After a delay in his security clearance, Meli landed in Boston on Sept. 10, 2001. Terrorists attacked the US early the next morning, prompting unprecedented scrutiny of recent arrivals from the Middle East. Meli soon had to submit to a government registry tracking his movements. But it didn’t end there.
Every time he flew, the Iranian emigre was singled out for more rigorous checks. Even years later, while jet-setting with Goldman bankers to set up billion-dollar trades, the airport ordeals continued. So he solved it in a way only the wealthy would — he went passport shopping.
For Meli, the worry of being sent back to Iran was paramount. His response was insane work hours.
During his early days at Goldman, after other traders went home, Meli would sneak into one of the plush partner offices to sleep. He often found refuge on the office couch belonging to Harvey Schwartz, then a senior deputy to trading co-head Gary Cohn. Both men nearly went on to become the bank’s CEO.
Meli’s justification: “Harvey had an open-door policy.”
“I was worried about losing my job because it would have meant deportation to Iran,” Meli said. “I didn’t want to risk that. But I wasn’t stupid — I never slept on Gary’s couch.” Cohn, known for his hard-charging ways, eventually joined President Donald Trump’s White House.
Yet Meli charted quick success, becoming a pillar of Sundaram’s group. Known as PFI, it had latitude to use Goldman’s own money to take on positions that wouldn’t be easy to quickly offload. Some of its big-ticket financings around the 2008 credit crisis generated massive gains for Goldman even as the rest of Wall Street struggled.
Just a few years into his banking career, Meli was already eyeing big risks. He encouraged his team to pile on short positions as the housing market headed into the 2008 credit crisis.
Meli also had a hand in another incident that reverberated across financial markets. He helped his team come up with the valuation for marking down positions in its swaps transaction with AIG, which forced the insurer to put up more cash as others followed suit. AIG insisted for years that Goldman’s aggressive move was what led to its failure.
Some of the most profitable transactions were trades Goldman designed with the likes of CIT Group and European banks. That helped Meli score his giant paycheck for 2009. But as his success mounted, so did his skirmishes. Often passionate, he wouldn’t hold back in disagreements over transactions — incidents that sometimes left more-senior colleagues red-faced.
Meli gave up butting heads at Goldman and officially exited the bank last year.
This year, markets are presenting a once-in-a-century opportunity for brave credit traders. Meli’s firm has already announced a transaction, a credit line to a fintech company in Colombia. — Bloomberg