Monday, June 21, 2004

In Good Hands

Nothing to worry about here.

At Yale University, Jay Hallen majored in political science, rarely watched financial news stations and didn't follow the stock market.

All of which made the 24-year-old an unlikely pick for the difficult task of rebuilding Iraq's shuttered stock exchange. But Mr. Hallen, a private-sector development officer for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, was given the job immediately after arriving in Baghdad in September.

The headquarters of the old Iraqi exchange, where brokers in blue vests scribbled trades on boards, was looted after the war and is now occupied by squatters. Several listed companies no longer exist, and many Iraqi companies' majority shareholders -- Saddam Hussein and his friends and relatives -- are either dead or in prison. A new exchange is supposed to open in temporary quarters next month, but impatient brokers already meet privately in their homes and offices to trade shares.

Mr. Hallen admits that he wound up in Iraq rather by accident. In 2002, he began pursuing a White House job, and though none materialized, he stayed in close contact with the man who interviewed him, Reuben Jeffrey. When Mr. Jeffrey went to Iraq last summer as a senior economic-development adviser, Mr. Hallen e-mailed to ask whether there were any job openings. "Be careful what you wish for," Mr. Jeffrey, who is now an aide to Iraqi administrator Paul Bremer, told him in reply.

A few weeks later, Mr. Hallen got a phone call from a Pentagon personnel officer, who told him he had been given a job in the Coalition Provisional Authority and needed to be in Baghdad in less than a month. "Needless to say, I was in a mild state of shock," he says.

Mr. Hallen, who graduated in 2001, has spent the past few months in a crash course in high finance. He has worked with a team of volunteer financial experts and lawyers from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York and Philadelphia stock exchanges to revise and modernize the trading rules and disclosure requirements for the new market. He has created a watchdog agency for the exchange modeled on the SEC, and an association of Iraqi securities brokers. He has met with every Iraqi company that wants to be listed on the new exchange.