Today, investing in emerging markets is broadly accepted, in the late 1970s, however, those markets were accessible only to the most intrepid souls. Decades before anyone could open their iPhone and purchase bonds from any country in one tap, investing in the debt of developing countries was hard, and at times, entailed considerable personal risk.
Boston philanthropist and debt trader Robert P. Smith is recognized as one of the four pioneers of emerging markets in debt. From El Salvador to Nigeria, as these countries developed and transformed, the foreign corporations and banks who had lent them money had no easy way of cashing out when borrowers were unable to pay. Smith would travel to these countries, sometimes in the midst of civil war, and involve himself in the local business community. A financial matchmaker, he would then pair individuals and businesses who needed to sell their bonds with entities who were interested in buying them. Trades were frequently performed face to face, with Smith walking the streets of major Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern cities with briefcases full of bonds on his way to meet his next client.
Thanks to his efforts, every major financial institution now has what is called an “Emerging Markets” division, a critical part of global finance.
Smith leveraged his success to support his own communities in Boston and around New England, donating the Robert P. Smith Art Center and Theater to the Roxbury Latin School, and the David Saul Smith Union, a student center, at Bowdoin College. He served as a trustee for local organizations including Plimoth Plantation and the the Fessenden School.
Robert Peter Smith was born on February 18, 1940 in Boston. He was one of two children, and grew up in Brookline, where his father had a law practice. Smith received his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin and his law degree from Boston University. He joined the State Department’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Vietnam War, working for the US Government in Saigon as well as the Dominican Republic.
Smith met his wife Salwa while working in Brazil although the two eventually relocated to Boston. He died at age 78 of natural causes, leaving behind his wife, two children, Fiona and Edward, and his two grandchildren, Gemma and Eliana. In his 2009 memoir Riches Among the Ruins, Smith reflected with pride on “a lifetime of unforgettable experiences in some of the most exotic and remote corners of the world.”
For Smith involvement in the financial sector was compatible with his commitment to social justice and mentorship. At the time of his death he was slated to be a volunteer Executive in Residence to teach at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg in February 2019.
Services at Temple Israel, 477 Longwood Ave., Boston, (parking on the Riverway), on Friday, January 11, 2019 at 10:30 am. Interment to follow at Temple Israel Cemetery,492 North AVE., Wakefield, MA. In lieu of flowers remembrances may be made in Robert’s name to South Carolina State University, Development Office, 300 College St., Orangeburg, SC 29117, where he would have been a visiting scholar this spring. Donations will be used for student scholarships.