12 April 2009

Griff Rhys Jones understands, perfectly....

THIS will cheer you up. I lost a big sum of money recently. It evaporated with Lehman Brothers.

As it happens, I was hardly aware that I had anything deposited with this distinguished banking house (or hopelessly greedy incompetents, depending on the way you choose to look at them) until I telephoned the manager of my account at a hedge fund.

Now let's go back. I am a financial innocent. I distrust all wealth management and fund manager types. I distrust them from a deep, puritanical atavistic well. But I happen to have savings and pension funds to consider. We drones make our money by luck and talent, by inventing things or creating things, and not by accountancy, so we are doomed to be the patsies of the financial sector. We are the wildebeests by the waterhole. We are the ones who have to die to feed these ghastly, lazy, incompetent predators.

I became intrinsically distrustful of all financiers in 1985, beating the present British Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasurer) by more than 20 years, after the only tax scheme I took part in (an industrial building allowance) proved to be hooey. I have remained a suspicious old woman most of my professional life. And I have still been embezzled, suffered gross incompetence and been double and triple-charged (by mistake, of course). I have experienced the hubris of "bulletproof, perfectly legal" tax arrangements, the cupidity of lawyers and the stupidity of accountants who forgot to file, "tax advisers" who delayed meetings because they were so busy and then charged pound stg. 10,000 an hour for out-of-date advice. And I am just a standard freelance money earner with a moderately successful career.

So, briefly, like many, I had a bit of money in equities; only, pessimistically, unlike many, it caused me to fret. I heard rumblings and warning beeps and decided I wanted to withdraw all my money from the stock markets last April. The hedge fund hedged. But it was all in cash by June. Cash. Dangerous, but real stuff. Money in the bank.

Well, let me rephrase that: money in a bank.

Then the bank collapsed. It was apparently a segregated or custody account. These were both terms I had never heard before. But everybody told me that was OK. The hedge fund briskly suggested that I contact the liquidators myself, and I would get my custody money back within a week. (Soothe, soothe.) Er ... that was six months ago.

It transpires that, far from an answer within a week, the liquidators seem to want a few years to sort things out. They are offering to scrape together about a quarter of this "segregated custody account money pool" and then charge me for doing so. I may well end up owing them money, I guess.

This is, by the way, actual money, not fantasy earnings or funds or the-value-could-go-up-or-down money. It happened, by sheer accident, to be in a deposit account. The truth is that my real money, and the other custody accounts, increasingly appear to be the only actual money that Lehman had at all. But what makes it slightly bizarre is that the false money seems to be all right. Its brokerage divisions go on. Barclays and Nomura have taken them over. The jobs of the perpetrators of this asinine calamity have been secured.

This is seen as great success. More soothing words were needed. "You're probably scratching your head about all this," the lawyer kept saying, as if I were Winnie-the-Pooh. No doubt I needed the gruesome Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, to help me with a diagram showing that "the good parts" of the bank have been sold on while "the bad parts" are going to be taken up by the Government or shot or recycled or something. But in my Pooh naivety I thought of a deposit account as a good part, not a bad part. That's how much of a patsy I am.

Apparently the brokerage business was handed over to Barclays with pound stg. 3.5 billion in cash as a sweetener (that's actual money, by the way) to pay the wages and bonuses of the bankers that went with it. The money on deposit that has evaporated (my technical term, not theirs) and of which my pittance was a part, amounts to about pound stg. 2.5 billion. Something doesn't add up.

As it happens, Barclays has not paid those naughty bankers their undeserved incompetence bonuses. Phew. They wriggled out of that. So that's all right then. Basically my money seems to have been spirited away and given to another bank. It is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose business, isn't it? But we musn't blame the bankers. They were making the wealth that powered the economy and the Porsches too.

The greed involved is Mother Goose greed. These people were making a lot of money but, not content with lending, they worked out a way of making more than was feasible. Never mind quantitative easing, the banks have already created money that didn't really exist by inventing a lending inflation. They took genuine money, turned it into stocks, inflated the value of the stocks and then used that to leverage false money (more "value"), which they lent into a fantasy market (the price of houses) at impossible future returns, the profits of which they banked as bonuses before anything had actually matured.

I'm sorry, but we must blame the bankers. Lehman and my hedge fund have taken a significant wodge of this false money out of the fantasy market and put it in custody accounts (which I assume were better protected than mine). The bankers who bleat for their money are part of the whole network of artificially hyped inflation. They were all involved in a sort of Ponzi scheme. It was clear to anyone years ago that this was a teetering tower of trash. But still bankers in brokerage firms with giant bonus options think they can prop it back up.

The reason why these brokerage bits are Peston's "good business" is because, even if the market has collapsed, even if the bubble has burst, they will make money if there is any trading at all. They don't lose money like the mug punter, the pensioner, the saver or the depositor does. They slow down, that's all.

Once there was sense. Sense will return as a cold douche. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the British Government wants to penalise savers by dropping interest to nothing. Unemployment soars, but those feckless and stupid enough to get a mortgage at five times their annual salary have been given a respite, in the hope that this will reinflate the gigantic bubble.

The Times reports that at last British house prices have gone back up again. Wehey! "A return to normality!" Those wealth management people and estate agents can go back to their Georgian mansions and spend their money on private education. I, like Pooh, am scratching my head again.

Griff Rhys Jones is a comedian and author of Mountain (Penguin).

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