Several years ago, as a teenager on holiday from university, I followed a good friend home to his sleepy village near Enugu. I was surprised to see several grocery trays unattended on the streets – trays of okra, tomatoes, left in small roadside stalls… customers took what they needed and left the right payment. This was early in the not-so-innocent 80s, and I was impressed at the honesty in the small village.
Until my friend pointed out the pebble in each grocery tray. Apparently there was a river god in residence at the village stream and although the villagers were mostly honest, it was downright silly to risk the wrath of deities. Not over measly vegetables. A pebble from the stream left in a grocery tray was all the security required in Agbudu. There were rarely any reports of locals fiddling with the okra. At least, not back then.
I had cause to remember that incident recently. Like old Agbudu, many residents of Guernsey, the small British island of some 60,000 residents, grow vegetables in their back gardens. What they don’t use on the dinner table, they often leave in veg boxes out in front. These boxes are unattended; there is a sticker with the price and a rusty tin for your money. It is all very old-world and charming, not at all what you’d expect in an international financial centre. It is quite usual to walk past boxes of potatoes, peppers and pears in the hedges. Folks are mostly honest enough to pay for what they take, but there are always exceptions, of course. Apparently there is no equivalent of a river god here, leaving the angry gardener no option but to stick up a DIY curse, as the picture shows. On reflection, river gods do have their uses after all.
Unfortunately, the operators of the world’s financial system have neither a fear of God nor a fear of man. For a while it seemed that the funny money created by the sophisticated pyramid schemes of International finance would pass muster, but the party is over now. Unfortunately, this was no ordinary game of musical chairs where only a few losers fall to the ground. This is the systemic failure whose impact crushes both guilty and innocent, the international equivalent of Nigeria’s finance industry pile up of the ’90s when finance houses went from boom to bust in a bonfire of ostentatious lifestyles, disappearing with the livelihoods and life savings of thousands.
While politicians and their financial advisers devise various configurations of bailouts and rescue plans, it is interesting how a second bonfire of ideology is quietly happening behind the scenes. The end of the last century saw the comprehensive dismantling of Communism. This meltdown is a crisis in the victorious house of Capitalism, the victor by default in the great warfare of ideologies. Global capital, the conventional wisdom of yesterday, is under scrutiny.
A warning salvo was fired back in January when 31-year-old rogue trader, Jerome Kerviel, almost liquidated Societe Generale when his secret trading caused his employers a loss of some US $7billion. This was four times the size of the losses racked up by Nick Leeson, whose activities brought down Barings Bank not all that long ago.
The lesson from the Leeson/Kerviel losses was clear: in a globalised world where the activities of a junior rogue could bring down a multinational, the indiscretions of a single company could also bring down the global financial system.
The lesson was not learned.
Meanwhile, as governments worldwide descend into panic, breaking out bank bailout schemes and rescue plans left right and centre, no one seems to notice the strange animal emerging from the woodwork: a species of capitalism anchored on nationalised capital; an aristocracy of wealth founded not so much on the exploitation of a serfdom as on the subsidy of taxpayers, present and future. This animal is defined by the obscene spectacle of the profligate AIGs and GMs of the world queuing up for serial smash-and-grabs at the public purse.
The US$7billion hole in Societe Generale’s finances was blown, essentially, by Jerome betting on future share values. The betting itself was not illegal. It was his job to gamble on futures. What his employers were grumbling about was the ‘unauthorised’ scale of the gambles. Presumably, had the bets gone the other way, Societe General would have declared a whopper of a profit this year, Jerome would have earned a huge bonus, and we’d all have been none the wiser.
Naturally, the right of every man to gamble his mortgage (and that of his employers) on the national lottery is enshrined in the charter of fundamental human rights we have all fought so hard to establish. However, recent events have shown how inextricably woven all our mortgages are. It only takes the collapse of a few ‘subprime’ ones to sink the most secure mortgages and pension funds. Our wellbeing seems welded to the greed of high finance, and we ought to take serious pause for thought.
Back in January, when Jerome’s misdemeanours came to light, Richard Fuld, the chairman of Lehman Brothers, then one of the largest banks in the world, said sniffily, ‘nothing stuns me, nothing really surprises me these days.’ A few months later his own bank was in liquidation. No surprise there then.
If any good comes out of these hard times, it will be the rare opportunity to ask fundamental questions that revolve around ‘Balance’; fundamental questions that give voice to the billions of people who live on the fringes. Proponents of a New World Economic Order have always had a tough battle. If the most powerful people in the world were doing so well, why would they ever want to change? Well, now that it is all crashing down, elected officials may be able to scrape together the spunk to tell their citizens that things really do have to change – even if it is ‘merely’ the swapping of 8-litre-engine behemoths for small Daihatsus. Hopefully we will go beyond meagre belt-tightening to have conversations that examine optimal pricing for commodities, which stabilise population flows and optimise sustainable development and wealth creation by reducing aid flows.
Perhaps as a fallout of the crises, nations may find themselves too cash-strapped to run vast armies and warships. Perhaps resources will be diverted from the manufacture and purchase of bombs to the provision of roofs and drugs to the homeless and helpless that languish in their millions, even in the ‘developed’ world.
The financial bailouts making the rounds are band aids. They will not change the fundamental flaws in the pyramids of greed. Days after AIG was saved from bankruptcy by an US$85 billion loan from the taxpayer, the snouts were back in the trough as top staff headed off to luxury resorts for US$400,000 weekend conferences. The blank cheques being issued to rogue traders by the world’s central banks is a palliative shot in the arm, a sniff of cocaine to a serial junkie; it does not address the fundamental flaws in the system. The prime losers here are the present and future generations of taxpayers, the modern day serfs, who have no comeback – except to curse as futilely as the Guernsey farmer robbed of her beans. Only fundamental changes in the philosophical narrative of nations will make a difference to the destiny of the world system henceforth.