At the height of summer, in those carefree days of endless sunshine and picnics in bee - loud, clover - scented meadows by languid steams (I’m writing in a metaphorical sense here obviously) it seemed the good times would go on forever. Like Keats’ Autumn the economy kept burgeoning, oblivious to setbacks. So how did it all go wrong so quickly? Sit down and I’ll tell you. You’re going to like this, not a lot but you’ll like it.
The free market, the miracle that turned us into worshippers in the high Street Temple of consumerism, the perpetual motion engine that drove global economy was no more than an illusion. The world economy was based on magic money, dreamed up by politicians and bankers and underwritten by ridiculous asset values that bore no relation to reality.
In 1976, Jim Callaghan was the undertaker for the post-war social democratic order when he said: "We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists." Now, instead of thrashing around trying to find a way to rescue the bankers from the consequences of their folly, the prime minister should stand up and say: "We used to think you could borrow your way out of a recession and increase employment by increasing debt and setting the City free. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists". It would bring the house down, literally.
A year after Callaghan faced his crisis, socialism was dead, its ideals of social justice hijacked by special interest groups advocating not fair treatment for all but advancing arguments for the preferential treatment of minorities. Into the political void stepped Margaret Thatcher, as much an illusionist as any other politician but one who claimed she could really perform magic. Having got her party elected and started an unnecessary war to arouse patriotic feelings and disguise the incompetence of her government she pulled her first rabbit out of the hat, giving council tenants the right to buy their homes.
Here next trick was to make the money raised from selling council properties disappear instead of investing it in new properties so that people could get on the ladder as young tenants and earn the right to buy their home later when their lives and incomes were more settled. The lack of available homes to rent created an artificial demand for property to buy at the bottom of the market which forces prices up to unrealistic levels. In turn this pushed up prices in the middle. Meanwhile a new, classless (in every sense) elite was created. These people wanted to live in exclusive neighbourhoods for the status they imagined that gave them. They were prepared to pay over the odds for property at the top of the market but wanted top money for their suburban semis.
The madness ought to have been regulated by lending restrictions but the newly deregulated financial institutions tore up the conventional financial wisdom of not lending more than people could afford to repay, “If customers default on the loan, we take the house” they said, smugly assuming that as long as there was demand in the market their investment was safe. They were wrong, so long as the madness continued and unrealistic values continued to be placed on properties used as collateral the illusion could be maintained. Once economies slowed and earnings started to fall more and more people started to default on loans. Very soon panic set in.
The recession of the early 1990s was deep, swift and painful. It ought to have taught us about Magic Money but very soon more rabbits were being pulled out of hats this time based on a notion of The Internet changing everything in a way that would enable us to become rich by giving stuff away for free, the dotcom bubble. Ridiculous values were put on startup companies with no track record, no revenue stream and in some cases no product to sell. The first dotcom startup to fall, in the month after its shares started to be traded on Stock Exchanges had had millions of hits on its web site but converted just three of these into sales.
No matter, the dotcom tycoons continued to spend their investors venture capital as if the end of the world was imminent and to behave like Conquistadors, treating the captains of traditional industries as if they were members of some stone age tribe.
Once the rot set in the dotcoms fell like dominoes.
Enter the superheroes who would save the world. The Free Market maniacs with their mathematical models, their structured investment vehicles and their billion pound bonuses. These people had learned a new trick, not for them the tired old illusions like sawing the girl in half, making the monkey disappear, pulling the rabbit out of the hat. These guys has learned how to do transubstantiation. They were not interested in turning brad and wine into flesh and blood however. The new trick involved turning a liability into an asset.
When once people had bought a house the lender who financed the mortgage had a claim on the house which secured the debt, thus balancing the account. Thanks to a piece of financial sleight of hand which was possibly invented by the people who brought you the Enron and Worldcom corporate bankruptcies, in the brave new world of creative accounting a mortgage became a double asset for the lender. They owned the house and they owned a slice of the borrower’s future income ‘til the debt was paid.
Suddenly the balance sheets of mortgage lenders showed a doubling in the asset value of the organisation. Value of their shares rocketed and on paper they had oceans on money to lend. And lend it they did, to anybody, because every loan they made immediately doubled in value on their balance sheet. And that really was magic.
So as you stand surveying the wreckage, should you hear anyone ask “What went wrong, where did all the money go?” you can tell them; “There never was any money, it was all done with smoke and mirrors.”