A British banker who rode the tiger

Richard Evans reflects on the party that would last forever - until it ended
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The Independent Online
I RECALL the phone conversation I had with one of my oldest friends based out in Hong Kong as I prepared to leave my safe job with a US publishing company in London for a new career as a stockbroker in Asia. "Richard, stop dithering," he said. "It's boom time out here, do you get me. Boom, Boom, Boom time. It's the Roaring Twenties all over again. Take the job, put yourself on a plane, and get out here."

That was in October 1994. Two days after that call, I walked through customs at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, ready to start my new job in Standard Chartered Securities' office in the Thai capital. I had been hired to work as an analyst to write reports on Thai companies and market that research to the firm's worldwide network of international fund-management clients.

Earlier in my career I had trained with Arthur Andersen & Co, the US management consultancy and accountancy firm, and I had been a financial journalist for a while, so the work was familiar. I was bursting with enthusiasm. Over the past few years I had listened enviously to my friends in the region recounting tales of hedonistic lifestyles fuelled by champagne and million-dollar bonuses. Now it was my turn.

I should perhaps have seen straight away that all would not go as well as I hoped. On that first night the taxi dropped me outside a cheap boarding house on Silom Road, opposite Papong, Bangkok's famous red-light district, instead of the splendid service-apartment I was expecting. My room was virtually a cupboard. Worse still, a girlfriend used to five-star luxury was arriving from London in two days. She had never been to Thailand and seemed even more eager than me to take advantage of my supposed deluxe accommodation. When she arrived, her face betrayed her horror. Then she collapsed in laughter. She insisted on taking photos of the two of us in the wretched room, which even now she loves to show to her cocktail party guests back in London.

My boss, a former Australian army officer who had completed his PhD in economics in Thailand, claimed it was a misunderstanding. Anyway, I soon found myself grander accommodation: a house on Soi 3, Soi Ruan Rudee, in one of the best areas of Bangkok. Various embassies lined the soi as well as the houses of some of Thailand's wealthiest new entrepreneurs. I felt ready to take my place among the other brokers, bankers, lawyers and real estate brokers, jostling to plunder Thailand's ever-increasing wealth.

My first day at work was instructive. As I walked into the office I saw virtually all the staff huddled around the Reuters terminal, eyes intent on the rising stock prices on the screen. The odd squeal punctured the air. It was a common sight over the next few months. Most of my new colleagues were women. The girls, aged between about 24 and 30, were clad head to heel in Chanel, Dior, Versace. Shoes were by Ferragamo or Gucci. In the staff car park, as I discovered later, were BMWs, Mercedes and Japanese sports cars. My boss had made his killing too: he owned half a dozen condos and was expanding his business interests to include golf courses, hotels and a travel agency in Burma. Give me two years, I thought. If I'm lucky, one.

Those first few months were hectic. I had to master the mechanics of the Thai economy, and familiarise myself with the companies and the tricks and scams of their major shareholders. The job was turning out to be part accountancy, part private investigator and part showman. In developed economies where corporate governance is stronger and the companies are more mature, there is less scope for abuse. In emerging markets where the rules are fewer and little heed is paid to them anyway, major shareholders happily put their worst assets into their public companies, ride roughshod over minority shareholders and siphon money out of their public vehicles by various wheezes. One of the most common: selling back grossly overpriced assets to their public companies from their private empires. I had to be alert if I wanted to make my clients money and have a golden tongue if things went wrong.

However, it did get easier. To my surprise the more money flowed in the less we analysts and brokers had to work, while our counterparts in law and accountancy slaved harder and harder doing the paperwork for all the deals. We floated on top of the tidal wave of cash, each wave taking us higher, making us richer - more commissions, bigger bonuses. As the buying frenzy gathered pace, fund managers did not want in-depth research, just a few reasons why they should buy. And they came in droves. I remember one Swed-ish fund manager who claimed to be too tired to come to our office, so I had to go down and make a presentation to him as he lay by his hotel pool, reclining like some Roman emperor.

Headhunters had an even cushier time. Frantically expanding banks and securities firms happily paid their outlandish fees. One of my head-hunting friends conducted his business from various elite restaurants around town; he was rarely seen in his office. Vintage bottles of Veuve Clicquot or Dom Perignon were often the only guests at his table.

I built up a small stock portfolio of my own. Nothing too risky. I bought a few of the bigger banks - Thai Framers Bank, Krung Thai Bank; Tasco, the country's leading construction company; a few property stocks; and, on the recommendation of our in-house analyst, TPI, a big petrochemical company. At one stage, when the Thai economy was still barrelling along, my basket was up about 25 per cent. Things were on track.

Bangkok then was a very different city to today's angst-ridden capital. The place was awash with money. Hong Kong and Singapore had the loot too, but Bangkok was wilder. The new rich were newer, and they displayed and paraded their wealth with the same drive and hunger with which they had earned it. They turned the capital's streets into moving showrooms for luxury cars, in the restaurants they competed for the most expensive vintage wine - not for the taste but because it was taxed the highest - and in quasi-nightclubs all over the city they bid up the price for the best- looking girls.

Every weekend there were parties, parties, parties. Two will set the scene. The first: a leaving party for a Cazenove broker. His enormous, cool, white house, on a soi off Sukhumvit, the main road where expats stayed, could have been lifted from any of the great plantations of America's Deep South. Guests gathered around the pool, reeking of money. Achingly beautiful girls in their early twenties, having listened enviously to their older sister's tales of the 1980s boom in London, were set to take their revenge and stalked the richer brokers. The second party: my own, held in the 4,000 sq ft penthouse-style apartment of a lawyer friend. Some 250 people drank dry the dozens of crates of champagne, wine and spirits we had stacked up. I can still remember dawn breaking and looking out over Bangkok, and then seeing the head of one international securities house chasing a Thai girl singing something like "I'm only a wee Scottish laddie but I'm big enough for you".

Despite the feeling that it would all go on forever, by late 1995 there were signs that the party was ending. Thai companies had been indulging in an orgy of investment and expansion, with many projects misconceived and mispriced. The Bank of Thailand, in an effort to keep the money supply under control and support the baht's fixed exchange rate with the US dollar, was keeping interest rates very high. Companies started to default on their loans. When one big Thai bank announced in late 1995 that its bad loans were set to rise, the end was in sight. Foreign investors started to lose confidence. By mid-1996 the market was in a tailspin.

My problems were compounded by the fact that Standard Chartered Bank had decided to sell its securities arm to a local broker. Out in Asia, there is a distinct tiering between local and international firms, with local firms not paying anything like the salary and benefits offered by foreign brokers. Fortunately I had some good contacts in the region. One was the managing director of the Kuala Lumpur office of Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia, another international broking firm. In Malaysia the party was still in full swing. The country was heading for its ninth successive year of 8 per cent GDP growth and the stock market was soaring. I agreed to join CLSA and moved to Kuala Lumpur in June 1996. I was to provide data and local coverage for the regional economics team in Singapore and cover the banking sector, which would ensure that I'd be at the centre of things.

For the first few days I stayed at my new boss's luxury house in Damansara Heights, in the hills above Kuala Lumpur. Five minutes down the road was the imperious residence of Dr Mahathir, the Malaysian prime minister. We drove to work in my boss's Range Rover - bought first-hand for about $150,000, due to the high import taxes.

I moved into a lovely flat five minutes from the office, complete with swimming pool, gym and a to-be-completed golf driving range. I went with a wealthy broker friend to test drive some cars. He took out the latest Ferrari - cost $500,000. I opted for a more modest BMW - cost $80,000. I had a second chance to reach for the sky.

Stock market fever was high in Kuala Lumpur. Wherever I went - to get a haircut, pick up a paper, to stop by my property agent's office - everybody wanted tips. The Chinese, who make up about 35 per cent of the Malaysian population, are gambling crazy. Up in the hills above Kuala Lumpur, hidden away from the majority Muslim-Malay population, is Genting Highlands. It is a purpose-built casino complex, packed nightly, and owned by Lim Goh Tong, one of Malaysia's wealthiest tycoons. For most Chinese Malays, the stock market is just an extension of their day-to-day gambling. One taxi driver I spoke to even thought Tong owned the stock exchange as well as the casino.

But there is a dark side too: the local stock syndicates who manipulate prices are powerful and can be ruthless. One local broker told me: "The only way to make money here is to invest on inside information, in cornered stocks where you get killed if you sell at the wrong time." He was referring to getting killed on the price. But I heard a more literal version later: that one person was actually taken out to sea and crucified for selling while his syndicate partners were buying.

I never put this to the test. While caught up in my move to Kuala Lumpur I had forgotten about my Thai portfolio of stocks. When I did check up, they were worth about 35 per cent of the cash I had paid. The worst stock was TPI, where I had lost 80 per cent of my cash. The last bit of research I remember reading was titled: "Sell at any price". I had no urge to increase my losses.

The night spots were almost as wild as Bangkok. The bars in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur's Champs Elysee, were packed. In nightclubs like the Boom Boom Room and Deviate a young crowd of bankers, brokers, fashion types, photographers and actors were the model of dissipation. Some of the high- rolling foreign brokers partied hardest of all. One of the funniest things I have ever witnessed was in one nightclub: a top English broker and his pal from the UK, both well-built, donned rubber suits in the image of Sumo wrestlers, pumped up them with air, and then fought it out in true Sumo style, bouncing off each other like a couple of huge Michelin men.

Inevitably there were parties. The most memorable: a poker party my boss took me to. It was at the house of one of the local tycoons. Eight of us sat around the poker table and played for a few hours, drinking whisky and champagne. Then one of the local big shots decided he wanted to play Indian Poker. Basically each player takes one card and puts it up to his forehead so the others can see but he does not see it himself. You then start betting. I remember looking around at all these guys, who controlled business worth a few billion dollars, big cigars in their mouths, holding a playing card to their foreheads, and thinking if only their shareholders could see them now.

The intense media coverage, particularly the cable and satellite TV channels with their insatiable appetite for news and analysis, made mini celebrities of many of my friends. At CLSA we were not allowed to speak to the press, but other firms were happy to take the free publicity. Probably the biggest media hog was Simon Maughan, then the research director at WI Carr's office in Kuala Lumpur and now head of the stockbroker's Hong Kong research department. He deserved the attention because he probably had the best brain among Kuala Lumpur brokers, but some weeks he appeared to be on television more than Dr M or his deputy Anwar Ibrahim, neither of whom could be described as camera shy.

Boom turned to bust in Malaysia almost as quickly as it did in Thailand. In late March 1997 Bank Negara, the central bank, announced what looked like a couple of prudent measures to restrain the growth of the banks. I left for a two-week holiday in the UK. When I got back the first signs of a stock market collapse were emerging. The Thai collapse, particularly in the baht, was having an impact. Investors started to worry about Malaysia's current account deficit and the super-charged growth of the banks. Confidence began to drain away. The ringitt went into freefall, followed closely by the stock market.

In those anxious months in mid-1997, the mood of my office and other brokers' offices shifted dramatically. I no longer spent my time taking clients on company trips. The visits dried up. E-mails from our sales desks around the world and our international client base used to clutter my computer. Now they were sporadic. There was no interest in a detailed analysis of the banks; they were obviously in deep trouble. Instead of analysing their financial statements, I spent more office time sounding out the latest rumours of which banks were going to go bust, and my lunch times checking which local banks had the longest queues of depositors waiting to withdraw their money.

Trading volumes on the stock exchange had collapsed. In the office, talk became dominated by which broking firms around town were shutting up shop and which were cutting back. Peregrine was the first to go. BZW quickly followed. Schroders, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and Jardine Fleming all cut back. Some of my friends were caught out. A good friend who had a Thai girlfriend and a couple of small children, but also supported a family back in the UK, lost his job and for him the future looked very bleak. At CLSA my boss was moved to Brazil. The corporate finance and derivatives teams were scaled back. As the last expat in research I knew my days were numbered.

I resigned from CLSA last month. I have accepted a job in the Gulf, to start at the end of next month. Deciding on moving to the Middle East was an instinctive reaction to all the doom and despondency growing daily on the streets in Kuala Lumpur and obvious in other Asian cities. I was never a Sherman McCoy, a Master of the Universe. At best I was the Captain of a Small Galaxy. But I have a sense of loss. It may sound trite, but in those heady times the people seemed to shine brighter, live life faster, were more aware, more alive. Money buoyed them up and without it many became only faint echoes of the personalities they had been before. They didn't deserve such a fate.

From a distance it is easy to gloat over the downfall of what seems a set of high-living bankers and financiers. But those earning the multi- million-dollar bonuses were only ever a small group. And they will easily survive, as will the big tycoons. Asia's crony capitalism will see to that. During the boom, money flowed down all the way through the economies of Asian countries. The rivers may have shrunk into streams by the time they got to the taxi drivers, supermarket and fast-food workers, but the cash still seeped through. For these people, their stock market plays and the booming market represented a possible way out. You could see the hope and dreams on their faces. It has been terrible to see that hope vanish.

Before heading off to the Gulf I decided to come to Singapore to see some old friends. I still had a nagging feeling that I wanted to stay in Asia. Latterly I have begun to think that a change of direction rather than a geographical switch may be what I need. I have a number of ideas. Perhaps a book, something like Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker. I even have a working title, Liar's Dice - after the cunning game many locals are addicted to here.

Or I am thinking of devoting more time to James Gent & Co, the perfume company, originally founded in 1784, which I recently revived with a few friends and which has a base in Singapore. I also met up with some friends who have started a modelling agency: Phantom. I have yet to decide.

But as I finish this short memoir, I am sitting in a friend's bar, appropriately called Gatsby's, and I recall that book's end. Gatsby believed in the green orgasmic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Perhaps I am not quite finished with Asia after all.

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