Introducing ... the world's most boring people
Sunday 25 January 1998
I don't know about you, but the nerves of the investors I know are just fine. The average City trader or fund manager is probably rather enjoying the whole affair. He gets home at night and flips on the television - not one of those cable shows that four insomniacs watch but a real honest- to-God television news show, with an audience - and instead of hearing about some non-event he sees people talking about ... HIM. Or at any rate his financial persona. Everyone seems to be worried that he is going to lose confidence in Asia. What he thinks about Asia all of a sudden becomes interesting.
Except there is a catch. In exchange for having people worry about his views on Asia, he is forced to listen to some guy from the International Monetary Fund or the US Treasury or God knows where else yapping away to Mr Anchorman - let's call him Lou Dobbs. Mr Dobbs was created to make boring men appear as if they were hiding something interesting inside them. Lou shares their concerns. A month ago, Lou couldn't have cared less about Malaysia. Now he is deeply, deeply concerned. Just like the guy from the IMF.
Now, I know that being boring is another way of conveying high seriousness. Seriousness is what is called for in a financial crisis, at least from people who work for places like the IMF and the Treasury. Everyone knows that. But there are a couple of things the boring men keep saying that I don't understand.
The first is the mantra-like statement that every Asian country is different. They say: "Well, Lou, you know the problems in each one of these countries are very different. Malaysia is not Japan." This is the sort of thing that people say, and very knowingly, when they have just discovered where Malaysia is on a map. It implies that the speaker actually knows what the situation is in each one of these countries. He can do this without the slightest fear of exposure, since no one person is blessed with such omniscience. Certainly Lou will not question him.
But if it is true that Malaysia is not Japan, which is not Korea, which is not Indonesia, then why are they all going down together?
The more likely explanation is that the problems are pretty much the same in each country. To put it simply: a bubble has burst. A lot of Asians borrowed a lot of money that should never have been lent. Asian capitalism has always been different from Western capitalism, and particularly so in its attitude toward capital. Having missed out on a couple of millennia of anti-capitalist Christian propaganda ("neither a borrower nor a lender be" and so on) they are ever so slightly more prone to gin up for themselves a speculative bubble.
It's the solutions open to each country that are different from one another. What the boring men from the IMF should say is that the main difference between Japan and, say, Malaysia, is that Japan has the boring men by the short and curlies. The Japanese are sitting on several hundred billion dollars worth of US Treasury bonds which they can, and will, sell in a pinch. The boring men can only pray that they do not do this.
The Malaysians, on the other hand, are ruled by Mahathir Mohamad. The boring men who meet with him emerge from the event and pretend that all is well. But how can that be when just a few months ago the man was explaining how he was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy? More to the point: how can people who are forced to discuss billion-dollar loans with this man sound so dull? They must be having the time of their lives.
q Michael Lewis is the author of 'Liar's Poker', the best selling account of Wall Street in the 1980s.
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