Saturday 20 September 2008
Richard Ingrams' Week: Now we all have to pay for the banks' mistakes
City whizzkids and investment bankers have traditionally benefited from the general inability from the rest of us to understand what they actually get up to.
Once the talk turns to derivatives, short-selling or de-leveraging, our eyes glaze over as mine once did when they tried to teach me modern philosophy at Oxford.
This time round, however, the situation is a bit different. Because at the root of the current crisis there is a simple and quite easily grasped fact, namely that banks were lending large sums of money to people who they knew where unlikely to be able to pay it back.
In the case of Northern Rock, the bank was lending young couples a sum equivalent to 125 per cent of the value of the house they were buying plus another sum equivalent to six times their annual income. And you don't need any specialised knowledge or grasp of financial wizardry to realise that this was not a very sensible way to proceed. So it was not surprising that the story should end with long lines of punters queuing outside the banks to withdraw their savings.
When you look back to find out how this sad situation arose, you find the trail leads, as so often, to Margaret Thatcher. Because it was her government that did away with the sensible restrictions on the amount of money that banks could lend to house buyers.
Another of her bright ideas, you will remember, was to sell off all the council houses. So that now when a couple default on their mortgage payments and have their houses repossessed, the state is in no position to help them.
How to de-stress with de Botton
With huge chains such as Waterstones and Borders dominating the book trade, we ought all to welcome the launch in London of a new independent bookshop. As reported yesterday in this paper, a group of authors, including the popular philosopher Alain de Botton, has opened a bookshop in Bloomsbury "offering stressed-out readers therapeutic solutions".
There will be a special underground classroom offering red leather sofas and a velvet curtain where customers can experience a stress-free environment while sampling a range of books specially selected by the proprietors. Stranger than the fiction on offer, however, is the promise of two special excursions organised by Alain de Botton himself, book lovers might perhaps anticipate a visit to the London library or Dickens's house in Doughty Street.
But no. In exchange for £250 per person, de Botton will take his customers to Heathrow airport where, according to our report, they can expect a guided tour of Terminal 5 and be able to talk to baggage staff and plane spotters. Also on offer will be a trip to the M1 where they can commune with truckers.
What one wonders is how the great philosopher reconciles these excursions with his overall aim of reducing stress. I do not have much experience of the M1 but I don't imagine that the noise and smell of vast juggernauts thundering northwards would help to make one feel more at peace with the universe.
As for Heathrow, there can be few places in the world more likely to induce feelings not merely of stress but deep depression and possibly even panic. I would willingly pay £250 never to have to go there again.
It seemed apt that at the very same time that the capitalist system was tottering, very rich men were cramming into Sotheby's to acquire some of the junk that Britain's most successful artist Damien Hirst (pictured) had put up for auction. It's just a pity we are not told the identity of those who were prepared to pay millions of pounds for a stuffed shark in a tank or some rows of coloured dots. Otherwise we could all have had a good sneer.
The mystery remains. Why do these multimillionaires vie with one another as to who can spend the most on something that may very possibly have only a limited lifespan – one of Hirst's sharks has already started to disintegrate– and which we all know in a few years' time is likely to be worth nothing at all in the art market? It would be tempting to think that, like those bankers, they are all idiots, but I doubt if this is the case. It is more probable that they are more like gamblers in their motivation.
Why is it that some very rich men feel compelled to gamble away their money at the roulette table when, if they think about it for a second, they must know that in the end they are going to lose it all?
Psychologists and other experts have long puzzled over the question. And the best, most convincing explanation is that the gamblers, possibly from deep-seated feelings of guilt about being rich, actually want to lose all their money.
So the same is possibly true of those anonymous buyers of dead fish. They too know that they are going to lose millions but it makes them feel better to do so.
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