Quotes of 2008: 'We are in a state of shocked disbelief'

As the financial world's movers and shakers struggled for words, the hardest one was always going to be "sorry". Sean Farrell reports on a memorable year for quotes

Thursday 01 January 2009 01:00

It was the year that the great and the good of the financial world were humbled as the severity of the credit crunch and recession forced climbdowns, expressions of shock and, eventually, even apologies.

Britain's bank bosses started 2008 in defiant mood, scoffing at claims they would need more capital. Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was the most dismissive, saying at the end of February: "There are no plans for any inorganic capital raisings of any sort... The capital ratios are there. If you want to go and make up your own, feel free."

Less than two months later RBS changed its tune with a record £12bn rights issue that left Sir Fred and his chairman, Sir Tom McKillop, clinging on to their jobs. Were they sorry? "You should be in no doubt about a degree of contrition," was the best Sir Tom could come up with when pressed, while Sir Fred blamed events.

It was only in November, after unveiling a second £20bn capital raising, that the hardest word came. Sir Tom told his shareholders: "I am sorry about the very real financial and therefore human cost that those who have invested in us now feel... And I am also sorry if any of our customers have suffered anxiety as a result of the situation." Sir Fred got in on the act, telling a shareholder: "I am extremely, extremely sorry."

Sir Fred may have fallen from grace, but his way with a one-liner was undiminished. He described the Government's enforced bank recapitalisation as "less of a negotiation, more of a drive-by shooting".

RBS's mea culpa left others with little choice but to follow, with the chairmen of HBOS and Barclays expressing sorrow and regret respectively for their banks' predicaments.

From the big boys to the minnows, the banking world was exposed. Rod Kent, chairman of Bradford & Bingley, produced this plaintive explanation for failing to report surging bad debts when announcing a revised rights issue: "We are used to a less dynamic environment than we have seen in the past few months and days."

If you believed the US investment banking giants, it was all the fault of those darned short sellers. Dick Fuld, the boss of Lehman Brothers, gets the prize for clarity of expression: "When I find a short-seller, I want to tear his heart out and eat it before his eyes while he's still alive."

Mr Fuld received a butchering of his own from Congressman Henry Waxman, who claims the prize for not beating about the bush: "Your company is now bankrupt, our economy is now in a state of crisis, but you get to keep $480m. I have a very basic question for you: Is this fair?" The Lehman boss's answer was less impressive.

The Big Three carmaker chief executives also felt the force of Congressional disapproval when they flew their corporate jets to a hearing on Capitol Hill in November to ask for government aid. Rep. Brad Sherman asked the trio: "I'm going to ask the three executives here to raise their hand if they flew here commercial. Let the record show, no hands went up. Second, I'm going to ask you to raise your hand if you are planning to sell your jet in place now and fly back commercial. Let the record show, no hands went up." Next time they drove in fuel-efficient cars.

Not everyone got it wrong. Mr Fuld fell victim to the prediction of the year, from Havard professor Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, who said in late August: "We're not just going to see mid-sized banks go under in the next few months, we're going to see a whopper." Just over two weeks later, Lehman was bust.

Andrew Lahde, a hedge fund manager who quit after winning big betting against sub-prime, wins the award for gracious farewell in his valedictory note to investors: "The low-hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking... All of this behaviour supporting the aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America."

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, finally took some responsibility (sort of) for the crisis. He told Congress: "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief..... I still do not fully understand why it happened and obviously to the extent that I figure where it happened and why, I will change my views. If the facts change, I will change."

Translated, that means he did not think bank bosses were stupid enough to drive their companies into bankruptcy but he was wrong.

Mr Greenspan deployed probably the most widely used quote of the year, John Maynard Keynes's "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

In May, Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, was sanguine about the outlook, saying: "It's quite possible that at some point we may get an odd quarter or two of negative growth, but recession is not the central projection at all." But by November he was citing Keynes and predicting a deep recession: "The facts changed, and the facts justified a big change in Bank rate and we made it."

The Chancellor gets the off-message award for opening up a little too much to a journalist invited to his Scottish holiday retreat in August. Mr Darling warned that economic conditions "are arguably the worst they've been in 60 years", adding: "And I think it's going to be more profound and long-lasting than people thought."

Things then became so bad that Gordon Brown was forced to step in and rescue the planet. "We not only saved the world, er, saved the banks and led the way..." was one of the Commons' funniest moments, though the Prime Minister did not see it that way.

A financial crisis would not be complete without an (alleged) fraud and 2008 delivered a whopper. Bernard Madoff allegedly told his sons that his $50bn (£34.3bn) investment fund was "all just one big lie" and that the fund was "basically a giant Ponzi scheme".

Only a year before, Mr Madoff had said: "In today's regulatory environment, it's virtually impossible to violate rules... but it's impossible for a violation to go undetected, certainly not for a considerable period of time."

The clues were there as far back as 2001 when he described his trading approach: "It's a proprietary strategy. I can't go into it in great detail."

But people wanted to believe. In London, Nicola Horlick's Bramdean Asset Management had $21m invested with Mr Madoff. Just a few months earlier, Ms Horlick had said of Mr Madoff: "He is very, very good at calling the US equity market."

After a year like that, most people will agree with Mervyn King's words in his last speech of the year in November: "Not since the First World War has our banking system been so close to collapse. The past few weeks have been somewhat too exciting... So let me extend an invitation to the banking industry to join me in promoting the idea that a little more boredom would be no bad thing. The long march to boredom and stability starts tonight."

'In today's regulatory environment, it's virtually impossible to violate rules'


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