“Where do you think Britain’s next big individual financial scandal is festering?” I asked the chairman of the impoundably-sized investment company Second Coming Asset Management as we enjoyed a pint or two of We’re International Not Investments And Certainly Not Plain Old Fidelity at The Please Try Getting A Life Before Getting Snitchy.
“And just why would you be asking me that question?” replied the chairman, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Don’t be so sensitive,” I replied. “As it happens, it’s just something I happen to be asking everybody in Her Majesty’s financial services industry at the moment – although usually they just laugh at me for implying there hasn’t been anything scandalous in finance for a while.
“But I’m not really talking about big financial scandals that are based on banks not grasping concepts such as borrowing and lending, regulators grasping concepts such as regulation before the event, ratings agencies grasping concepts such as, er, rating, Gordon Brown and the rest of the government understanding concepts such as, well, money and Sir Fred Goodwin grasping concepts such as shame.
“Nor do I mean pensions mis-selling, split capital investment trusts, precipice bonds or even any bubble, whether that be equities, property, commodities or whatever. No, what I’d like to know is where the next Peter Young or Nick Leeson or Jerome Gerbil is working because one of the few certainties in the wonderful world of investment is that they’re out there somewhere.”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying,” said the chairman. “It’s just another sad example of how far this country has fallen in the eyes of the world. A decade ago the UK was a global leader in jaw-dropping, headline-grabbing naughtiness but, while the US can now boast the, ahem, alleged billion-dollar frauds of Messrs Madoff and Stanford, you’re wondering when the Brits are going to step up to the plate.”
“Precisely,” I agreed. “Frankly, it’s getting embarrassing. But, as I say, the scamsters are definitely out there because, the way I understand it, it’s the bad times such as these when the bad boys really get going – yet all we’ve really had is a steady stream of miscreants being busted for filling in mortgage application forms in increasingly implausible ways.
“Judging from its Financial Risk Outlook for 2009, the FSA must be on the case too. It said: ‘The recession may increase the motivation for employees and consumers to commit fraud against banks in an attempt to maintain their existing lifestyles, replace lost funds or meet increasingly challenging revenue and sales targets.’”
“You don’t usually have such faith in the FSA,” the chairman observed. “True,” I conceded. “But it has finally shown the first evidence of a backbone since it was founded with the suggestion that its bosses in Whitehall might possibly be the tiniest bit responsible for the mess we’re all in and it’s nice to hear them speaking Sants – sorry, sense – at last.”
“Yes,” said the chairman. “I liked some of that speech too – although I fear Mr Sants may be disappointed with the reaction to his call for greater responsibility among financial services companies. You see, it is actually incredibly difficult to commit one of these corporate frauds in complete secrecy.”
“You’re not really suggesting some frauds have been corporately endorsed?” I asked. “Good grief no,” the chairman replied. “At least, not in so many words. But it’s not totally unheard of, once a fraud is unearthed in a company, for bosses to hold back – first in the hope the miscreant can eventually double up and get them out of the mess and then in an attempt to clear up the mess themselves.
“Put it this way, you remember that naughty fund manager I had working for me back in 1996?” “Peter Gherkin?” I said. “How could I forget him, um, her?” “OK, said the chairman. “Now what about the naughty fund manager I had working for me in 1999 and the other one from 2004?”
“I don’t seem to recall hearing about them,” I replied.
“Precisely,” said the chairman. “I believe the phrase I’m reaching for here is quod erat demonstrandum.”