As a journalist, Martin Baker writes the City Eye column in The Independent on Sunday, and a weekly management profile in Thursday's Daily Telegraph. He also writes regularly for Arena magazine, and occasional main paper and business profiles for The Observer. Other writing outlets include the Observer Sports Monthly – his account of his week shadowing Everton football manager David Moyes is the longest piece ever published in that title.
How about this for a crime story? In the middle of the night, under the deepest, darkest cover, a master plan unfolds. A small gang of highly trained experts execute a neat, highly professional operation – and steal British Airways. But that’s not enough to satisfy them. Before dawn breaks, the same crack team comes back and makes off with Woolworths.
After that opener, you’d be forgiven for thinking I spend my spare time barking at the moon. But before I explain what the introduction really means, let me say why it’s such a tease: all I’m doing is addressing a problem that journalism and publishers of fiction and non-fiction have found so hard to address over the years: how do you make finance interesting?
It ought to be absolutely compelling. After all, in modern Britain the driving forces of our economy are intimately bound up with services, financial and otherwise. About ten times as many people are involved in the preparation and service of curry in the UK than work in the combined industries of steel, shipbuilding and coal. The provision of financial services is the biggest single business sector, our biggest earner. Even tourism is dwarfed by finance, the cutting edge of what we’re constantly told is a knowledge economy.
And just about everybody finds money sexy, whether they admit it publicly or not. So why is there so little written about it? Why isn’t there more popular fiction like my own recently published novel, Meltdown (which I’ll come to in a moment), that deals with finance, the silent giant in our midst?
So - the disappearance of BA and Woolies. That’s one way of looking at what happened last summer, when a US hedge fund operation managed by John Paulson made $11bn out of the credit crunch. Paulson correctly predicted which way certain markets were going to move, and added $11bn to the value of the assets his firm managed. That’s equivalent, at the time of writing, to the total market valuation of British Airways, with the high-street chain Woolies thrown in for a few hundred million quids’ worth of loose change.
Paulson’s spectacular success isn’t a crime story, of course. But it has so many ingredients shared with the perfect heist: the secrecy, the detailed research, the meticulous planning, the swift, ultra-professional, ruthless execution, the extraordinary effects. From offices the size of half a floor of a medium-sized London hotel, the New York hedge fund manager brought in wealth equivalent to a global flagship of British business.
And it’s a zero-sum game too. Trading in the financial markets is about opposition. There’s always a counterparty on the other side of the book. Someone out there paid for every cent of the profit. For boldness, daring, clandestine excitement and sheer skill, Paulson’s perfectly legal operation makes the theft of the Crown Jewels look like a bit of petty shoplifting.
There are other compelling financial tales and vibrant images used to describe the financial world and its excitements. The big story of 2008 is the $7bn French banking catastrophe. I’ve seen the deeds of Societe Generale’s Jerome Kerviel, the young man stigmatised (somewhat prematurely in my view) as a rogue trader, described as the equivalent of filling a room with $100 bills - and then setting fire to it.
The image is strong, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. First, you’d need to fill a small terraced house with $100 bills to store the $7bn or so it cost to unwind Kerviel’s position. Second, setting fire to the cash does not explain or describe what happened. The money did not go up in smoke. It was lost in trading. The capital got redistributed in the zero-sum game, the institutional equivalent of online poker that is dealing in the global financial market. It was as if Soc Gen opened up the doors of the small terraced house and held a fire sale. Naturally, the neighbours came round and helped themselves to crates and crates of the bank’s cash.
Soc Gen’s loss is also my gain. While I haven’t been on the winning side of any of the unsuccessful bets made by Kerviel’s Delta One investment vehicle, the story has helped my novel, Meltdown, in a startling way.
Meltdown draws on over two decades of experience as a financial reporter and editor to describe exactly how a catastrophe like that the one that overtook SocGen and Kerviel could happen. What’s truly eerie is the way the real-world story seems to run in parallel with events in the novel.
Consider the narrative: a single, young, Paris-based trader loses billions. The activity can be hidden because of internal politics – connections with the IT and back-office departments and possibly outside collusion. Once the story breaks, the media latches on to the individual and he becomes, a la Nick Leeson, a rogue trader. You can be sure that Jerome Kerviel, 31, will morph into a financial version of Lee Harvey Oswald (operating alone – it’s never senior management’s fault). The media blames his activities for the extreme turbulence of the markets. Amid a rising tide of panic – exacerbated by hysterical reporting - the trader is sacked and then goes missing.
This is an almost exact precise of what has been happening in the real world, except that the derivatives play in the fictional version is in oil, not European stocks.
So how could the whole, sorry mess occur? The reporting of events took a long time to get round to the real explanation, which lies in the human stories behind the markets. It’s the human stories that make novels worth reading, whether they are set in a bank, a nuclear laboratory, a law office or the Houses of Parliament.
Macmillan, my publishers, loved the explanation in Meltdown of how the numbers become meaningless. Numbers are just a form of metaphor (in the City after all, a million pounds, once a fortune, is now known as a “bar”). So after a while it becomes a position to be endlessly traded until the book shows a profit, and the trader can’t let go - online poker for the global economy.
Concealment is another matter. Here, in fiction as in real life, office politics kick in. If you know the systems and the people who run them, you can create a mosaic of partial information. Lots of people do you little favours without knowing the full set-up. In Leeson’s case there was the fateful 888888 account –a suspense account revealing the full horror of the losses. But the number crunchers believed it was offset by soon-to-be reported trading gains.
Finally, there’s the star system. My villain, initially mentor to then persecutor of Meltdown’s hero, is the ultimate star trader. These are the types who make so much money that they become gods in their own little universe. Senior management doesn’t question the golden goose or the cash-generative black box. They let the stars - and in real-life the lowly Kerviel was an aspiring star – set up their own departments; they give them huge bonuses. They want to believe in the stars because it’s easier that way. Serious management control and internal audits go out of the window.
In Meltdown, the young hero is a scapegoat who goes on the run, proves his innocence, saves the world and gets the girl. I fear that this is where fiction and reality may part company.
Meltdown is Macmillan’s lead crime debut for 2008. But I had to struggle over eleven years and thirteen versions to get the novel published, despite already being a published author.
Why? Well, it’s tough to get published anyway, but I think the simple answer is that there’s fear and loathing, born of ignorance, of finance and financial people. When I look at the way they’re covered in journalism and publishing, I’m reminded of Ken Tynan’s assessment of the young, timid and very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor’s attempt to portray Lady Macbeth on the London stage: “It was like giving a debutante a cake fork, and asking her to disembowel a stag.”
So enough of the fear. Hollywood has certainly offered us plenty of loathing with Wall Street and its villain, Gekko, whose name, in case we didn’t get it, means lizard (Oliver Stone’s sequel is not yet in the cinema as this piece is written). Publishing in the UK used to have a bright star named Michael Ridpath, who wrote engaging thrillers in the financial world, but he’s gone quiet latterly.
Bring Ridpath back, I say, and let’s have more like him. What publishing needs is a ‘Fever Pitch moment’. By this, I mean a book or a film that distils the excitement of finance and the markets into an inclusive thing that everybody can understand and enjoy. That would effect a cultural change in the way that Fever Pitch wrested football from white male proletarian thugs and made it mainstream. Once upon a time following football meant that you were a hooligan. Now, the team you support is part of your personal branding.
The world of finance is important and intrinsically interesting. Publishers should help readers embrace that fact.
Meltdown is published by Macmillan (£10) February 2008
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