Column

'Investors' get what they richly deserve

Allan Fotheringham November 3 1997
Column

'Investors' get what they richly deserve

Allan Fotheringham November 3 1997

'Investors' get what they richly deserve

Allan Fotheringham

What I really feel sorry for is the English language. It is an honorable entity. The voice of Shakespeare.

Byron and Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth found it quite adequate to express their genius. There is no reason to abuse this tender and fragile instrument, the means we use to communicate. But it is so tortured by those who employ it.

The headlines are a scream:

‘World shares in massive dive” announces The Toronto Star. “A plunge in Hong Kong shakes markets” tops the front page of The New York Times.

“Investors,” we are told, lost billions in the shakedown. Thus the language is abased.

All those poor chaps who lost their drawers in a single day are not “investors.” They are gamblers. They are speculators. They are greedmongers—Masters of the Universe in Tom Wolfe’s classic Bonfire of the Vanities take on Wall Street. Do not insult the word “investors,” an honorable and honest word before the front pages got hold of it.

There was an old American comedian, I think it was Joe E. Lewis, who used to say: “I had a good day at the track. I got a lift home.” A great philosophy, one that might be adopted by all those smart yuppies in red suspenders who now hold the power to destroy a nation’s currency in one day’s trading. Don’t whine. You’re not an investor. You’re a gambler, just a higher form of racetrack tout.

What ye sow, ye shall reap. We all know it from Sunday school. It’s amusing to watch the practitioners—and advocates—of the new-fangled market system wherein Wall Street is plugged into London which is plugged into Frankfurt and into the Nikkei in Tokyo and down to the Hang Seng in Hong Kong where the panic started and ripped the red suspenders off the 30-year-old millionaire hotshots on Wall Street.

It is amusing to watch the fallout from the fact the “investors” who take the train home every night from Manhattan to their leafy mansions and tennis courts in Connecticut have discovered—surprise, surprise—that the collapse of the baht (the what?) in little Thailand can trigger a global panic among “investors.” And so the overvalued baht currency, punished by the money traders half a world away, had to be devalued. Thereby exposing the weaknesses in the overstretched economies of the previously ebullient ‘Tigers” of Southeast Asia—Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan—and supposedly the hard rock of them all, disgustingly rich Hong Kong. When the big boy is revealed as the emperor who has no clothes, panic sets in.

There’s something wrong when people think that a stock market that has been rising for eight years is never going to come down. You know the crash is inevitable when, in Bali just before the Hong Kong handover, a bottle of Lindeman’s White from nearby Australia that sells in a Toronto liquor store for $15 costs $120 in a restaurant.

And when, in Vancouver, stockbrokers are making so much obscene moola that in their desire to jump the six-month waiting list for a $72,000 Porsche they are slipping car salesmen an $18,000 bonus. We know there’s something seriously wrong and due for a correction.

The Bre-X farce, of course, was the warning signal that no one on high acknowledged. The Toronto Stock Exchange, suckered in most of all, no longer looks down its nose at the cowboy bingo game called the Vancouver Stock Exchange on the Wet Coast. Educated people in Toronto and Vancouver and New York, who think it stupid that African primitives beat drums to call up the gods, think they can dissolve traffic jams by honking on horns. Nothing changes.

P. T. Barnum was right. There is one 2 born every minute. Almost the entire population of St. Paul, Alta., was vacu umed into the Bre-X scam and are now shouting at their lawyers. When the Berlin Wall and communism collapsed, the entire population of Albania—knowing nothing about capitalism or money or scams—enrolled in a pyramid scheme that, when unveiled, bankrupted the entire country.

A surprise? At this moment, as we repent, an astonishing number of supposedly mature women in Rosedale—where the elite meet to eat in Toronto—have been conned into a pyramid scheme in which, if they put in $5,000, they are guaranteed a $40,000 return in two to three months. And the pitch is that it will work “because men are excluded.” St. Paul, meet Albania and Rosedale. Not to mention P. T. Barnum.

Why do ordinary, sane people put up with this? Ottawa computer tycoon Michael Cowpland sold $20.5 million of his Corel Corp. shares in August, before revealing in September that Corel would show an unexpected third-quarter loss of $45 million. Cowpland said he didn’t know about the third-quarter loss when he sold his shares.

The philosopher said that, to those who feel, the world is a tragedy. To those who think, it is a comedy. To those in red suspenders, they get what they deserve. Investors thou never wert.