My getting into this game had nothing to do with some kind of 9/11 epiphany. No, it was the insanity of the property bubble that started me writing spoofs and screeds on the Web, originally at the excellent, skeptical, principled, and free Motley Fool UK site. I retired from posting on its “Property: Markets and Trends” (PMT) forum back in 2004 when I gave up predicting doom, because it was clear that the banks were going to keep inflating the bubble long beyond insane, with a post entitled “I Was Wrong” containing the words:
[I have] left the PMT building, shaking [my] head in disbelief.
If you want to read any more of my ramblings (rarely about property these days, I must admit) then google for “PooterGeek”.
So long, fellow Fools…
I sold all my shares a few weeks ago, but not having any stock market investments or a mortgage aren’t going to protect me from the recession that’s coming. We’re all going to Hell in a sub-prime, self-cert handcart.
I wrote the following in 2002. It doesn’t seem quite so silly six years later:
Panorama: The Stupidity Scandal
OPENING: MAN IN POLO SHIRT SCRABBLING UNDERNEATH FRUIT MACHINE IN SUBURBAN LONDON PUB.
MICHAEL BUERK: [VOICE RESONATING WITH EARNESTNESS] In 2002 John was a buy-to-let landlord with 4 properties on his books, but by 2005 his business had collapsed and John’s own home was repossessed. Later that same year his wife left him, citing “irreconcilable differences (in IQ)”. Now he is reduced to hunting for loose change on the sticky floors of the saloon bars where once he prophesied a perpetual rise in house prices. He is not alone in his misery. You probably know someone like him yourself.
John is but one of millions of victims of what many are already calling the biggest financial services scandal of the 21st century. During the early noughties thousands of financial products were knowingly marketed to greedy and fearful customers who shared a single fatal handicap. This vulnerability was ruthlessly exploited by representatives of the high street banks, building societies, insurers and fund managers. And now the victims suffer in silence; their only crime?: gross stupidity.
INTERIOR OF HOSTEL. HUNCHED FIGURE PERCHES ON EDGE OF SINGLE BED CLUTCHING BUNDLES OF CARRIER BAGS FULL OF SCRAPS.
VICTIM: Yeah, I took out a mortgage for seven times my actual salary, that’s right. But I was misled. Look, I’ve still got the documents.
[RUMMAGES AROUND IN BAG AND PASSES CRUMPLED PAPERS TO INTERVIEWER]
BUERK: Here on page three in 30-point Helvetica bold it says:
[READS] “Your home is at risk if you do not keep up payments on a mortgage or any loan secured on it. Sign below and you might as well shoot yourself in the groin with a sawn-off. Would anyone in their right minds pay what they’re asking for that place? Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”.
BUERK: It seems pretty unequivocal. How could you not see that there was an element of risk involved in your investment?”
VICTIM: Look, this technical stuff may seem obvious to the likes of you with your Oxbridge education, but some of us aren’t so lucky. It’s people like us these clever money types take advantage of. They exploit our, our…
VICTIM: Yeah, that’s right. See what I mean? It’s only people like you who know big words like that. And you run the show. What hope have the rest of us got?
BUERK: We confronted Stephen Wassock, head of BarNatLloydBC’s consumer banking division.
SMARMY MAN IN SUIT SHUFFLES UNCOMFORTABLY IN SEAT, CITY-OF-LONDON SKYSCRAPERS FORM BACKDROP.
SUIT: We believe that we learned lessons from the earlier pension and endowment mortgage misselling scandals. Many regulators claimed then that the risks were not made clear to potential clients. This time, not only did we make the risks clear, we actually made a feature of them.
Even the names of the products were designed to prevent any confusion at all on the part of the buyers; our “Mug-Punters Pension Plan (Extended Terms)”—or MuPPET for short—was promoted in a campaign that made clear that the first three years’ payments would go entirely towards buying a BMW for a git in Armani. Look, he’s on the cover of the brochure. Giving the reader the finger.”
BUERK: Not only that but, “Extended Terms” meant that pensioners will actually go on paying into their funds after their retirement…
SUIT: Yes. But we told them that too. On the first page, next to the picture of Thora Hird eating dog food.
BUERK: But the figures show, that despite your supposed warnings, this was one of your most popular products?
SUIT: [SHRUGGING] What can I say? People are st- still free to choose any rival home for their life savings.
BUERK: Are you aware that focus group work commissioned by your own company revealed that, in 2002, the year of their purchase, many MuPPET buyers had voted as “Greatest Britons Ever” Robbie Williams, Princess Diana and Bob Geldof—even after being informed that Geldof was, in fact, Irish?
SUIT: [TOUCHING NOSE AND GLANCING TO ONE SIDE AT LAWYER OUT OF FRAME] I don’t recall that data coming to my attention. We, er, have huge quantities of research on our desks in any given year. Besides, those are the sorts of mistakes anyone can make. Geldof lived in Chelsea for ages, didn’t he?
BUERK: Panorama has evidence that, despite the horrible consequences we have outlined in this programme, totally unrestricted selling to the stupid continues. Even now, the financial services companies are using sophisticated postcode profiling techniques to target direct mail campaigns specifically at the homes of the chronically dumb. We spoke to one insider who was afraid to be identified for fear of reprisals from idiots.
SILHOUETTED FIGURE SITS IN CHAIR IN OTHERWISE EMPTY ROOM
SILHOUETTE [VOICE DISTORTED]: I can say that, yes, we do look for those who have a proven record of long-term stupidity—maxing out credit cards, subscribing to “Hello!“, participating in Big Brother polls—and promote our most obviously crazy mortgage products at them.
BUERK: You use the phrase “obviously crazy”, but you are a seasoned professional. How can ordinary halfwits, many of them incapable of pointing to Iraq on a map of the World, hope to see the potential pitfalls in your loans?
SILHOUETTE: How can they not?! [WAVES SHEET OF PAPER] This one, for example, offers you ten times your salary secured on the future productivity of your offspring.
BUERK: “Future productivity of your offspring”?
SILHOUETTE: If you default then, once they reach sixteen years of age, your kids are taken from you to work as bank clerks until they die.
BUERK: That’s horrific.
SILHOUETTE: Have you ever tried bringing up teenage children?…
BUERK: Well, er,
SILHOUETTE: It was enormously popular in Japan…
SILHOUETTE: Anyway, who are you to get on your high horse? How much did they pay you for presenting Nine Nine N-
[INTERVIEW IS CUT OFF ABRUPTLY]
BACK IN THE SALOON BAR. JOHN IS HOLDING FORTH AS HE ATTEMPTS TO PRISE TWO ONE-POUND COINS APART.
JOHN: Of course people just didn’t understand the economics of supply and demand. The value of shares can go down as well as up, but you can’t live in a share certificate can you?
[PAUSES AND SMILES TO ALLOW BRILLIANCE OF HIS ANALYSIS SINK IN.]
JOHN: Houses are different.
BUERK: So “different” that their prices fell steeply in real terms immediately after your own property purchases?
JOHN: Yeah, but that’s the banks, you see, talking the market down, so they could repossess the hard-won assets of entrepreneurs like me. Britain’s a small country with a growing population. There’s actually a lot of divorced people, graduates and immigrants out there, freezing in ditches, desperate for somewhere to live, but they’re afraid to buy because the so-called experts keep telling them that values are going to carry on falling. I blame the government.
BUERK: Reasoning like this finally led to John being clinically certified as “intellectually disadvantaged”. He has been given a place in a refuge and a the charity Compassion for the Stupid is fighting for compensation on his behalf.
If you would like to help John, and others even less fortunate, please make a careful note of the number we will show at the end of the programme.
If you are afraid that you yourself might be stupid, and don’t wish to suffer similar misfortune, please make a careful note of the names of the people listed in the credits, add your name to the list and send it, together with five pounds, to each of them. They, in turn will send you five pounds. Within weeks you will be a millionaire.