Bertie's Mood

Always Critical and Never Superficial

It’s Not Lonely at the Top, just very very Exclusive.

[Sent in as a part of the Peter Martin Fellowship – Financial Times]

With this catch phrase a stylish two-page ad promotes the yet-to-be-stylish apartments located at One Madison Square (NY). With almost all apartments sold, the estimated $44 million penthouse is set to break any record. Among the many celebrities apparently discovering New York is Daniel Radcliffe. The actor playing Harry Potter bought himself a refuge in New York. Not on Madison Square though, but in the SOHO at a more reasonable $4 million.

Much closer to home, a friend of mine recently sold an apartment he owned in Bruges (Belgium). The party that eventually bought the house was never known, as the company that bought the estate was located in Jersey. Impossible, not so! Some online research can save you a great deal of money in constructing your personal but international corporate structure. Never mind those government regulations. Setting up an offshore company has never been easier. You even don’t have to be a millionaire anymore.

This might just be a beautiful anecdote, but it does reflect to a certain extend the current situation on the global financial markets. There is no day that passes without some record being broken while… a new crisis is announced. Well, not exactly new, merely linked to the sudden subprime mortgage crisis. It is a crisis more about trust and transparency than about Real Estate.

In May 2007, before the word crisis could even be mentioned, the Bank of International Settlement warned (again) of a future heavy strain on the world’s financial and monetary systems. And yet, when the crisis was announced, business leaders, boards and regulating authorities were involuntarily besieged by a certain inability to estimate the dramatic impact the credit crisis would take on. Spokesmen tried to diffuse questions on transparency and responsibility while financial newspapers critically reported proposals to “repack” the flunked funds as to keeping them outside of the already glooming balance sheet major banks still have to report. That is, to report the full extend of this crisis.

I was always impressed to which extend global companies went to promote transparency. After all, transparency is the only way to survive the scrutiny of a global market. Apparently not. Behind the façade of many annual reports, more than one investor became wary of the “Après nous, le déluge” approach of many decision makers. While nobody can be directly blamed of cooking the books, many managers sought the security of an AAA rating knowingly ignoring that each obtained indicator is a signal of trust. Banks, regulators, fund managers and bond insurers alike, all thought themselves to have the kind of powers only Harry Potter can boast with.

Looking back, while many ratings are being revised, Central Banks have succeeded in averting a full liquidity crisis by acting as one global player. And as more than one wizard-like Internet savvy character might ask “At what price?”

The more exclusive those at the top imagine themselves, the harder the fall might be.

Bert M.A. Van Bergen 


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