The domino effect: Road to recession

It began with the banks. Then house prices began to tumble. In the months that followed, the shock waves spread, engulfing first high streets, then factories – and thousands of jobs. In this gripping account, Paul Vallely travels across Britain to meet the people whose lives – and livelihoods – have fallen victim to the domino effect that left a nation broken

November 12 2008

We could begin with Peter Sastawnyuk. The 53-year-old businessman filled his £370,000 detached home with petrol canisters, sealed the locks, set tripwires and threatened to set the place alight. More than 40 of his neighbours were evacuated from the posh cul-de-sac on the edge of the Pennines from which Sastawnyuk sent his children to be educated at private school. But the cradle of his dreams imploded, in the end, as the scene of a five-hour police siege. The trigger for it all, a court in Rochdale was told last month, was that he had lost his job, got into debt and had had his home repossessed.

Or we could start with Karl Harrison. The father-of-two was found hanging in his garden shed in Anglesey. The 40-year-old surveyor had lost his job when the housing market began to turn down. He fell behind with his payments on his home loan and was being harassed by a firm called Oakwood Homeloans to pay the arrears, the recent inquest was told. Harrison’s widow has now put the house on the market.

But we do not need melodrama or tragedy to tell this story. So, instead, let us begin with what is becoming a more everyday misfortune.

It was an ordinary Thursday morning in early October when Jackie Horn, a 43-year-old IT worker, left her neat little Edwardian town house behind Stockport Grammar School to make the short journey to work. Her destination was the Vauxhall Industrial Estate in which the largest site was occupied by the company for which she had worked for the past 16 years – Chemix, which manufactured the compounds from which uPVC window frames and cladding are made.

She looked back casually at the house, with its handsome stained-glass windows, and got in her car, a small silver Peugeot. She had bought the house 12 years ago and, though she lived alone, her mortgage was nicely manageable. She had had the car for two years and it was all paid for. At Chemix, she had risen from being a receptionist to being a computer programmer. She was better paid now. Hers was a settled life.

She had had an inkling that things were not quite right at work. She noticed from her IT processing that orders for resin, Chemix’s incoming raw material, had been down for a while. So were orders for the compounds the firm produced as the nation’s door-to-door salesmen found ever-larger numbers of people saying no to the idea of having their windows replaced.

Then, about four weeks earlier, the management had told the workforce that it might have to move to only three or four days’ working each week. The workers had rejected the idea in a ballot and a couple of weeks later were told there might have to be selective redundancies. But letters had gone out a few days before saying that jobs in sales and IT were safe.

When she arrived at the little factory, “a lot of blokes in suits” had appeared. A meeting of the whole workforce was called. The firm was in administration, the bankruptcy accountants told them. They had all lost their jobs. They should leave immediately.

“It was a real shock,” she says. “One day I was receiving a letter telling me my job was safe; the next it had gone. The mood was bad. Everyone was saying goodbye. They were hugging and shaking hands.” She was told she would be kept on for an extra two weeks to help with the shutdown. “I couldn’t look the men in the eye.” Now she, too, sits idle at home.

The Domino Effect

The chain of events – which began with salesmen on commission wildly dishing out sub-prime mortgages (to poor people the United States who did not even have to prove they had the earnings to repay them) and ended with Jackie Horn losing her job – is a long one.

I have spent the past few weeks tracing each link in that chain through the stories of a series of people:

The fall-off in demand for Chemix’s products was the result of decisions such as the one made by a Birmingham newsagent, whose domestic economies included not having his windows removed and replaced with uPVC frames because his cigarette sales were down.

Cigarette sales at the newsagent’s had fallen because staff at the nearby Range Rover production plant had had their hours cut.

Range Rover sales are down because a wide variety of businesses are now tightening their belts; not replacing company cars is an obvious money saver.

Among the businesses not replacing company cars as part of general cost cutting are the shop-fitting, sign-writing and advertising firms employed by retail giant Marks & Spencer, which has had two-thirds wiped from the value of its shares this year.

Trade in shops is down because consumer confidence has fallen in line with catastrophic drops in the prices of shares.

Share market volatility was provoked by the sudden refusal of the banks to lend money to anyone, including each other.

The crisis of confidence within the banks was fed by the dramatic multi-billion dollar collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, which was the biggest bankruptcy the world has ever seen.

To make sense of this complex saga, I set out to travel around the United Kingdom to speak to individuals who had played a key part in each stage of the tumbling of the economic dominoes. There were repeated surprises along the way. Encounters with the real world are like that. Not everything turns out as you might expect.

Northern Rock – Panic Begins

The giant tower of the new Northern Rock building stands empty, like a monument to the folly of the years of reckless capitalism. It has never been occupied. Out at Gosforth, on the northern edge of Newcastle, it is the place where the first rumblings of the seismic shakeout that is now gripping the globe were first detected in the UK.

Today, the yellow-brick buildings that surround it are still staffed, but by managers and employees humbled by the events of the past 12 months which have turned them from freebooting buccaneers of a banking world – in which the possibilities of growth seemed unlimited – to servants of a nationalised service industry. Even the bricks seem symbolic, for the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz led to a gleaming city with a giant fraud at its heart.

The man who is driving me round the once-mighty complex is Dennis Grainger. He was once a senior employee of the firm and is now the leading light in the Northern Rock Shareholders Action Group. The combination makes him uniquely placed to tell the story of the building society that turned bank after Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector and which last year provoked the first run on a British bank since the Victorian era.

“Northern Rock was not involved in dodgy sub-prime lending,” says Grainger, 61, of Cramlington, Northumberland. “Our loans were good, safe lending to people who could afford to repay. The Rock was very strict in asking whether people could afford to borrow that amount.” He knows this because one of his jobs was to manage the people checking the paperwork.

“After the crisis broke, the media said the problem was that Northern Rock lent people more than they needed to buy their homes. And it is true that we did offer 125 per cent loans, to cover the house purchase and additional expenses. But the rates of default on those were just half the national average.”

What did for Northern Rock was that so much of the money it lent did not come from depositors but was borrowed by the bank on the international money markets. That is what had turned a provincial building society into the UK’s fifth largest mortgage lender – and a FTSE 100 company. “Some 80 per cent of the mortgages we gave out had been borrowed in this way,” Grainger says. ” I know I used to sign the documents for millions of transfers each month.”

The problem came when, on 9 August 2007, one of France’s three biggest banks, BNP Paribas, told investors that they could not take money out of two of its funds because it was unable to value the assets in them. This was because the financial world had created complex financial packages out of the sub-prime debt and sold them on to other investors. It was like pass the parcel; investors had, in effect, bought blind because the deals had so many layers that no one knew what lay at their heart.

The crunch came when some investors wanted their money back and Paribas realised it did not know whether it had the money to pay out. It was, in the words of Northern Rock’s former chief executive Adam Applegarth, “the day the world changed”. Money markets across the globe shut down because they did not know which banks would remove the final wrapper from the “credit default swaps” – and find they were holding a booby prize.

When the money stopped flowing, banks like Northern Rock – which had, in the jargon, “borrowed short-term to lend long-term” – could not get hold of the cash to finance their next day’s business. On 13 September 2007 the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, revealed that Northern Rock had asked for emergency support from the Bank of England. But there was no danger of the bank going bust, he added, so customers need not panic.

“It had the same effect that Corporal Jones does in Dad’s Army,” observes Grainger wryly. “When you shout, ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!!” people do exactly the opposite. Peston should have known that.” Outside Northern Rock’s branches, massive queues formed of savers demanding to withdraw their money.

But, if there was compassion for savers, there was scant sympathy for those running Northern Rock, whose chairman was a non-banker – the local oddball free-market environmentalist aristocrat Matt Ridley – and whose risk committee was chaired by Sir Derek Wanless, who had previously been ousted from NatWest with a reported £3m payoff. It was they who had endorsed the aggressive growth strategy of bullish chief executive Applegarth and, in the words of the financial journalist Alex Brummer, author of The Crunch: the scandal of Northern Rock and the Escalating Credit Crisis, “allowed him to run riot, without checks and balances”.

The people most often forgotten in all this are the shareholders. “People assume all the shares were held by big institutions and greedy hedge funds,” says Grainger, “but a quarter of the shares are held by little folk.” Again, he knows because he has met 2,000 of them in the streets where he sets up his Shareholders Action Group stall. Another 4,000 have emailed him.

“These people are not speculators or gamblers. They are people in their seventies, eighties and nineties living on very small incomes who received a few hundred shares in the original demutualisation. Many are old ladies keeping their shares to pay for their funeral arrangements and who I’ve seen crying in the streets, saying they will now be a burden to their family. They are Mr and Mrs Shipyardworker who put their savings, with pride, into the local bank.”

Again, this is not academic to Dennis Grainger. Every month for 10 years he put £250 of his salary into the Northern Rock employees’ Share and Save scheme. It was to be his retirement pot. At one point it was worth £114,000. Today it is utterly worthless. “The real losers in all this are the small investors who worked for Northern Rock or savers who bought shares and remained loyal to the bank,” he concludes. “The treatment they have suffered is very unfair.”

It is not the only consequence. To accelerate the payback to the taxpayer, the new management at the now-nationalised company is pursuing an aggressive policy of repossessing the homes of borrowers who get into arrears. Northern Rock’s rate of repossessions is currently running at around double the industry average. And leaked documents from inside the bank reveal that it is set to double numbers in its debt collection arm.

There is a quiet indignation in Grainger’s conclusion. “We have been treated very badly by the Government,” he says. “Northern Rock was illiquid, not insolvent. When there was a run on the bank they wouldn’t lend us £2.7bn, but they’ve had to stump up £400bn to prop up other banks since. We should have been given the same terms as other banks were subsequently given.”

But there was one other bank not included in the rescue deal. When Lehman Brothers investment bank folded it provoked the biggest corporate bankruptcy ever seen.

Lehman – The Untouchables?

Until recently, Andrew Gowers had an office on the 30th floor of a tower in Canary Wharf which offered a stunning panorama of the City of London. It seemed an appropriate location for the UK arm of an investment bank that was one of the big five beasts of Wall Street. If there was any institution whose members might fall prey to the hubris of believing that they truly were Masters of the Universe – as top City traders described themselves with an irony which depreciated with the passing years – then the men at the top of Lehman Brothers might be among their number. The air indeed seemed rarefied at that height. The shame was that nobody bothered to pack the oxygen.

For the past month, Gowers, a former editor of the Financial Times – and now a former director of communications at the 150-year-old US investment bank which had begun life in the 1850s as a cotton-trading partnership – has sequestered himself away in a far less public place, having quit the bank just before it collapsed. He has had a month “watching the autumn go by” in the south of France.

Northern Rock was the prequel to the concatenation of events which has seen £3,000bn wiped off the value of the world’s shares. It has also seen taxpayers across the globe spend double that amount to prop up the world’s banks. But it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers – and the sight of well-paid bankers carrying their belongings from their Canary Wharf offices in black sacks and cardboard boxes – which first suggested that something was going on that might have ripples that moved beyond the United States, or indeed, the Northumbrian fastness of Northern Rock.

But for Andrew Gowers, the writing had been on the Wharf for a good deal longer.

“There was a general awareness of difficulties,” he says, “from August 2007 onwards.” Lehman was a very large borrower, with, according to some estimates, around $130bn in debt, much of it in sub-prime. “But the feeling was that we weren’t as badly exposed as some and there appeared to be some good and clever hedging strategies in place, Gowers says. So 2007 ended as a record year with bumper revenues and the balance sheet grew in the first quarter of 2008 – “which a lot of people, after the fact, found pretty incomprehensible.”

There was no excuse for this complacency. In March, a smaller investment bank, Bear Stearns, had collapsed. In response, Lehman’s share price fell 48 per cent in less than a morning. “But the Lehman management told itself that we were different from Bear Stearns,” Gowers recalls, “because we weren’t so reliant on short-term borrowing and we had large amounts of liquidity.” Anyway, the US Federal Reserve – America’s equivalent of the Bank of England – had stepped in to save Bear Stearns. Perhaps the top people at Lehman – a far bigger bank – believed they would have a state safety net, too.

Even so, says Andrew Gowers, “it all scared the living daylights out of the top management and some major effort was made to shrink the balance sheet, to cut the borrowing and get rid of some of the problem assets.”

The trouble was that other banks were doing the same thing at exactly the same time. As a result, the prices of the assets they wanted to sell fell at a shockingly fast pace. Lehman began to run out of time. It could not offload enough of the dodgy sub-prime debts. To make matters worse, the “good and clever hedging strategies” began to come unstuck. Indeed, instead of offsetting losses, some of the hedges magnified them.

“From April, I became aware of quite a sizeable loss accumulating. Nobody was quite sure how big it was going to be.” In June, executives at Lehman’s money management subsidiary, Neuberger Berman, sent emails to the top managers at Lehman Brothers suggesting that they forgo bonuses – to “send a strong message to both employees and investors that management is not shirking accountability for recent performance.” Lehman’s executive committee dismissed the idea out of hand.

When the news of the first loss ever in Lehman’s independent history came out the market was shocked. Senior managers, including the chief executive, Dick Fuld, didn’t seem to get the measure of the problem. Gowers recalls: “They just thought: we’re not in a catastrophic place, we’ve suffered some buffeting from abnormal developments in the market, but we have a plan to get out of it.”

The market did not agree and the Lehman share price continued to plummet. “That caused jaws to drop, says Gowers and the bank’s chief financial officer Erin Callan and its president Joe Gregory, who had been Dick Fuld’s right-hand man for 34 years, resigned.

But it was not enough. “Eventually, at one minute before midnight, they came out with an explanation of what had gone wrong and what they planned to do,” Gowers recalls. “But it was too late.”

In the end, what did for Lehman was that its executives failed to understand that the politics had changed. On 7 September, America’s biggest mortgage providers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had to be rescued by the US government. It was one of the largest bailouts in US history. “A feeling grew in Congress that there had to be a limit,” Gowers says.

Lehman Brothers became that limit. “At quite a few points in the downward spiral Lehman’s could have been bought, but Dick Fuld was too proud to accept that,” Gowers adjudges. The result was the largest corporate bankruptcy in history.

Andrew Gowers got out just before the collapse, having concluded that his job had become untenable. The evening that I interviewed him, he had just returned from a relaxed day at the market in Cahors. There would be sea bream for dinner that night. But things looked a little more bleak for some of his former colleagues.

Investment bankers rank fairly low on the public sympathy index. Gowers acknowledges that, yet warns against broadbrush judgements. “There were a lot of people in Lehman’s who took 80 per cent of their pay in shares which were deferred for five years and a relatively low salary,” he says. Many borrowed against those shares and are now hiding away and licking their wounds.

“It had been rolling along in a fantastic way for so long that everybody really did began to think there was no way it was going to end. They applied that to their own personal finances, as well as the way they ran the firms, borrowing against tomorrow.”

But now, grimly, tomorrow has become today.

Blame it on the young guns

The seats are of the kind of red plush velvet that speaks not of your local Indian restaurant but of discreet wealth. The menu offers seared Isle of Skye scallops with pork belly squares and cauliflower purée. With the chateaubriand of Aberdeen Angus, served with a béarnaise sauce, I suspect that Duncan Glassey’s eye might alight at a £58 bottle of 1975 Château Cantenac Brown. But I am wrong. He is happy, he says, with an Australian shiraz, the cheapest on the list of bin ends in the smart Circus Wine Bar & Grill in the austere Georgian elegance of Edinburgh’s New Town.

“How did the world’s cleverest financiers get into this almighty mess?,” I ask him.

There is a lot about Duncan Glassey which is not what you might expect. The child chess prodigy who turned professional runs a wealth planning consultancy for the mediumly-rich. It grew out of his experience of working with lottery winners at the accountant Ernst & Young in the mid-Nineties. His firm Wealthflow LLP now specialises in clients with between £1m and £5m to invest.

For all that, he is modest in his own lifestyle. So much so that in the past he has been told that he lost business from new clients after turning up for the initial interview in a car which they decided was insufficiently grand. There is something about him of the solidity of old money. His client list includes aristocrats as well as advocates. Like those whose money he manages, his bias is towards the conservative and away from the febrile psychology of “active management” where, he insists, over-activity can sometimes substitute for solid long-term investment.

Glassey has some interesting thoughts on the generational conflicts that have tipped the world into financial crisis and to the brink of recession: “The people who made the strategy in the banks are of the baby-boomer generation born from 1945 onwards. They are a generation of grand visions, optimism and high ideals about combining individual empowerment with social values. They are the big talkers and the people with the vision and mission statements.”

By contrast, the generation who have managed us into the present situation have a very different set of attitudes and values. Generation X are the children of the Thatcher era. “They are at home with globalisation and the information revolution,” he says. “Change is normal, as is the idea of lifelong learning. They are not scared of failure.

“What’s important to them is individualism, choice, self-reliance and immediate gratification. They are thrill seekers.” They can be pessimists, cynics and selfish.

But the younger generation who created sophisticated financial products which have so dramatically imploded – the “masters of the universe” – are different again, Glassey says. “They are Generation Y, born from 1985 onwards. They are the generation who have not known a world without the internet. They are highly techno-savvy and street smart but information overload has made them hugely naive in many other ways. They are the Facebook and Bebo generation – networkers who live in a world where divorce and geographical dispersion has broken down the family. They are self-obsessed and close-focused.

“The belief systems of the three groups – the strategists, the managers and the traders – are entirely different,” concludes Glassey. “They don’t really understand one another at all. And they didn’t know what each other really wanted or expected out of the complex financial architecture they created.

“Everybody was locked into the Nick Leeson scenario; no one asked questions so long as everyone was making money.”

The shaven-headed Glassey, aged 39, characterises himself as on the cusp between generations X and Y but his values hark back to what he calls “the old days when banks were trustworthy and on your side, before they became out-and-out sales organisations”. His approach is to keep his clients away from financial fads and fashions and “commission-based products which are deliberately made so complex that clients can’t understand them”. Glassey was always suspicious of the world of credit-swap derivates which he saw as a parade of emperor’s new clothes. “I view all that as speculation. I’m not paid to make huge money for my clients; I’m paid to diversify risk.”

But his clients, Glassey acknowledges, will not be the ones to suffer. “Their portfolios may be down 15 per cent where others are down 35 per cent or more. But their homes and jobs are not as risk.” So whose jobs and homes are in peril? And why? The trail pointed away from the world of pure finance and into that of the stock market.

The trillion-dollar wipeout

They are still selling oysters and champagne in the great courtyard of the Royal Exchange which was founded in 1565 as the centre of commerce for the City of London. In the 17th century, stockbrokers were not allowed within its elegant portals because of their rude manners, but today it is no longer a stock market. Instead, it is a luxury shopping centre whose pillared and marbled atrium is lined with discreet boutiques bearing names like De Beers, Hermès, Tiffany, Bulgari and Cartier. A couple of lattes in its magnificent courtyard will set you back the price on an entire lunch for two in Bury market, of which more later.

I was there to meet Richard Hunter, head of British equities at the fund manager Hargreaves Lansdown – which manages £11bn in shares for its small investor clients. I wanted to find out why the alarm over bank shares that gripped the stock market then infected other areas. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it was not just banking shares that fell; equities plummeted in a wide range of companies that had no connections with the financial services industry.

“Credit is the oil in the machinery of the business world,” he says. Every business needs to borrow to finance the gap between buying its raw materials and the income arriving for what it sells. “The money that used to be available to do that just isn’t there any more because the banks have stopped lending to one another. All that has been impacted by the credit squeeze. That’s why share prices fell first in certain sectors – the banks and financial services companies – but soon spread to other areas.”

But there were a collection of other forces in the real economy that accelerated the speed with which prices fell.

“It was a cocktail of factors,” he says. “After the sub-prime crisis broke in the US and after the collapse of Northern Rock here, some people became more cautious and started to spend less.” Then came the global rise in food prices which raised the cost of bread, rice and other staples in the supermarkets; in April, rice prices were double what they had been seven months earlier. Next followed the international hike in the price of oil – it rose as high as $147 a barrel in July, almost treble what it had been a couple of years earlier. And that massively increased both domestic fuel bills and petrol prices.

“If it costs you an extra £10 a week to fill your car and you’re on a budget,” he says, “you have to find that £10 by cutting back somewhere. If you’re paying more for your gas and electricity you have to cut back on something else.”

Then, on top of all that, house prices had started to fall. The fall-off began slowly, last November. By April this year, house prices were lower than they had been a year before. It was the first time an annual drop had been recorded for 12 years. The number of new houses being built fell to the lowest level for 60 years. The building industry, after 13 years of unprecedented growth, faced a major slump; in July the housebuilder Taylor Wimpey asked shareholders for an extra £500m and failed to raise it. Mortgage lending crawled to a near standstill in August as approvals for new homes hit a record low. By September, house prices across the country had fallen by about 10 per cent. Repossessions rose to triple their previous level. In the worst hit areas, such as the centre of Manchester where thousands of buy-to-let apartments had been made in converted inner city warehouses, prices fell by more than 20 per cent.

Half the flats in one prestigious block, Albion Mill – a converted Victorian biscuit factory with double-height living rooms and stunning views across to the Pennines – were repossessed. One woman, Jeanette Leach, 31, got off the plane at Manchester Airport after a holiday in Tenerife and received a text message saying her home had been repossessed; she went straight into the toilets at Terminal Two and hanged herself with the cord from her tracksuit bottoms.

The majority of those falling into difficulties as result of the credit crunch were not driven to such extremes. But, says Richard Hunter, “the stock market tries to discount the falls in value that will come over the next nine to 12 months.” As soon as the banking system was pulled back from what the head of the International Monetary Fund called “brink of systemic meltdown”, investors began to consider what might be the short-to-medium term implications for the real economy. House prices were a key indicator.

And further contraction was obviously on the cards. Some 1.2 million homeowners in the UK are now faced with the prospect of negative equity because the prices of their properties have fallen below what they paid for them. Another 1.4 million households are due to come off short-term fixed-rate mortgage deals by the end of 2008. The credit crunch on the wholesale markets was making mortgages harder to come by. It contributed to a growing “feel-bad” factor on the markets. “With shares and house prices you don’t crystallise your loss till you sell, but you feel poorer because of all the bad news,” says Hunter, “and so your behaviour begins to change. Everyone cuts back.”

Some people do more than that. They panic.

“People who have been in the city 40 years are telling me that they’ve never seen this degree of volatility before,” Hunter says. “Panic overtakes logic. Just a few people running round like headless chickens can infect others because people look at the headless chickens and say: What do they know that I don’t? In the past they used to say that the market was driven by one prevailing emotion – greed or fear; this time it’s a cocktail of both.”

The result was an orgy of frenzied selling in which £2.7 trillion was wiped off the value of shares globally in a single week of extraordinary financial mayhem in October. This was when a crisis that had for months seemed confined to the world of banking began to ripple out into the real world.

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One Comment

  1. Interesting post and blog. Relevantly, many prominent experts and publications have pointed out that Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and GenXers.
    This link takes you to a page you may find interesting: it has, among other things, excerpts from publications like Newsweek and the New York Times, and videos with over 25 top pundits, all talking specifically about Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser:
    http://www.generationjones.com/2008election.html


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