In 2008, I was living in Japan, and making my living as a freelance writer. One of the assignments that came my way was the editing of an investment bank’s English-language marketing materials, prior to their translation into Japanese. However, something got in the way…
The name of the bank was Bear Stearns. Remember them? They were up to their nipples in what were essentially bad loans (they were actually derivatives collateralised by bad loans, but that’s nit-picking). So they went under, with JPM taking them over, and my nice little high-paying gig went with it.
And that wasn’t the end of it. A few months later, Lehman Brothers went tits-up (I’d previously worked in another investment bank a few floors above Lehman in the same building. One of my friends worked there, and one night in the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCCJ), I got a long semi-drunken account of his team’s reaction to the different takeover bids by Barclays and Nomura. He eventually took his whole specialist team to another bank, depriving Nomura of one of the assets they paid for, but that’s another story.
Now I see that the mortgage farms are at it again, lending money to subprime borrowers with zero deposit. Yes, they claim that these are no longer “no doc” mortgages and that they are educating the borrowers on their obligations.
Anyway, having worked on the fringes of the financial world, the events of 2008 had an impact on me and my writing. The first book that reflected these was my At the Sharpe End.
At the Sharpe End
This started life with a plot tipping point of an earthquake hitting the Tokyo/Kanto region. I described the aftermath, and the effects, somewhat based on the Kobe (Hanshin) earthquake of a few years before. However, by the time the book was due to be published, the earthquake hadn’t happened, and the bank crisis had, so I rewrote the last part of the book. The conversation with my friend made it into the book (but as a phone conversation, not a conversation in the FCCJ). As a matter of interest, Robert Whiting, currently 2nd Vice-President of the FCCJ, and author of several fine books on Japan (crime and baseball, among other subjects), very kindly wrote an introduction to my book, explaining more about the role of Korean gangsters in Japanese society.
The change in plot also meant moving the story’s timeline from winter to summer. So even the foods mentioned in the book that the characters were eating had to change in places (Japanese cuisine is very seasonal).
However, when I came to republish the book with Inknbeans Press, I decided to include most of the earthquake scenes as an appendix, and they are in the version you can buy here.
Balance of Powers
And then there was this, Balance of Powers. A book which took me furthest away from my comfort zone in many ways. For one thing, the protagonist is an African-American former USMC officer. I am British, white, and non-military. Almost all the action takes place in Ohio, a state I have never visited.
And it involves some rather grisly violence – from the “good guys”, and I am not a violent person or someone who glorifies violence.
The co-protagonist, by the way, is a financial journalist working in NYC for an agency that might well be Bloomberg News. Now we are slightly closer to home, but this particular journalist is female and gay (I’m neither).
But the basic premises of the book (the repossession of the properties, and the no-doc mortgages) were all based on facts as I knew them, or had read about in reputable accounts. My Facebook friend, Bev Thomas, kindly wrote a “how to” guide for people trapped with a fake or dodgy mortgage.
The story is fictional, but it might well have been true. Quite honestly, I’m surprised that it never happened.
And what now?
Of course, “this time will be different”. Yeah, well… How many times have we heard that one? How long before some risk manager decides that one of these lenders is holding a pile of toxic waste, and decides to repackage it, tie a pink ribbon round it, and flog it off to the nearest sucker customer? And when the debtors start to default (as some of them almost certainly will) and house prices start to fall (as they probably will), what next?