Never trust a knighted billionaire with a moustache
There are three main cricket grounds in Antigua. There is the lovely old Recreation Ground in the heart of Saint John's, the scene of many a thrilling innings. It was thought to be too old and too decrepit, so the Chinese were persuaded to stump up to build the new Sir Vivian Richards stadium on the other side of the island. I visited it in 2007 and watched Chinese labourers toiling in the heat, desperate to finish in time for the World Cup later that year.
But the grandest pitch of all is Sir Allen Stanford's ground. It was built seemingly without purpose, a rich man's whim, with a grandstand with a seating capacity of 5,000. I sat in the Sticky Wicket restaurant and wondered: how much money do you need to have to build something like this? I thought then the answer was probably 'quite a lot'. However, it appears that all you need is access to somebody else's money. Sir Allen has been accused by the US Securities and Exchange Commission of committing an alleged fraud of US$8 billion (Dh29.38bn). Among his many businesses and financial interests - he is the second-largest employer in Antigua - he had a business offering certificates of deposit that always produced higher rates of interest than just about everybody else, and occasionally curious returns. All the while markets were going up and credit was cheap, the Texas billionaire was riding high. But now he looks like a man who is all hat and no cattle.
Sir Allen made his first fortune in Houston, snapping up distressed property in the early 1980s before inheriting the insurance company his grandfather founded in 1932 and moving it to Antigua. Antigua is a lovely island and the locals are friendly, but it attracts its share of pirates. As one friend of mine calls it - and he should know - it's a "sunny place for shady people". Last year, Forbes magazine put Sir Allen's personal wealth at $2.2bn. He credited his success to avoiding investments in subprime mortgages that snowballed into a global financial crisis.
Asked by CNBC television in September last year if it's fun being a billionaire, he smiled and replied: "Yes, yes, yes. I have to say it is fun being a billionaire. But it's hard work." Indeed. With dual US and Antiguan-Barbudan citizenship, Sir Allen has homes sprinkled across the region - from Antigua to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands to Miami. And he also has an airline that runs between the islands, another loss-making venture, about as useful as a cricket pitch.
A year earlier, he appeared as the saviour of English cricket. He landed his helicopter on the hallowed turf of Lord's cricket ground in London and, flanked by Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Ian Botham, produced a suitcase containing $20 million. The ensuing $1m-per-player Twenty20 tournament in November, in which his "Stanford Superstars" side of West Indian cricketers became instant millionaires when they beat England at his Stanford Cricket Ground in Antigua, was condemned as a "circus". During the event, Sir Allen neither behaved like a billionaire nor a knight of the realm.
He spent much of the evening flirting with the wives and girlfriends of the English players. If Sir Allen turns out to have been economical about the truth, he will join Bernie Madoff as a man it would be unwise to entrust with your life's savings. No doubt, as the financial crisis continues to unfold, there will be others. As Warren Buffett observed: "When the tide goes out, you see who has been swimming naked."
In the interests of transparency, and to help people spot possible nude swimmers in the future, it may be helpful to point out some of the telltale signs that can be used to identify these characters who take your money and don't always give it back: 1. Use of helicopters and flashy motor cars. Anybody who drops out of the sky in a helicopter with a bag of swag should be treated with suspicion. 2. Moustaches. The moustache has always been the signal of the scoundrel - think of the characters Leslie Phillips or David Niven played.
3. Consorting with sports people. Business types always like associating with sports stars - it makes them look young and attractive, even if they have a limp and a moustache. Sir Fred Goodwin, the former boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, now dubbed "the world's worst banker" - which is quite an achievement when you consider how many clowns have been running financial institutions - loved to shower sportsmen and women with cash. As you watch the Six Nations rugby championship it is hard to miss the large blue-and-white RBS logo. As the bank is now nothing more than an empty shell that has been effectively nationalised, it's hard not to think that it should now read "UK Taxpayer" or if that is too wordy, just "Chumps".
4. Titles. It is interesting to note that along with Harvard men and alumni from Goldman Sachs, many characters involved in the financial meltdown have been peers of the realm or knights. The titles give them gravitas and access to politicians, and also a veneer of respectability, but no guarantee of investment success, alas. 5. Veneers of respectability. Like the grand, fortress-type buildings that banks like to build to convince us that our money is safe, rascal investors like to have offices in places that sound grand, such as Mayfair, Park Avenue or the Boulevard Haussmann. There are honest people in these parts, I am sure, but there are also plenty of rogues. There has been no word from Sir Allen Stanford. Is he on the run? Wherever he is, there is no doubt he is on a very sticky wicket.
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Updated: February 19, 2009 04:00 AM