x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Walruses and oysters through the looking glass

If Lewis Carroll were alive today, he would probably either be a quant on Wall Street earning millions or languishing in a Swiss jail.

If Lewis Carroll were alive today, he would probably either be a quant on Wall Street earning millions or languishing in a Swiss jail. The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland lived in the Victorian era, so instead he spent his time performing abstruse mathematical equations and writing the books that made him famous. But I feel that he would instinctively have understood the world's economic predicament. Indeed, many critics, including the musician John Lennon, interpret his poem The Walrus and The Carpenter as an indictment of capitalism.

You will recall that the Walrus and the Carpenter decide to go for a stroll along the beach and invite the young oysters to come with them. The old oyster is too wise and declines their generous invitation, but the young molluscs are terribly excited, falling over themselves in their desire to be included. They walk along the beach and then pause at a convenient spot: "A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,

"Is what we chiefly need: Pepper and vinegar besides Are very good indeed? Now if you're ready, Oysters dear, We can begin to feed." "But not on us!" the Oysters cried, Turning a little blue. "After such kindness, that would be A dismal thing to do!" "The night is fine," the Walrus said. "Do you admire the view? You can nominate your own favourites for the role of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Obvious candidates are Henry Paulson, the former head of the US Treasury (and a former Goldman Sachs man) and Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs. Others include Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the IMF, and Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank. The rest of us are the oysters.

I can imagine Mr Strauss-Kahn and Mr Zoellick strolling arm in arm along the shores of the Bosphorus, inviting us to join them. Apparently the financial crisis has cost all of us US$10,000 (Dh36,731). That is not as bad as it first sounds, because the dollar is a shadow of its former self. That is why gold has hit an all-time high, at a level not seen since Croesus was snapping up every gold bar in Greece.

But as the 13,000 finance ministers, delegates, bankers and financial journalists met up this week in Istanbul, they must have been congratulating themselves that they have had a narrow shave. The widespread dislike of bankers has never quite managed to morph into full-scale rioting. World Bank meetings are often a jolly affair. I have been to a fair number in my time, starting with Madrid in the mid-1990s. Every fourth year the bank and its sister organisation, the IMF, leave Washington, DC, and head to the capital of an emerging market. Then, Spain was just emerging from the decades of Franco's rule.

It was rather a shock for the assembled journalists to discover that here was a place where bars stayed open as long as you liked, which for most journalists is quite late. Among the highlights that I can recall was a sideshow event that managed to bring Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres together. They shook hands as if they might explode. Most World Bank meetings in Washington are carefully choreographed. The parties are grand, the drinks beautifully chilled and the glasses as frosty as a Goldman Sachs PR lady. But this year's shindig is as lively as any in living memory. A few oysters (sorry, protesters) have taken on the capitalists.

They have been met by water cannons and policemen in riot gear. A protester in Istanbul threw a shoe at Mr Strauss-Kahn. Selcuk Ozbek, a journalist, took aim with a white trainer and shouted "thief IMF" before being hustled away by security officials, according to the Financial Times. Disappointingly, rather than humming Je ne regrette rien at every opportunity, the bankers have come out and apologised. Or at least one, Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC Bank has, doubtless also brushing away a tear like the Walrus. Maybe the bankers all got together during the first party in Istanbul and played liar's poker, with the loser having to come out and take his punishment.

Bankers are now struggling to reinvent themselves, telling us that they are really good guys. Even the IMF, known for generations as the International Misery Fund, says it is changing. No more Scrooge, it is asking members for billions of dollars so it can act like Father Christmas and shower countries with cash like confetti. Where will it end? Surely we all know. As Mr Carroll predicted: "O Oysters," said the Carpenter,

"You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?' But answer came there none? And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one. rwright@thenational.ae