“Beware! This building is cursed,” yell Holly Roughan and Max Wakefield, their audience silenced into shock. Regular tours of London include churches, palaces and even the deepest dungeons, but the duo stand in front of a cathedral of moneymaking, criticising its high priests.
Unusually for people dressed in top hats and carrying magic wands, their message is received without laughter – especially by the bankers of Canary Wharf, who occasionally stop to eavesdrop on one of London’s most unusual tours: Occupy Canary Wharf. A group of 28 people is escorted by the two magicians from one bank to another in hopes of understanding the ins and outs of the financial crisis and how it all began.
The building in question is the European headquarters of the investment bank J.P. Morgan. Taken over by the Lehman Brothers in 2004, it made headlines all over the world on September 15, 2008 when the world learned about the collapse of the financial services firm and the economic crisis entered its darkest hour. According to the guides of this tour, which explores a murkier side of London, the financial contagion started here and if people aren’t careful, they might get infected too.
The crowd begins to mutter darkly as Wakefield warns once again that it is worth bearing in mind that while Tower Hamlets hosts the majority of the UK’s bankers, it has the second highest rate of severe child poverty in England and the third highest level of unemployment in London.
“While 2,400 of the 3,200 EU bankers paid over €1 million are based in the UK, the next largest total is in Germany, with only 170. So, we really are in the belly of the beast,” adds the 26-year-old campaigner.
In explaining what went wrong in 2008, Roughan believes that it is essential for people to understand the story of derivatives.
“If there is one thing to come away understanding from our tour today, it is this. A derivative is basically a bet, whether to speculate on something – to take on risk – or to hedge against something – to protect against risk,” she explains. She then adds that at the heart of the financial crisis stands a particular type of derivative named the Collateralised Debt Obligation. Dazed and confused, the audience demands a more detailed explanation.
Wakefield jumps in, as he conjures up plasticine and fake money. He then urges three members of the audience to use the fake money in order to take out a mortgage from his bank – the Bank of Occupy. The volunteers are given colour- coded plasticine, to signify the level of the risks they and the bank are taking. In the case of the red plasticine, which went to the investor who took on the highest risk, Wakefield explained that the more risk is taken on, the more capital needs to be reserved in case the gamble goes wrong.
“The banks came up with a clever method for removing risk through mortgage lending by squishing all sorts of mortgages together and in so doing created our CDOs which could be sold to investors. The idea was that by combining different slices of mortgage debt you would reduce the risk of any one of the CDOs going bad,” he adds.
The simulation is designed to show that perhaps the risk-happy executives at big financial firms who aimed to satisfy the greedy needs of institutional investors are to blame. The blame game is easy to play and some argue that the finger can also be pointed at the house-hungry citizens who fell prey to the charms of the low lending standards.
By the end of the explanation however, all colours of plasticine are jumbled up together, the idea fails like it did in 2008 and the fake money is in the wrong pockets. It starts to rain, but the tour doesn’t stop and the people march on to other banks in the financial district, jumping 20 times in the air at each stop in order to keep warm.
When the crowd arrives in front of KPMG, a leading provider of professional services including audit and tax, the people begin to clap as accountants exit the building. They are thanking them for helping corporations evade taxes.
“It’s nothing personal,” Roughan says reassuringly. “Max and I only want to demystify not vilify!”
After an hour and a half, the tour comes to an end. Armed with new information gained about the ins and outs of the financial world, the group bids a warm farewell to the freezing temperatures outside and makes its way to a pub filled with bankers. Tim Crocker-Buqué, a doctor currently working in health policy research at the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health at Queen Mary University, explains why he was interested in the tour.
“I came on the tour as I live and work in Tower Hamlets trying to improve the health of the local population. Economics has such an enormous impact on people’s health, I felt it was important to understand the origins of the financial crash in order to better analyse the subsequent effects on health that we are seeing across the country.
“Nowhere is this more apparent than in Tower Hamlets itself. Bordered by both the City on one side and Canary Wharf on the other, with terrible rates of poverty and overcrowding in the rest of the borough, it has some of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. There is good evidence to show that income inequality has a terrible impact on health outcomes and as a result of the crash and subsequent unemployment, wage stagnation, increasing cost of living and savage reductions in government welfare the gap between the richest and poorest is increasing more and more,” he says.
At the end of the night, Roughan reveals that her hope is that people noticed how everything on the tour has been bought and sold – how everything was monetised.
“So the one thing that’s truly free today is the tour itself,” she says. “No donations please! All we need is our fake money back!”