Riding Out the Banking Apocalypse
A review of Ivan Fallon’s Black Horse Ride, from The Robson Press.
The just-published Black Horse Ride – while sounding like an emotional recounting of the last days of an uncolonised land or even a hellish descent into a plague-ridden Europe – is, in fact, a history of Lloyds Banking Group. Bearing the subtitle The Inside Story of Lloyds and the Banking Crisis, financial journalist Ivan Fallon’s new tome on one of Britain’s biggest banks looks way beyond the hectic days of the late-aughties subprime mortgage crisis. But it’s not clear whether that’s a good thing.
Fallon’s book gives a promising start, opening on ‘D-Day’, if you will: 15 September 2008. We’re quickly introduced to the major players in the retelling of what’s to come, and in a dramatic, human-interest fashion (which isn’t entirely accurate, as the book goes on to explain) – Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown corners Lloyds’ chairman at a cocktail party high above London and asks him to save the UK banking system. The anecdote draws a satisfying parallel to the six-months-prior crisis kick-off across the pond, when then-chairman of the Fed Ben Bernanke allegedly called up JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon – at a restaurant, with his wife and children, celebrating his own birthday – and asked him to rescue Bear Stearns or sacrifice the entire American financial system.
The events of 15 September, when Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, were horrifying, fascinating, and, in a perverse way, exciting to those interested in global finance; i.e. the audience that will pick up Black Horse Ride. But the book doesn’t follow the frenzied pace of the disaster that it chronicles: in fact, you have to read to page 235 before you find yourself in the fall of ’08 again.
To be fair to Fallon, he couldn’t have given a thorough indication of how the bank dealt with the Last Days of Subprime Loans without giving readers a feel for how Lloyds operated; essentially, it saved itself by resisting the temptation of ‘easy’ money, which few other banks (as in, maybe one or two) did in those days. But there’s a lot on mergers & acquisitions, and not just those that succeeded. It’s pretty much an overview of all the banks in Britain, seasoned with a few in the US, Europe and Brazil.
That said, there are certainly bright spots throughout the book. How many people are aware that there is a so-called Edinburgh Mafia? Or that there are certain banks to acquire if you’re looking for ‘sex and fun’? It’s also peppered with some stellar Alastair Darling quotes (unconfirmed, of course).
Fallon cuts some likeable characters throughout, namely the proudly working-class Victor Blank, a descendent of Ukrainian Jews (and purportedly Lenin) who ascended to both chairman of Lloyds and knighthood, and Eric Daniels, the stoic ‘Marlboro Man’ from the American West who emerges as pretty much the only banker of his time in possession of foresight. This is, essentially, why Fallon wrote Black Horse Ride. It tells the story of a time when all bankers became villains in the eyes of Main Street. The author urges us to remember that there were, buried beneath the greed, plunging markets, and utter chaos, a few financiers who were legitimately trying to help the British people.
Ultimately, though, this is a read for a very specific audience. It’s not necessarily for finance types; it’s for those who are really interested in the British banking system. The book goes well beyond the bailout days, hammering out the details of shifting share prices and shady press leaks. But once we reach the recession, more than 300 pages in, Black Horse probably could have been walked back into the barn and brushed down.
Black Horse Ride is available from 25 June.