The Ghost of Pre-Crisis Past
Mr. Finance awoke with a start to a heavy darkness.
He fumbled for his smartphone to check the time. It read 8:00. But, that couldn’t be — it had been nearly 8 when he got home last night, and there was no hint of a sunrise to indicate a new day.
“There’s no way I’ve slept through a whole day till 8pm,” he thought. He rushed to the window to confirm. It was deadly quiet, with no people in the streets.
Mr. Finance went back to bed and lay awake thinking. He thought for a good while, and then thought some more. He could not figure it out. The longer he thought, the more worried he became. He tried to calm himself with some simple meditations, but they only made his brain churn more.
The ghosts he had seen concerned him deeply. He would reason it out so that he had nearly convinced himself that it was a dream, but then he would bounce back to the beginning of his reverie, just as uncertain as before.
Mr. Finance tossed and turned, finally falling into a fitful doze.
The sound of his smartphone alarm was the next thing he knew. He opened his eyes to find a figure standing just beside his bed, staring directly at his face from its perch only inches away.
The figure was a strange one. It was quite haggard, as if it had seen lots of late nights and rich food and drink. Whether late nights working or late nights carousing, it was unclear, but the face looked prematurely lined.
The figure wore a pair of Brooks Brothers pajamas, and held a glowing smartphone in her hand, its flashlight beam casting a bluish light over the space.
“Are you the spirit that I was promised would come?” Mr. Finance asked.
The figure nodded.
“And who are you?”
“I am the Ghost of Pre-Crisis Past,” said the ghost in a soft, regretful voice.
“You mean, like the Roaring Twenties and the Tulip Mania?”
“No, much more recent, actually. It’s your own past, sir.”
“Fine, then,” said Mr. Finance. “But why are you here?”
“For your own good!” said the ghost. “Now, let’s go.”
Mr. Finance looked at his elegant pajamas, started to say that he should really get dressed first, but noted the similar attire of his traveling companion and thought better of it.
The spirit headed toward the window, beckoning Mr. Finance to take her hand. As their fingers touched, Mr. Finance’s bedroom disappeared and the two were standing in a shabby office where a thirty-something couple sat in chairs across the desk from a smiling man in a sharp-looking suit. Of the couple, the man wore a uniform that might have been from an autoshop, and the woman, a cashier’s uniform from Walmart.
“Where are we?” Mr. Finance demanded, utterly discombobulated. “What are we doing here?”
“Just watch for a moment,” said the ghost, “and you’ll remember. Don’t worry — they can’t see or hear us.”
The couple before them appeared uncomfortable in their seats.
“So, how much can we qualify for?” asked the man, tentatively. “We don’t have much savings, and I can’t really give much proof of income.” His wife next to him was flushed with embarrassment.
“Not a problem,” said the smiling man behind the desk, the gel in his well-coiffed hair gleaming under the fluorescent light. “These days, we can get pretty much anyone into a house. You’ll be surprised by what you qualify for. We’ve got an adjustable rate mortgage that gives you a super-low rate, and you only pay the interest!”
“But, doesn’t that low rate expire at some point?” asked the wife, nervously.
“Technically, yes, but by the time the rate goes up, you’ll just refinance, or you’ll have sold for a profit anyway! Have you seen how prices are going up here? You can’t lose!”
“Now just sign here,” said the smiling man, pressing a pen into the hands of the buyers before him. “And you’ll be all done.”
Mr. Finance looked sidewise at his companion. “Just what are you getting at, Spirit? Why are you showing me these people?”
The ghost looked pensive, and took Mr. Finance’s hand again, saying, “Come, there’s more to see.”
From the small-town mortgage broker’s office, they had suddenly appeared on a bustling New York City street, just outside Cipriani. Mr. Finance smiled in recognition.
“Why are you smiling?” asked the ghost. “Do you know this place?”
“Know it? I’ve been here more times than I can count. Lots of good memories here,” said Mr. Finance.
They went in to the cavernous restaurant. The place was buzzing, with drinks flowing, people laughing and talking, music playing, lavish displays of food on tables lining the walls, waiters wandering the room with trays of petite hors d’oeuvres and glasses filled with sparkling champagne.
At the sight of one particular suited man, who gave off an aura of power and authority, Mr. Finance could hardly contain himself. “Why, it’s old Chip King! I haven’t seen him in years, not since he left TownBank! Oh, it’s good to see him again!”
As they watched, Mr. King smiled at his companions and called for another round of scotches for the group surrounding him. “Make ’em doubles!” he yelled at the departing waiter. “We’re light on loan covenants, heavy on the scotch!” he joked, as those surrounding him fawned and laughed.
But Mr. King was ready for more. Clapping his hands loudly, he chortled and shouted out in a resonant voice, “Everyone, everyone, it’s time! Clear out some space here! We need room! Plenty of room!”
And the floor was cleared in an instant, leaving a space for dancing as had never been seen!
In came a DJ, smiling and waving as the crowd cheered. A spotlight followed him to his booth, and beams and beats quickly set the mood.
To the floor came the mortgage brokers, jovial smiles on their faces. Out came the underwriters, unconditional approvers of loans. Out came the loan packagers, the lawyers, the executives, the marketers, ready to bundle those loans to sell to everyone! Out came the fund managers, ready to invest! Out came the ratings agencies, eager to spread the positive spirit. Out came credit default swap creators, yearning to work their magic. Out they all came, one after the next, bankers and financiers and gamblers of all types, some running, some having to be dragged, some shameful, some confident, all throwing their cares to the wind to join the great spectacle.
And they danced. Oh, how they danced! They whirled and they spun, tossing risk back and forth, one to the next. Laughing and shouting, hooting and grinning, shaking hands and patting backs.
There were more dances, and there were more drinks, and the loveliest morsels to eat, and an intoxicating punch that kept everyone in high spirits. At one point, a group of regulators in the corner threatened to take away the punchbowl, but everyone shouted them down with glee, and pulled them onto the dance floor. The group surrounded the regulators, clapping and urging them on, until, sheepishly at first, the regulators did a few steps, then a few more, and soon were jigging as fiercely as the rest.
The festivities continued for what seemed like hours. Long after others might have thought they should stop, Mr. King kept dancing, and encouraged the rest to continue. “Listen — the music is still going! As long as the music is playing,” he crowed, “you’ve got to get up and dance! I’m still dancing!”
Mr. Finance looked on eagerly, and sighed with nostalgia. “Ah, those were the days. What an amazing night that was.”
“So it seemed,” said the ghost. “So it seemed.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Finance.
“Have you forgotten so quickly your first visitors this night?” she asked.
“No, no, of course not,” said Mr. Finance, quickly, shivering at the memory of the phantoms with their chains and boxes and papers. He looked once more at the party-goers, with a bit less nostalgia this time.
“We’re running out of time,” the ghost said. “We must go.”
The party scene faded from view, and they appeared suddenly in an office building.Through the windows, Mr. Finance could see the spires of other sky scrapers all around.
They entered a small office, where two young men were talking. Mr. Finance gasped in recognition.
“Why, that’s me, and my old friend, Paul!” Mr. Finance exclaimed, happily. “Oh, that Paul, we got up to so much trouble. We were a fearsome twosome. Wow, did we party hard. Er, I can’t really tell you what all we did. Wouldn’t be appropriate, Ma’am,” Mr. Finance said shamefacedly.
“I wonder what we were up to that day,” said Mr. Finance, studying the young men with interest.
“Yes, let us see,” said the spirit.
And with that the men’s voices could be heard.
“Oh my God, dude, did you see this latest package of loans? Totally craptacular,” said Paul to the young Mr. Finance.
“Look, all we have to do is put them in a box, tie a bow on it, and you know they’ll rate it AAA. We’re making sow’s ears into silk purses, I tell you,” said young Mr. Finance.
“You know it! Are you ready for lunch?”
“Yeah, give me two seconds to get this package processed, and we’ll head out. Halal Guy today?”
“Yeah. Did you hear about how big our bonuses are going to be this year?”
The present Mr. Finance seemed to have shrunken into himself a bit. Red-faced, he said, “Enough of this, Spirit, what are you trying to prove? We were young, just following instructions.”
“Yes, well, we have one stop more,” said the ghost, reaching for Mr. Finance’s hand.
They emerged in a more familiar looking office that Mr. Finance recognized as his own. He saw himself sitting at his desk, reading reports, when a woman walked in.
She was trembling a bit, and her smudged eye makeup betrayed some recent tears, but she stood tall and resolute before him.
“I read your email to your supervisor,” he said, brusquely. “Not really appropriate, I think.”
He held up a sheet of paper and read aloud:
“I am deeply concerned about the level of risks we are taking on, as well as how we are marketing our packaged securities to our investors. The subprime mortgages in certain tranches of our mortgage-backed securities have an average credit score of 590 and a 4.5% chance of default, yet we are treating the tranche as if it has virtually no risk.”
Looking directly at the woman, he sneered, “Are you not concerned that you are the lone voice of dissent? Do you think you know better than everyone else? You are worried about nothing.”
“I said what I needed to say,” the woman said. “I couldn’t live with myself, otherwise. We can’t market these securities like this. Our controls are a shambles.”
“You see, then, that we will have to let you go,” he said. “It is clear now that you are not a team player and do not have the company’s best interests at heart.”
“Oh, but I do,” said the woman. “And you used to feel the same. But, you worship something else, now. The good of the company and the world is no longer your interest.”
“What is it that I worship now?” he demanded.
“The Almighty Dollar. Short-term gains, heedless of the problems down the road.”
“But, everyone is out to make a buck! That’s what our system is based on. You can’t criticize me for that! And you knew that when you accepted a job here. Nothing has changed.”
“I have not changed. But you have, and we are no longer a match, as you said. So, I go, with my head held high.”
“Go then. We are better rid of you,” he said, pointing toward the door.
The woman left, and he went back to his report.
“Spirit, I can’t watch this! Take me home!” said Mr. Finance, who could hardly look at the scene before him.
“I told you I was taking you to see your own past. These are things that have been; do not blame me for them,” said the ghost.
Mr. Finance stared at the ghost, seeing in her face suddenly, flashes of the faces he had witnessed on their journey: Mr. King, the couple applying for a mortgage, Paul, the woman he had fired.
He lunged suddenly at her, “Take me home, Spirit! Leave me be!”
As he reached for the spirit, he grasped nothing, and instead fell suddenly into his own bed at home. Utterly bewildered, and overwhelmed by exhaustion, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Just as Dickens often did, I am serializing this story. Stay tuned for Blocks 3–5.
In the words of Charles Dickens,
“I [am endeavoring] in this Ghostly little [post], to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”