Art Kavanagh

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Harry Bingham, The Money Makers review

I was given an ebook edition of this novel in return for signing up for Harry Bingham's mailing list. It was Bingham's first published novel and the paperback came out in 2000. Bingham has written several books since, including the Fiona Griffiths series.

The plot setup of the The Money Makers is frankly contrived but that's not really a flaw: three brothers are challenged by their father's will to earn £1 million within three years. At the end of that period, the one with the most money (provided it's more than £1 million) will get the bulk of the estate apart from a few small legacies. If none of the brothers reaches the threshold amount, the residuary estate will go to charity.

The brothers react in quite different ways. One resorts to insider trading (repeatedly, even after learning what a bad idea it is — such is the lure of easy money). Another buys a manufacturing business on the brink of succumbing to its disproportionate debt. The most interesting of the brothers is Zack, the former philosopher turned trainee accountant. He has a photographic memory, phenomenal attention to detail, a willingness to spend very long hours on the most tedious work imaginable and no moral qualms whatsoever. He drugs his girlfriend's fiancé and sets him up to look like a sex pest, he spikes an alcoholic's orange juice with vodka, leading to a life threatening binge and lies easily to the influential men who have helped to advance his career. All without entirely losing the reader's sympathy!

In one sense, the book is strikingly prescient. Zack takes credit for a scheme, largely devised by the alcoholic tax partner, which uses tax avoidance to lessen the risk on speculative investments. This device works only in markets like Hong Kong, where tax avoidance has not been a big problem because the tax rate is low to start with. In countries with more developed anti-avoidance strategies, it wouldn't have achieved its aim.

The world had an opportunity in 2007/8 to learn the important lesson that devices designed to minimize risk can be turned on their heads and used to multiply it (and the consequent profit). At that time, the device in question was the collateralized debt obligation (CDO). In Zack's case, the mechanism is entirely different but the lesson is essentially the same: the ability of greedy people using sophisticated, barely understood techniques to take big risks with other people's money needs to be tightly regulated but it almost never is when it counts.

This is a fairly long book (the paperback edition ran to about 650 pages, according to Amazon) but it's a difficult one to put down. I read it over two days, the last two-thirds on the second day competing successfully with more pressing obligations. Although many of the characters move in the intersecting (and esoteric) worlds of banking, finance and big business, they are well delineated and clearly distinguishable. A book which seems to be out of print in paperback and which is available only as a freebie on the author's mailing list might not normally seem worth a review, but this is a very impressive performance. I'll certainly be checking out the author's (reportedly very different) Fiona Griffiths series. [Update: I’ve since reviewed the first Fiona Griffiths novel.]

Originally posted on Goodreads 15-Jan-2017.