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The Umbrella Men

‘If these risks were so large,’ she asked, gesturing with a gloved hand towards the poster with its colourful graphics showing the speculative causes of hundreds of billions of wayward dollars, ‘how did everyone miss them?’

     Her Majesty the Queen asked the best questions. Visiting the London School of Economics to open a new building in late 2008, she turned away from a poster presentation chattily entitled ‘Managing the Credit Crunch’ and turned her attention to the assembled crowd of financial specialists. 

     In doing so the Queen voiced what millions of her subjects, who'd have to pay for the mess, had been wondering. Her audience of experts shuffled uncomfortably—prizewinning schoolboys caught unprepared by the teacher. One of them offered a mumbled answer about the global reliance on subsidiary layers of assurance. When the Queen replied—‘awful’—no one was sure if she was passing judgement on the answer, the man who gave it, the others looking sheepishly at their shoes, economists in general, the financial crisis overall, or the bankers who had caused it. She was right, though. It was awful. 

Keith Carter was born in Scotland to a Dutch mother and British father, took a First in Economics at Cambridge in 1981, and went on to work as an investment banker before starting up a pharmaceutical company. He is now a writer and business consultant, lives in East London with his daughters, and uses a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury in March 2018. He enjoys travel, politics and sailing 

The Mounts’ House, Chelsea, London, June 2006 

‘It’s like being the ringmaster of a small circus,’ Peter muttered to himself as he ploughed through his emails at 11pm. ‘A small travelling circus with a single star act. A dancing elephant or something. Petunia the Performing Pachyderm.’

     Being chief executive officer of a big company, thought Peter Mount, who was CEO of a small one, must be like being the ringmaster of Cirque du Soleil: a great show, many stars, everyone a professional, performance assured—and no animals. But here he was, hoping Petunia would divert attention from the toothless lion and the seal that kept dropping the beach ball. Was the CEO of Rio Tinto, he wondered, copied in on emails about random vandalism at his mines? Did the guy in charge at Newmont Mining have to check the arithmetic in the spreadsheets used by his finance team? Did they personally proofread legal documents and still find typos in the final versions? He didn’t think so. Rather self-servingly, Peter thought bosses of smaller companies ought to be paid more than those of big ones, protected as they were by extended teams of professionals and cosseted by supportive staff and advisors. 

     Rareterre plc, where Peter was in charge, was a small mining company, not a travelling circus. For Rareterre, the only star act—the dancing elephant—was the rare-earths mine at Trillium Lake near Mount Hood in Oregon, USA. The company was quoted on the London Stock Exchange, the Alternative Investment Market part, one of a legion of small companies that had the nerve to behave like larger ones in exchange for exposing their every move to open scrutiny. The shares in the business were tradable daily on the market. One consequence of this was that much of Peter’s time was spent dealing with the demands of the stock market—supplying shareholder information and complying with stock exchange rules on corporate governance, the perpetual nagging of implied mistrust. 

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Rareterre’s business was hunting for and extracting obscure metals in far-flung parts of the world. It was fortunate that its biggest, most promising asset was the Oregon mine. Peter had spent enough of his life in frozen deserts and flea-bitten regions of bewildering instability and rampant corruption to appreciate a location where the greatest risks were black flies and boredom. ‘We have some of the world’s most valuable empty holes in the ground!’ Frits van Steen, the Dutch-born chairman of the company, was fond of saying until someone pointed out that this might give the wrong impression. Based upon geological surveys and confirmatory drilling, the company’s shareholders were speculating that Rareterre would strike not gold but something more useful—rare earths of increasing importance in modern technology: the magnets used in motors and hard drives, the special glass in mobile phones and personal music devices, and all the ‘green tech’ used in Toyota Priuses, wind farm turbines, solar panels and giga-batteries.

     Ivy Mount had been married to Peter for 24 years, since she was 23, he 25. She was well-preserved and slim, despite her love for good food. Of average height and weight, with average brown hair and average good looks, Ivy was nonetheless a striking woman. She had the facial symmetry that is universally admired, blemish-free skin and attractively regular teeth. She was of above-average intelligence, had achieved a 2:1 in zoology from Cambridge without any great effort and had a naturally scientific mind. On leaving Cambridge and moving in with Peter, she had joined the Treasury as a statistician, where she remained, perfectly content, until she became pregnant with Harry, the first of her three children. When the French side of her family—her mother’s—expressed their surprise at her career choice, she would joke about the value of a degree in zoology when working in the British civil service. 

How can one act decently in commerce and in activism, without our actions having unforeseen and unwanted consequences? In Keith Carter’s novel of finance, exploitation, environmentalism and human frailty, a London-based mining company is buffeted by crisis-torn banking and by the far-away interventions of protestors unwittingly super-charged by Chinese interests

The truth was, Ivy was not particularly ambitious, and Harry’s arrival seemed to confirm something she always suspected: she was programmed to be a mother. Some of her friends from the Fabian Society were horrified by this treachery against years of militancy and the possibility of workplace parity with those whose biology did not support gestation. Even more horrifyingly, Ivy’s children had all gone to fee-paying alternatives to state education, more expensive each term, boarding from their early teens.

     Ivy had had plenty of opportunities for infidelity, including some surprisingly salacious approaches from some of Peter’s friends, but despite his frequent long absences, she’d remained faithful to him for all those 24 years. She was a virgin when they’d met and fallen in love, making her a rare example of a textbook Catholic, a one-man woman with little from the normally rich seam of sexual guilt to offer the priest at weekly confession. 

     What she might have confessed to, however, was her materialism. Oddly, considering her soft-left views, Ivy was an enthusiastic, free-spending, brand-name snob—a fact that quickly became evident in most social situations to everyone except herself.

     The biggest difficulty posed by Ivy’s ‘lifestyle’, as she called it, was that Peter’s income from Rareterre was not sufficient to fund it. She had inherited a modest amount of money from her parents, but this was mostly reinvested in wasting assets such as handbags, shoes, kitchen equipment and chance encounters with minor celebrities at The Ivy, which Ivy loved to frequent, for obvious reasons. ‘Not that it ever got me a discount,’ Peter grumbled. It wasn’t that Peter was badly paid, it was just that to keep pace, Ivy really needed an investment banker as a husband, not the CEO of a small mining company. 

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But there was equity—Peter’s shares in Rareterre plc. He had two and a half million of them, valued in the market at 120p each. £3 million! Ivy knew she was spending more than Peter’s salary could support, but with three million in the bank, who cared? Peter reminded her of the warnings Maggie’s government had given the public at the time of the first privatisations: ‘shares go down as well as up’, but neither of them believed for a moment that Rareterre’s would do anything but rise as the American mine came on stream. In any case, it was impossible for Peter to sell any shares, even if he wanted to; he was CEO and no one likes an insider, the insider, to express a lack of faith in the upwards trajectory of his own stock. 

     It would have been good, though, to have been able to pay back his Dad, who had lent Peter £25,000 of his hard-earned savings, accumulated through years of diligent labour in his Glasgow hardware store. ‘Do you know, lad, how many tins of Dulux Satin I have to sell to earn this much?’ Dad had asked as he handed over the cheque. Peter did not, but knew that his Dad would. And how many claw hammers, self-tapping screws, lengths of softwood floorboards. But Peter was sure of himself, certain that the deal was the chance of a lifetime. 

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That was ten years ago when, together with five other professionals, he had acquired Rareterre in what the accountant insisted on calling a ‘management buy-in’. It had been a poor neglected thing, a shadow of a company unloved within AMB, a much larger mining concern that was making all its money in more conventional minerals like gold, silver, tin and copper. Rareterre’s interest in the obscure end of the periodic table held no fascination for the mother company and its active production had ceased in 1999. AMB was still shipping small quantities of rare-earth metals but separation and processing was messy and difficult and unprofitable. But with the price was going up, Rareterre was able to derive a small but growing income stream from the sweat of previous generations of miners. 

     What really excited the investors, though, was what remained as yet unmined in Oregon. The mine at Trillium Lake still contained one of the largest known workable deposits of rare-earth metals: neodymium but also some of the more prized ‘heavy rare-earths’: terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium and ytterbium. Peter had little doubt that these would find a ready market. All he needed was a new feasibility study to confirm their concentrations and the practicability of their extraction, as well as the construction of the required upgraded infrastructure to separate the value from the dross and to concentrate it ... 

The Umbrella Men

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