Sunday, August 3, 2008

...and the rich get richer

It's been one of those weeks when I start to think I'd be better off not reading or watching the news.

First we've had Winston Peters blustering about the sins of the media because he is clearly unable to give anyone a straight answer about party donations from rich businessmen (possibly a few women too, but that seems unlikely - contrary to popular wisdom, it's elderly gents, not elderly ladies, who flock most eagerly to dear Winston's banner, and how many women, even now, can afford to regard $25,000 as loose change?).

Then yet another finance company turned out to be in trouble, putting hundreds more ordinary people's hard-earned savings at risk. This time it was Hanover, the one that employed Richard Long to convey reliability and security.

He says he has money in it himself, he thought long and hard about doing that job, and he would hate to think anyone invested in it because of him. For heaven's sake, Richard, why do you think they employed you? You can't be that naive.

To make things worse, Hanover was allowed to sponsor the weather on TVOne, making it look even more mainstream and dependable. Yes, I know taking any notice of such transparent ploys is an idiotic way to choose investments. But that's exactly what people do, of course. Which is why advertising geniuses continue to do it.

I bet very few of those who invested had actually realised that this ever-so-solid-sounding company was actually set up and owned mainly by Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin, or that some of its loans seem to have been to projects or entities with which they appear to have been closely connected.

Not that the boys will suffer if Hanover does go down the tubes. Hotchin is continuing to build his $30 million mansion in Paritai Drive (seven bedroooms, gym, and a carwash, natch). Watson lives in London. As the Sunday Star-Times pointed out, they could afford to fork out $50 million each to cover investors' funds and not actually miss it. But the chances of them doing that are somewhat less than the chances of Winston having a change of heart, fessing up and apologising.

And no, in case you're wondering, I don't have any money in Hanover. But I do have money in Kiwisaver. As one financial guru said recently, those who can afford to join Kiwisaver, but haven't, obviously don't understand it. Where else can you get the equivalent of 100 percent interest?

But where is the lovely new pool of Kiwisaver money going? Has any of it gone to companies like Hanover? Is it just a big fat subsidy to financial institutions?

My extremely modest Kiwisaver fund is held by a major bank, and is supposed to be the lowest possible risk. I had the puzzling experience the other day of getting a notice which told me that whatever it had earned in its first few months, it had failed to cover costs.

But not to worry - the bank would simply deduct some "units" to meet the shortfall. I worked out that my money, plus the government's money, must have "earned" pretty much less than nothing to make this happen.

Of course I wasn't actually paying for this sleight of hand - the government was. And I gather that anyone who chose a high-growth (i.e. high-risk) Kiwisaver option has already seen a much larger chunk of it disappear.

(If you were thinking of writing in to point out earnestly that higher risk funds will do better in the long run, don't bother. As Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.)

As the last few months have shown, for all but the select few who really know what they're doing, trying to take care of your future by saving is an extremely risky business in New Zealand. No wonder so many people go for property instead - except that right now, that's tanking too.

So I hope Mark's tacky mansion turns out to be a completely unsaleable white elephant. And with any luck, Eric's current squeeze will turn out to be a clone of the discarded Nicky Watson.

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