DIARY OF A CRASH TEST DUMMY

Looking back at my late thirties, I feel like a crash test dummy – with a knack for fixing and running businesses in markets that had crashed and burned.

First there was the equities business in Asia during the Asia Financial Crisis. Then there was the Wall Street investment bank at the tail end of the dotcom boom. Then there was the global technology sector in the aftermath of the dotcom crash.

My last blog, The Year of Living Dangerously, chronicled Asia’s near-implosion in 1997-98. Meanwhile, in a surreal parallel universe, the dotcom bubble was forming in the US and Europe. This blog juxtaposes the timelines of these two vastly different worlds.

1995-6

We moved to live in Hong Kong just as the Asia boom was in full swing and the technology boom was stirring in the US. Amazon was launched. Yahoo went through its IPO, resulting in its shares nearly tripling. Happy days for everyone (unless you worked for Barings, which Nick Leeson did a creditable job of torching in 1995…)

1997

The music abruptly stopped as I transferred in to run ABN AMRO Asia, a regional equities business. Almost on cue, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea called in the IMF. Most definitely a crisis.

Meanwhile, back on Wall Street, Amazon completed its IPO. The dotcom beast was beginning to stir. Crisis? What Crisis?

1998

Asia’s largest private investment bank failed, more than 1,000 people died in rioting across Jakarta, Russia called in the IMF, G-7 ministers created a rescue plan for Brazil and Long Term Capital Management was bailed out as 80 million Indonesians dropped below the poverty line. You get the picture – it was pretty grim in this neck of the woods. My office was nothing short of a Situation Room.

Meanwhile in another dimension, the First Tuesday Club held its first meeting for Internet entrepreneurs in London. In the US Pets.com commenced operations and eBay launched its IPO. Books-a-Million’s stock price soared by over 1000% in one week simply for announcing an updated website. AOL announced plans to buy Netscape for $4.21bn.

So let’s get this straight…millions of people had lost everything in Asia, yet the dotcom circus was well underway elsewhere. Crisis – what crisis?

1999

Asia’s turmoil and austerity programmes continued. A devastating earthquake struck central Taiwan with more than 2,000 deaths. The Euro was launched. Alan Greenspan warned senior citizens against investing in dotcoms.

Meanwhile, Yahoo bought GeoCities for $3.57 billion (it subsequently closed GeoCities in 2009). Amazon founder Jeff Bezos reached No. 19 in the Forbes Global Rich List. UK PM Tony Blair urged companies to exploit ecommerce or risk going broke. The CEO of Andersen Consulting resigned to run Webvan, which launched its IPO. Boo.com launched a global online fashion site. The FTSE hit an all-time high of 6,930. Heady times if you weren’t in Asia.

2000

I was sent to New York to try to fix our investment bank which was losing money at an alarming rate. Meanwhile a terrorist bomb hit the Jakarta Stock Exchange building killing 15 people, including one of our employees.

The Dow hit an all-time high. AOL and Time Warner announced their merger. Several dotcoms each paid up to $3m for Super Bowl advertising slots. The NASDAQ hit an all-time closing high of 5,048. Lastminute.com floated on the London Stock Exchange. Barron’s stated that “America’s 371 public Internet stocks are collectively valued at $1.3 trillion, or 8% of the entire U.S. stock market”. The bell had clearly rung.

The dotcom crash soon followed. Boo.com went broke after spending $188 million in six months. An Amazon shareholder sued Mary Meeker for “over-bullishness” but lost the case. The NASDAQ was smashed down to 1,423 and the NYSE fell to 8,235. Pets.com, Garden.com, Webvan.com, Furniture.com and hundreds of US dotcoms failed, laying off around 20,000 disappointed digital pioneers. Henry Blodget, the super-bullish analyst, resigned.

The irony of it all.

I’m not looking for deep meaning in all this. Life can be pretty strange. People can be making millions in one place while others are losing it half way around the world – or even next door. Capital flows to where the profits are.

As a crash test dummy that’s seen more miles than most, it’s clear to me that the next big crash is always just around the corner. Don’t worry too much about it – life goes on – but make sure you have a good back-up plan. Because you’re going to have to weather a storm or two along the way.

Sources: BBC News dotcom timeline and PBS Frontline

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