THIEVES OF BAY STREET
How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from CanadiansBruce Livesy
Random House Canada, 320 pp.
Veteran business journalist Bruce Livesey had an admirable goal in writing his latest book: Thieves of Bay Street; How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians — that is, bringing to light the injustices of the financial system.
From 2008 on, as the world reeled from the recession brought on by the credit crisis in the U.S., Livesey began to realize that, “all the problems that were plaguing Wall Street were as true in Canada, and were in some cases worse, and that the perception in Canada was that we were somehow better and different.”
Canadians have indeed enjoyed international praise for our financial prudence while the rest of the world’s banking systems floundered. Our regulation had been wiser, and now we were one of the few countries whose banks were unscathed while financial giants to the south and in Europe went begging.
Livesey says that image is a scam; we’re no less greedy or short-sighted as the rest. We just covered it up well. Also, “Canadians don’t seem to care.”
For the most part he’s right about Canadians not caring. Which is a challenge for his book because, as he himself admits, the subject matter is dense, specialized, unfamiliar to most — boring.
Writing a page-turner about finance law for the laymen is a rare gift. In fact, there are so few who understand it that Livesey says even courts are forced to ignore likely crimes because their prosecutors don’t understand the subject matter.
He makes an earnest attempt to catch his readers’ interest. After all, this is important. The result, unfortunately, is still haunted by the fact that finance is dull. Arguably more people have at least a novice comprehension of the matter than ever before, thanks to the public’s demand to know why hundreds of billions of tax dollars were being donated to banks while those same banks were seizing millions of houses. And, of course, we had the Occupy Movement demanding an explanation as to why we make less money than our parents did at our age.
Today, more (but perhaps still not many) people have a rough understanding of the international mortgage market, of derivatives and hedge funds. Still boring though.
Livesey’s Thieves begins with a jumpy introduction. It’s difficult to see where he’s going with all this information. He has become so engrossed by the evidence that Canadians can steal with the best of them that he has trouble holding anything back, resulting in information overload.
Yet, after a while the book finds its footing. He stays away from paralyzing jargon as often as he can, introducing every major crime through its players — detailing what kind of people they were and what the business was meant to be before it went sideways.
They are stories that should be more widely-known: how Hollinger executives elected to pay themselves 95 per cent of the company’s earnings; how Nortel stocks lost 99 per cent of their value soon after its explosive success; and how the federal government refused to let RIM bid on Nortel’s assets in the resulting fire sale.
It’s not a book for the uninitiated, but one that should get more attention than it will. Likely, a few readers will become just as outraged as Livesey — the Bay Street bankers crimes juxtaposed against the general public’s apathy drives him nuts.
“We don’t put the rich in jail in this country. Let’s just face it. We don’t. Our rich can rape and pillage and we don’t put them in jail,” he says.
“You develop a very jaundiced view of the Canadian establishment,” he says of discovering the truth. “Not only do they get away with it, but nobody seems to care.”