Thursday, 26 May 2011

NOT PJ: High-Altitude Finance

_BernardDarntonThis week, Bernard Darnton is outwitted by an urchin.

Oxygen deprivation can make you stupid, and stupidity can be expensive. I found this out (like I didn’t already know it) on the walk back down from the Perfume Pagoda in Hanoi. On the way up I had somehow acquired a guide. He was a boy carrying a chilly-bin the same size as himself full of soft drinks. He told me that when we got to the pagoda at the top of the mountain I would be hot and thirsty and he would sell me a drink. “Very expensive,” he said, grinning.

Oh, you little third-world scamp, I thought, your honesty is endearing but I’m wise to your game. True enough: at the top I was hot and thirsty, achingly tired, and my vision was a little blurry as I fought for air. He sold me a drink. It was quite pricey. But I thought the little tyke had earned it. He really had earned it. He was a very good guide; he was knowledgeable, he showed me round the site, and his English was excellent.

UrchinOn the way back down I complimented him on his English and he told me that he went to a good English school. Sadly, he was going to have to stop his lessons because they cost fifty-five US dollars a month. He paused and then it occurred to him - perhaps I could pay for a month’s lessons. I’d been thinking he deserved a decent gratuity but in a dollar-a-day economy like Vietnam’s $55 would have been a stupendous tip. “How about twenty-five,” I countered. My mouth was out the door running before my brain had even put its shoes on. Two dollars is what my brain suggested when it eventually sputtered into life but by that time my guide had evaporated, carrying a month’s wages.

Back at the bottom of the track, fed, rehydrated, and with oxygen saturation back up to normal levels, one of the others in my group asked sheepishly, “Did anything weird happen to any of you guys up there?”
Some visitors hate Hanoi because of the petty scamming. Usually it’s just for a dollar or two - the taxi ride that goes round in circles, the rickshaw tour to nowhere, the street corner currency trade that doesn’t quite add up - but it’s constant.

I didn’t hate it. I was charmed by its scallywaggery. I wasn’t going to let a couple of dollars ruin a trip that cost thousands. And the little buggers always smile when they’re ripping you off.

WhimpSomeone else who always smiles when he’s ripping you off is low-ball share buyer Bernard Whimp but he’s far less likely to leave you feeling charmed, and far more likely to walk off with a lifetime’s earnings.

Whimp sends out letters making unsolicited offers for shares at a fraction of their market value. An unending supply of people who have neither any idea what their shares are worth nor the wit to find out willingly make the trade.

There seems to be a steady parade of people who have somehow acquired chunks of Fletcher Building or Contact Energy but have no idea what the share market is. These people provide the fodder for Whimp’s schemes.

His activities have led to run-ins with the Securities Commission and the brand new Financial Markets Authority and a date at the High Court. What I can’t work out is why it’s any of the government’s business. If someone like this offers to buy your shares for far less than they’re worth the correct answer is, “Piss off,” not “Yes - thanks for the cash - but why, oh, why won’t the government do something about me being so stupid?”

We don’t need laws to stop people like Bernard Whimp. Trading with him is voluntary. If you have no idea what your shares are worth, you’re probably better off with the cash. At the very least, take a deep breath and make sure there’s some oxygen getting to your brain before signing the form. Caveat venditor.

Looking back, that experience outside the cotton-wool of Western consumer protection laws was probably the best value education I ever got. For a few dollars I got a crash course in how not to be a gullible moron. In the same way that being innoculated with live virus keeps you safer than living in an antiseptic bubble, three days in Hanoi prepares you for the world far better than a lifetime of being told that the government will protect you from your own idiocy.

Bernard Darnton writes every week at NOT PC, in between writing letters of refusal to low-ball low-lifes.


  1. It's not "scallywaggery" or "petter scamming".

    It's called commerce, pure and simple. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this whatsoever.

    The idea that you're being "ripped off" is borderline communist.

    Once again, it just goes to show that the "communist" countries like Vietnam & China are far more free than "capitalist" countries like the US - and so much more so than countries that are communist in fact, like NZ.

    Communism ruined generations in the USSR; and when communism finished, whole generations were just thrown onto the scrapheap - they simply couldn't cope with freedom.

    The absolutely necessary reforms in NZ will have exactly the same effect - if anything Whimp should be commended for accelerating NZ's necessary economic corrections as communism finally bankrupts the country and leaves freedom as the only alternative.

  2. Anonymous: I don't share your belief that duping the slow and the witless or trying to unbalance and confuse the people you trade with is somehow noble.

    The point is simply that most consumer protection legislation is counter-productive because it encourages gullibility.

  3. Four days in Hanoi also teaches you what bloody awful drivers we have in NZ, when they can drive along a wide flat virtually deserted road and still manage to pay so little attention that they crash into something.

  4. How did you like Vietnam? The memsahib and I are going to Saigon/HCM in early September. Sadly only for a week (its a free side-trip courtesy of Singapore Airlines from Singapore).

  5. Vietnam was fantastic. I preferred Hanoi to Saigon but Saigon's a good base to get out to Cu Chi or the Mekong Delta.

    It's been ten years since I was there and I've no idea how much has changed since then but I have no doubt you'll enjoy it.


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