These days, Vesco the fugitive fraudster would have had a top job on Wall Street
So farewell, Robert Vesco, the fraudster, drug trafficker and fugitive from US justice whose death last year has been ‘confirmed by Cuban burial records’, according to the Daily Telegraph. Vesco absconded with $200 million of other people’s money — $60 million of it in banknotes in his excess baggage on a commercial flight — after looting Investor Overseas Services, the mutual-funds empire created but recklessly mismanaged by Bernie Cornfeld. Welcomed as a white knight when he gained control of IOS in 1970, Vesco proceeded to steal most of its remaining assets by selling them to fictitious companies as fast as he could print imaginative new letterheads. He referred to one of these companies as LPI — explaining, when asked, that it stood for Looting and Plundering International.
Vesco’s yacht, the 137ft Patricia III — which he arranged to have spirited away from US Customs in Florida after it had been confiscated — became a familiar sight in Caribbean havens where his money bought him protection. He settled in Cuba to become ‘de facto minister of corruption’, as one US politician described him, but eventually the Castro regime turned against him and jailed him for his part in a cancer-cure scam in which one of his partners was Richard Nixon’s brother Donald. The moustachioed Errol Flynn lookalike of the 1970s was a dishevelled figure by the time of his trial in 1995, but still it’s tempting to say they don’t make rogues like Vesco any more. The trouble is that they probably do, and his ilk today are not holed up in Havana but holding down senior jobs on Wall Street.
The principal of a famous seat of learning draws my attention to a speech by John Denham, secretary of state for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England conference at Warwick University last month. It was devoted to Labour’s target of university education for 50 per cent of all young people. ‘To succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy, we must unlock the talents of all our people,’ he declaimed. But my informant points out that the minister did not once mention the importance of achieving standards of excellence that might truly enable our colleges and universities, and ultimately our economy, to be globally competitive. Nor did he mention other possible ways of unlocking talent — through trade apprenticeships, armed-services training or business start-up schemes, for example — rather than consigning recalcitrant teenagers to ‘uni’, where they load themselves with debt while coasting through courses that offer neither life-skills nor career prospects. The 50 per cent policy is, at bottom, a mix of class warfare and vote-buying: Denham quoted a survey suggesting that 91 per cent of parents and grandparents want their children to go to university, which he calls ‘a fair deal for their kids’. So never mind the excellence, feel the width of the intake. The speech reminded me of what James Delingpole said in How To Be Right: ‘It’s easy to tell whether or not someone has had an education. If they have, they call it university; if they haven’t they call it “uni”.’
Another asset Robert Vesco managed to take into exile with him was the Boeing 707 he had fitted out with a sauna and a discotheque. If it’s serviceable, it could still command a decent price. An American friend of mine who makes her living designing interiors for refurbished private jets tells me the bottom has by no means fallen out of that market despite current financial mayhem. Quite the reverse, in fact: demand for new private jets is so strong that would-be owners are frustrated by the waiting lists. So the smart guy buys a ‘pre-owned’ Gulfstream for $15 million and spends a couple of million more having it customised — a stylish bargain at half the price of a new model. As I always say loudly when picking a secondhand suit off the rack in Help the Aged, it’s so much easier than waiting for a new one from my man in Savile Row.
That last item is an example of my current policy of scouring the horizon for reasons to be cheerful as the economic news gets worse — which it does by the day, particularly on the inflation front. So here’s a few more, rather loosely strung together.
A recent event that made me smile was the Bull and Bear Banquet in Canary Wharf, where I met a bunch of Russians who were enjoying their new wealth so unashamedly you just had to like them: I particularly warmed to Igor, who turned out to be Moscow’s biggest Ford and Hyundai dealer, and his PR lady, a dead ringer for the young Kim Basinger. One thing that pleased them about their visit to London, I gathered, was the discovery that the creepy, cold-fish autocrat who runs their own country has a far stronger economic grip than the one who runs ours.
They’re not wrong, but if we’re in for a grim couple of years as Brown’s government sinks under a tide of rising prices, repossessions and bankruptcies, then (according to my policy) we should at least take stock of the good things left behind by the boom years — such as the City architecture of this decade, which will stand the test of time far better than so much that went before. Take Paternoster Square, beside St Paul’s Cathedral: an elegant, human-scale development that respects its setting and obliterates all trace of its brutal 1960s predecessor. Then again — you may think I’ve packed enough cheerfulness into this column already, but I’ve just read about huge price rises from British Gas, so I’d better keep going — I would also argue that the boom years have opened up amazing choices for young people, despite my snootiness about ‘uni’. This thought occurred over cocktails at the Ritz to celebrate a glamorous goddaughter’s 18th birthday: I thought, how marvellous to be launching into adult life now, compared to the dismal depth of the Heath era as it was for me, or much worse, the middle of a world war as it was for my parents’ generation.
Finally, let’s remember the saying that a downturn or a recession is often a good time to start a new business — or even a new magazine. If the first issue of Spectator Business hasn’t come your way yet, call Axis Media on 0141 335 9062 for an introductory subscription, another stylish bargain at only £18.