Thursday, April 2, 2015

The "Saigon: Too Big To Fail" Mash-Up, Explained

What would bubble-era Wall Street look like were it dropped lock, stock and smoking barrel into the Saigon of the late 60s?

I write a series of novellas and short stories that explore the answers to this very question.  The first book in the series, titled "Saigon: Too Big To Fail," opens with the excerpt you see below.  It should tell you everything you need to know.  Except, of course, all the cool shit that happens next ...

Let’s begin by just accepting the fact that almost everything you ever heard about Saigon in the late ‘60s is wrong.
Yes, it started out as a bit of a shit hole, what with the war going on and all.  But around 1966 when a couple of geniuses from JPMorgan came up with the idea of securitizing Vietnamese real estate debt, packaging it amongst otherwise investment-grade products, then selling it like glassine packets of crack in the south Bronx … well, let’s just say the lid blew off the top of Vietnam.  
Saigon was the center of it, but the quantities of money flowing through all of French Indochina defied description.  Hue, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Mandalay and Hong Kong blew up too.  Hell, even Hanoi was exploding, although not quite in the way Washington wanted.  The war, by and large, was squeezed to the perimeter of the major cities by just what you'd imagine—irresistible amounts of cash.  Once the big banks moved in, with their ugly glass towers rising tens of stories above the French Colonial architecture that made Saigon such a beauty, the war moved out. 
Before long the bankers weren’t even bothering to hide the bad stuff.  So long as they could get a triple-A rating it didn’t matter.  They were selling it so fast there wasn’t time.  Wall Street quickly became a backwater.  Likewise London.  The place to make your fortune had become the dozen or so square blocks of Saigon just west of the Imperial Palace called the Banking District. 
Restaurants sprang up across the city.  Tu Do Street, possibly the sleaziest boulevard in all of Vietnam, turned into a cross between Madison Avenue and Carnaby Street.  Brooks Brothers arrived.  As did Paul Stuart, right across the street.  Van Cleef & Arpels.  La Perla.  A glossy Apple store.  Leo Castelli opened a huge gallery and was instrumental in moving Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ from its storage place in upstate New York to the middle of Ton Som Square, where it pissed off the Vietnamese almost as much as it had annoyed New Yorkers when it was in Federal Plaza.  
Crappy apartments were suddenly worth millions.  Vogue Magazine opened an editorial office in ’67 and within six months more beautiful women than you could imagine walked the streets, shaded from the sun by parasols, making faces at the pig carcasses hanging in the butchers’ windows.  
And yes, sometimes the war intruded.  The odd monk might set himself on fire.  A woman in black pajamas might walk into a Citibank branch, say in perfect English, “I’d like to make a deposit,” and blow the entire building to hell and gone.  Donald Trump made a big fuss about how he was going to be the first man to build a residential skyscraper in Indochina until a bomb blew up under his car one night while he was dining at La Caravelle.  He was unhurt but left the region shortly thereafter. Quick to take credit for the bomb were the CIA, the Viet Cong, Pol Pot, the North Vietnamese, the Treasury Department, the Chinese, and some crackpot Green Beret-gone-bad named Willard.   
Companies like Blackwater made millions providing quasi-military services to the banking industry until the banks caught on and realized it was more cost-effective to train their own special-ops people.  By the late 60s, the combined military forces of the three biggest banks – Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and PierceMcKinley/Rothschild – comprised the ninth largest standing army in the world. 
At a certain point it became clear to the regulatory agencies – first the SEC, then the others – that they too would need strategic weaponized capabilities to maintain a vigorous enforcement presence in Saigon.  The initial fruit of this thinking were the SEC Enforcement Teams.  Captain J.E.B. Stuart III, great, great, great nephew of the famous Civil War cavalry officer, leads ET Chancellorsville.  He is, for lack of a better word, the hero of these stories.

My Amazon author's page is here.  Buy as many as you like -- they're digital!

Cue The Jefferson Airplane ...

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