Fall of Britain's Flamboyant Financiers Fuels a Debate About Greed

The London house of financial baron Robert Bonnier has been repossessed and put on the market for $18 million.
The London house of financial baron Robert Bonnier has been repossessed and put on the market for $18 million. (By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 29, 2008

LONDON -- Ilchester Place screams wealth, from the towering brick townhouses to the Rolls-Royce and Bentley parked next to lovely stone curbs.

But it also whispers financial disaster, with the discreet little "For Sale" sign in the window of No. 8 and the unclipped hedges outside.

That three-story, six-bedroom house, on the market for $18 million in a bank repossession sale, has emerged as a symbol of how the global financial crisis is hitting Britain, and of what many see as its cause: the raw, unchecked greed of financial barons.

"The working man like me is paying for it," said Jason Moy, 37, who sells flowers around the corner on Kensington High Street. "I can't get a mortgage; I'm really quite annoyed."

The Ilchester Place house was recently repossessed by Barclays Bank from Robert Bonnier, a flamboyant London financier. Once fined more than $500,000 by regulators for improperly manipulating the stock market and now sought by creditors who say he owes millions, Bonnier has become an unwitting example in a national debate about the point at which success becomes greed.

While U.S. political leaders review a bailout package to try to save the American Dream, Britain has been spared pain of that intensity. Still, growth is down, interest rates and unemployment are rising, and houses are being repossessed at rates not seen since a recession in the early 1990s. This month a huge mortgage lender had to be rescued.

So from the pulpit to the pub, from housing developments to the Houses of Parliament, people here are arguing about how much to rein in traders in one of the world's leading financial centers. They are weighing the need for a robust free market with the desire to keep the excesses of daredevil traders from costing working-class people their homes and futures.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a temporary ban on short selling, or betting that a stock's price will fall. He also plans to send Parliament a bill calling for as-yet-unspecified measures to tighten regulation of financial markets within two weeks.

A decade ago, Peter Mandelson, a top official in the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, famously quipped: "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich."

It was a sign of prosperous times.

Last week, the two most senior leaders of the Church of England weighed in with stinging critiques of a financial culture they said had enriched a minority at the expense of society.

In a speech to a bankers group Wednesday, John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, said: "We find ourselves in a market system which seems to have taken its rules of trade from 'Alice in Wonderland.' " He referred to traders who profit from the losses of others as "bank robbers and asset strippers."

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