Travelling is not without its scams or con artists. Many are annoying, few are funny, and some have that genius entrepreneurial spirit that makes you want to shake their hand, if they hadn’t just bitten yours off with their gnarling teeth.
For all their fraud and deception, I kind of admire their creativity, their drive to constantly reinvent themselves and their stories, to adapt to new technologies and still play on old fears and stereotypes. But this admiration stops at the ordinary “down and out” garden varietals, not the ones that put their perpetrators in political office or on the board of pension funds. Not entrepreneurial. Not funny.
So when I came across an advert for “the greatest opportunity in the history of mankind” (to become an amateur financial trader essentially) I knew I had to book myself into the evening seminar and see if I could get taken for a ride.
This is my experience….
It’s not a church, these aren’t religious folk and 7pm is an ungodly hour to meet on a work night anyway. We should all be at the gym. But like obedient flock we put on the nametags provided, file into the rows of chairs and keep our heads bowed low, for shame of recognition, not reverence, I suspect. Whatever the many paths that led us here, the intention is all the same – we all want to believe, nay need to believe, that there is a saviour out there who will help the meek inherit the earth, or at least inherit its earthly possessions. Such is the power and pull of the God of money.
Tonight’s pitch is clearly geared towards an economically depressed market. The smaller venue, in a respected hotel in the Cape Town CBD, seems carefully selected for the “overwhelming response” it creates. This “overwhelming” (but probably not unexpected) response sends the pitch team into over-animated action, locating “extra” chairs and asking people to kindly make more space for the late comers who are presumably making their way across town and through traffic jams just to be here for this “one night only” seminar so “let’s give them a few more minutes shall we?”
A few years ago most of these SARS fearing folk wouldn’t have let the subject line “Earn 100K+ as a Private Financial Trader” enter their mailbox, let alone their schedules. But it’s a different world and these are desperate times. It’s the kind of dark days that shine a favourable light on loan sharks and make legitimate pharmacists of Dr Mugabe and his miracle herbs.
The audience tonight is everyone’s neighbour and work colleague; the cross section of middle South Africa – beanies, headscarves and cheap haircuts. “Just a few more minutes folks and then we’ll begin”. I casually count the 100-odd heads, before the lights dim and our future guru/leader/God is projected onto the screen in all its amplified glory. The opening video is good. It’s short and to the point. These guys know how to set a scene without labouring a point. “Get ready because what you are about to learn may just change your life.” Nice. Strong. Although what’s with the word “may”? The fallout from a pending lawsuit perhaps? Still, a good dramatic opening that quickly flows into visuals depicting “the crisis”, which is played out as a living purgatory of insecure investments, bad bonds and collapsing economies. They don’t have to spell it out; it’s already part of our volatile-Rand psyche. Enter the saviour character. Ironically, he’s one of “them” – a guy in a suit but, here’s the difference, he’s relaxed and casual. No pinstripes, no American psycho smile. The suit puts him in the game (which is where you want him to be) but the unbuttoned shirt and leather loafers peg him as an outsider, a modern day Robin Hood who will use the system for the benefit of many, not the few.
A change in music signals a change in mood. We are now heading for optimistic and upbeat. On the screen, the saviour is walking through the metaphorical rubble of the collapsed global economy, waxing philosophically in the Jonny Walker style made famous by Robert Carlyle. Nice touch. As we switch between the reflective mid shots and poignant close ups we start really digesting the phrases he is offering up, or rather prophesying: “prosperity you deserve”, “financial freedom”. I think he might have stolen the “create a better tomorrow” from Absa, but it still works.
And then, as if to widen the net to catch the few who might actually still be financially viable in the room, the video ends with the obligatory lifestyle images – some relaxed looking Joe Extraordinary with a tan as dark as his smile is bright working on the beach with his laptop. (Won’t that sand and ocean mist ruin his computer?)
Music down, house lights up and queue the plain Pete waiting in the wings. You can see him almost breathing the part of the loyal prophet into every cell of his being. He’s not flash and he’s a Brit – just the kind of conservative combination South African audiences would trust their money to. As expected plain Pete knows our pain and suffering. He was in a similar situation – broke, no prospects and a family to support. He acknowledges the nods and sighs of support. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that plain Pete’s sad tale played out in a first world country with welfare support. Not so plain and simple then. His story is peppered with personal anecdotes. I personally like the one where he and his wife were attending “this very same seminar” and didn’t even have the money to pay for parking. He touches hearts, but not our wallets. It’s time to take it up a notch. In the next 60 minutes Andy transforms himself from one-time loser into pragmatic businessman.
He casually mentions the cost of the course – R 45 000 –like an accountant breaking the news to you that you have cancer. It’s out there, it’s a reality but don’t dwell on it just yet. I’m sure there is a cure down the line. Back to the business of addressing what he terms our “healthy cynicism”. He tackles all the major fears – high risk, big capital outlay, volatile markets – head on, proving time and time again that Forex is not risky like say share trading and with the right tools and support, even plain Petes can live out their dreams. (His being to fly his own helicopter. He took us through the picture story). And then he gives us the phrase that turns every slumped shoulder straight – “Recession Proof”. Silence. He quickly follows this whopper up with “the largest market in the world”, “virtually risk free”, and ends with “open 24 hours a day”. You can see the audience already shopping their future profits away, Enron style. To be honest, he had us at “foreign currency.” (Dollars, Pounds, Yen anyone?)
And then it came – the golden rule – the one that ends up costing its weight in gold.
“There is no room in trading for emotion”.
These emotions, it seems, are the amateur’s tool belt; they break more lives than they fix debt. That’s why we, the amateurs, need their expertise and predictive models and, ultimately, their über expensive two-day, once-off, exclusive-and-intensive training course. Presumably it’s able to suck all human emotion out of you and turn you into a cold, calculating moneymaking machine. We hope so. Of course you could buy their DVD sets, which cost so much individually but will kindly be given to you on the training course, but let’s face it, your emotions can’t be trusted to use the information properly. It would be like setting Oprah on the trading world. There would be tears.
Being a back-wall observer, I get to watch the registration table in front of me transform into the trading floor, while Andy sets up his winning line – “Usually this course costs R45 000 but tonight, and only tonight, we are going to offer 11 places at the once-off price of R18 000.” Bargain. It’s the classic “you have to spend to save” speech that all women tell themselves when the sales are on and their sensibility radars are off.
Seeing the throngs of people hovering at the back table, grouping around the 11 forms like the music was about to stop and they would end up on their asses, again, I have to laugh at the obvious irony. Fear and greed are already getting the best of us. We can’t see the opportunity for the opportunists; the facts for the diction. You just know that some of us will make a purchase we can’t refuse and they won’t refund. Can’t say they didn’t warn us.