Last week I had a lunch date. This is not something I get to have much these days. One of my postgraduate students, Crispin McDonal, contacted me through my university. I knew he’d done rather well in the City but I had lost touch with him. So I felt a little flattered by the invitation to lunch and recalled how Crispin had been quite a darling. I picked out a dress that was probably a questionable choice; I don’t know what I was thinking.
His office was across the way from rather a swish restaurant called Nobed in Old Park Lane (Thomas informed me later that this was a haunt of celebrities – he follows that sort of thing). Crispin was welcomed enthusiastically by the headwaiter and was ushered to his usual spot.
I was naturally eager to find out a little more about any significant events in Crispin’s life since I last saw him but it was difficult to get beyond his ebullience about, well… money and his exploits in money. Much of it was making the prospect of the next hour across a dining table from him quite heart sinking.
“… so we put in place an options strangle on Skinning Logistics as it was so obvious the sheep were complacent and volatility would explode. When they announced bad results, farm animals stampeded and I’m sitting on a massive profit from my put options – sweet yeah,” he declared as we took our seats, completing a stream of consciousness I had lost track of five minutes after we left his office.
Still I was impressed with his talk of back-door access to Trump’s team, financing from mega-rich Russian oligarchs and advising Chinese developers. And he was looking forward to Harry and Meghan’s wedding – yes, he knew Prince Andrew well.
Crispin, who was always a bit of a porker, ate almost as much as he talked. He mentioned playing polo. I shuddered to think of the poor pony.
After an age he allowed the conversation to edge away from himself. He asked where I was living and I explained. His face lit up and he asked how we found Ash Court. I rambled through its attractions and attributes. He seemed genuinely engaged.
But with a jolt we were back on all about Crispin. Off he went on his investment strategy in retirement homes (not only did he eat all the pies he seemed have fingers in all sorts of them). Suddenly we were talking about behavioural economics. He declared a “fascination” in the work of Kahneman. Suddenly I was interested.
“You know it never fails to amaaaaaze me the apparent commmm-plete abandonment of rational choice when people buy a home – even, no especially, the peasants who should be more bloody careful with their pittance. We’re not talking bounded rationality here – it’s trussed up Haaaaaaaaha!” I assumed, at the time, present company was excepted.
He went on: “But it’s not just the buyers. Sellers are so crap at framing the options: ‘There it is – 500k, or two grand a month or whatever – take it or leave it.’ There’s no anchor, there’s no working in the prospect. You know I have a thing… once you get a punter sucked in there’s almost a perceived sunk cost fallacy at play…”
It made for a marginally more stimulating dialogue although his lack of rigour offended my academic instincts. He explained how his strategy was based on extensive study of the “cognitive biases” to which the elderly were particularly prone.
Then it became sinister.
His first big idea was about downsizing. He had discovered that old people who were downsizing tended to overpay for apartments as they saw them as cheap compared to their current house: “You see that’s the anchoring effect,” he explained helpfully. He has even advising government that downsizing is the answer to the housing crisis given it clears space for the young.
He declared with delight that: “Once the old dears are ensconced in their apartments, they rarely complain about anything – they’re old school of course.” Then he illustrated his point in a quivering, old woman voice: “Don’t want to be a burden you know.” The progeny, he snorted, were very keen to believe that their parents were doing fine and the parents were equally keen not to disabuse them.
A good manager, he said, keeps the maintenance costs to a minimum while he ramps up management charges without a peep from the residents. He almost burst with pride as he described the huge returns possible with the right gearing.
As he brayed, Ash Court started to tarnish.
Just as my disillusionment peaked, a delicious desert saved the day – a perfect sphere of chocolate patisserie. What I hadn’t been told was that it had a liquid chocolate centre. It exploded all over my best dress as I bit into it. This was the dress that I had had dry cleaned specially for the occasion. Crispin came to my rescue with his napkin but I wasn’t keen on the prospect of him pawing my décolletage so I retreated to the ladies’ room to clean up.
However there was no discernable way to turn on the taps. I pushed everything that looked likely and even tried waving. So my dress remained soiled and my dignity unrecovered. I discovered later the taps were voice activated.
On my return, Crispin somewhat ran out of steam. He clearly realised that he’d failed to demonstrate that he was my prize student. A couple of air kisses and I left for home.
Our apartment didn’t feel quite so cozy on my return. I told Thomas I’d had a marvelous time. I didn’t share my newfound insight. I’ve taken my dress back to the cleaners. How strangely resonant that phrase sounds.