The Bear’s Lair: An E-Christmas Carol

Marley was stoned to begin with. There was no doubt about that. E.B. Scrooge gazed thoughtfully across the Gulfstream V at his recumbent form as it sped towards the Christmas and New Year junket in Bora Bora.

E.B. Scrooge was adored in Los Angeles, for the scale of his parties and the generosity of his spending. The Scrooge Foundation, which he had recently set up with a $5 billion stock grant to relieve Third World poverty, would soon make him even more adored. But why not? — after all Scrooge’s stock was worth $12.7 billion after the IPO. was indeed the ultimate in dot-com efficiency; it had only two other employees apart from Scrooge, the Chief Financial Officer J.K. Marley and the Chief Information Officer, programmer Bob Cratchet. Everything else was either outsourced or virtual. It was Christmas Eve, 1999.

There’d been some trouble taking off, of course. As a model employer, ScrooMar had invited families. This meant nothing to Scrooge and Marley, both under 30 and single (two hired lovelies were to satisfy their needs) but Cratchit, nearly 40, had a family. Sort of. His former wife, now living in a lesbian commune, was no problem, but there was a teenage son, the sinister, nose-ringed Big Tim. And Big Tim was a problem, Big Time. For one thing, he’d provided whatever Marley had taken. For a second, he’d appropriated BOTH hired lovelies. For a third, he was planning to deal in whatever he’d given Marley when they got to Bora Bora. Scrooge didn’t fancy spending his vacation explaining Big Tim to the local court system.

Scrooge nodded his head. It was a 15-hour flight, time to sleep. By the time they arrived it would be Christmas morning.

Scrooge’s digital watch beeped the hour — twelve midnight, L.A. time. He jerked awake. Marley stood in front of him, but his body was transparent. Through it Scrooge could see his CFO’s recumbent form.

“Who are you? What do you want of me?”

“For now, I’m your CFO, J.K. Marley. But things are about to change.”

“Change? What do you mean, change?”

“You will be visited before the journey’s out by three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. All will then be explained. Expect the first when your watch strikes one.” Marley faded into nothing. The plane banked. Scrooge shook his head and fell once again asleep.

He awakened with a start as the watch beeped one. No longer in the plane, he appeared to be in an ornate, old-fashioned boardroom. There was a party going on, punch was being served from an enormous silver bowl. A distinguished looking gentleman, his face vaguely familiar, was raising what was obviously not his first glass of punch. Around him, a crowd of well dressed, well lubricated executives, also holding glasses, was poised for the toast.

Scrooge noticed beside him a Santa Claus figure, staring grimly at the party. “Who are you? Where are we?” he gasped.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past. We are in the Boardroom of the Federal Reserve Board for their Christmas party. The gentleman with the glass is of course Alan Greenspan” said the unsmiling figure. “Listen.”

“And I would like to thank you all for making this such a successful year, in spite of the irrational exuberance in — hic — the stock market” said the speaker. “So I give you another toast: To President Clinton, re-elected, and a successful 1997.”

The guests raised their glasses, and downed them eagerly. Some were swaying side to side, their faces flushed. Several of the more senior members seemed to be making advances to their lady colleagues.

“So what’s all this about?” asked Scrooge.

” It is a lesson, a dreadful lesson” said the Ghost of Christmas Past. “It is Christmas Eve, 1996, and the Dow closed at 6,522.84.”

“So what?”

“Look at the party guests.”

“They seem pretty drunk.”

“Exactly. Their host has forgotten, in the words of his great predecessor, William McChesney Martin, that the job of the Federal Reserve Chairman is to take away the punchbowl just as the party gets going.”

The scene dissolved, and Scrooge was back on the plane. He tossed uneasily, then slept again. The watch beeped two.

Beside Scrooge appeared a Santa Claus dressed not traditionally, but in a floor trader’s red jacket, with a party hat and a glass of champagne. In front of them, appeared a pleasant suburban house, with a father carving turkey, surrounded by his wife and four children.

“I am the ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Santa. “I am a Trader, for this is the Christmas of the greatest stock market boom the world has ever seen.”

“And where are we?”

“Don’t you recognize the gentleman?”

“It’s … And the biggest boy — but it can’t be. They all look so … HAPPY!”

“Yes, it’s Bob Cratchit. And the eldest boy’s Big Tim. Listen.”

The other Cratchit spoke. “And before I carve, I’d like to offer a prayer of thanks for my lovely wife, Jenny, and for all the children, and for our friends at IBM, especially the senior vice president, who gave me that great raise, and also a prayer of hope for Tim’s Harvard application.”

“God bless us, every one,” said Big Tim, answering the toast.

“IBM! Harvard!” said Scrooge. “But Bob doesn’t work at IBM. Tim hasn’t applied to Harvard, there’s no way.”

“In your world, perhaps not,” said the Trader. “But in this world, the Alternate Present, Bob works at IBM. You see, here Greenspan raised interest rates in 1996 and deflated the stock market bubble. The Dow closed yesterday at 4,290.”

“But what about … about”

“It never existed. Cratchet developed the technology for IBM’s Internet Systems Division — that’s why he got the raise.”

“And Tim?”

“Cratchet worked at a steady 9 to 5 job, and his wife was a homemaker. Naturally she never left him, they had children instead. So Tim grew up in a large happy family, in a nice suburb with a stable home environment, secure family finances and no drugs. Of course, the Harvard application resulted — he’s a bright lad, you know.”

Again the scene dissolved, again Scrooge tossed in an uneasy nap. He was awakened by the watch beeping three.

The scene was one of despair, a Third World shanty-town, with death, disease and starvation only too apparent. Beside Scrooge was an unkempt older man, in jeans and T-shirt, with a ragged gray beard.

“Do I know you?” asked Scrooge. “Where’s this dreadful place?”

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” said the figure.

Scrooge paled. “The future, this dreadful place is the future? But how can it be, it’s awful, the poverty, the sick people. This can’t be the future, they’re all so poor! What about the Scrooge Foundation?”

“But it is the future. Twenty five years in the future. It is Christmas Eve, 2024.”

“And you are”

“J.K. Marley.”

“But you’re so…decrepit.”

“Of course. When the company crashed, there was no money, so we joined the Peace Corps. Both of us.”

“But I’m rich. My foundation’s going to relieve Third World poverty! I gave it $5 billion.”

“No, you gave it 127 million shares, post split, of, which makes losses. Worthless paper, in other words.”

“But an internet company doesn’t have to make a profit to do an IPO.”

“Now it does.”

“But even without the Scrooge Foundation, surely in 25 years…”

“Depends which 25 years. Gross World Product today is 15 percent lower than in 2000, and the population’s nearly doubled. Nobody has any money any more — look closely. This isn’t Africa, it’s Detroit.”

“But this is awful, our whole lives wasted. What can I do?”

“Not much, now. But always remember one thing — don’t spend what you haven’t got.”

The scene faded, and Scrooge was back in the plane. He sighed with relief. It was still 1999, the Dow was still at 11,405.76, and he was still a billionaire.

Resolve came. No more negative savings rate for him! Thrift, that was the watchword, for him and for the U.S. economy.

Scrooge buzzed the pilot on the intercom.

“Turn back. There’ll be no junket this year. And get my broker on the phone, I want to sell the company, sell the plane, sell everything. Close the Foundation.”

Marley stirred, woke at these words. “What the hell are you doing E.B.? What about the party? The Foundation? Our future?”

“Bah, humbug,” said Scrooge.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)

This article originally appeared on United Press International