UK: Good as gold - hot investment tips for 1991. (10 of 10)

UK: Good as gold - hot investment tips for 1991. (10 of 10) -

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Loser: The '74 property crash was the end for clever Willi Stern.

Willi Stern was the toast of the 1960s London property market. As managing director of the Freshwater Group, he controlled some 20,000 flats on behalf of his father-in-law, Benzion Freshwater. In 1970 Stern wanted more and branched out on his own with his Stern group.

The Harvard-educated Hungarian refugee prospered mightily in the years of the Barber boom. Within two years his company's asset base had grown from £35 million to £200 million, mainly as a result of huge borrowings. Stern himself lived in style in a sumptuous north London mansion and worked out of luxury offices in Kensington.

But the first oil crisis in 1973, followed by the steep decline of the London stock market and the collapse of property prices in London, put paid to his ambitions. In 1974 he became the most celebrated casualty of the crash when the Stern Group collapsed. He had borrowed extensively from the Keyser Ullmann merchant bank which had to be baled out by the Bank of England. Stern himself was declared the world's biggest personal bankrupt with debts of £118 million, though he continued to enjoy a lavish lifestyle.

By the early 1980s Stern had made a Lazarus-like recovery and in 1983 he received a suspended discharge from his bankruptcy though his creditors had received only a fraction of the money owed to them. Stern was able to resume business activities.

With the backing of two Americans he set up the appropriately named Dollar Land to buy up and refurbish old offices and industrial estates. But Stern reckons that he has learned a thing or two since the days of his last venture, and he may just be right. In the year to December 1989 Dollar Land reported a 69% increase in pre-tax profits, mainly as a result of concentrating on the continent, as opposed to the more risky UK. Wisely, Stern has also chosen to steer clear of the residential sector, which last time proved his undoing.

But all that experience has not been wasted. As he once told The Sunday Telegraph: "I learned that the definition of insolvency was not an excess of liabilities over assets; it is simply the inability to make your debt payments when they fall due." Most reassuring.

Winner: Oil was a blessing for King Faisal in the bleak early '70s.

In the months before Christmas 1973 the western world found itself staring down a loaded revolver: the OPEC Gulf ministers, in a series of impassioned meetings, decided to radically hike the price of oil and cut off supplies to Israeli allies. Official prices rose by nearly 400% in less than three months, driving the spot price from $3 to an eventual $22 a barrel.

The head of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, King Faisal, was a moderate throughout these bitter talks, represented by his not always in favour but still highly popular oil minister, Sheikh Yamani. But, despite his reservations, the Middle East had discovered the strength of the weapon that it was holding, and as Egypt's President Sadat sent his troops across the Suez to reclaim Arab territory lost to Israel in 1967, the oil question became entangled with the Palestinian cause.

Alone of the Royals, King Faisal was an ascetic - religious and dedicated but also immensely practical. He was raised in the traditional manner - studying the Koran, riding, hawking and training in tribal politics - and was a strict and intimidating man. He took the crown in Saudi Arabia after his father, King Ibn Sa'ud, was deposed by religious leaders, senior members of the ruling family and the Council of Ministers. Throughout his 11 years of rule he was more conscious than his predecessors of the need for domestic economic and educational reforms.

The wealth that came to the family through oil royalties and the business dealings of the princes meant little personally to a king who had palaces in Jeddah and Riyadh and family interests in Park Avenue apartments and English country estates. He, in fact, opposed the extent of the price hikes.

But the ensuing oil crisis and plunge of stock markets gave him the stage on which to play out his bitterness about the loss to Israel of Old Jerusalem. He attempted diplomacy with Israel's ally, President Nixon of the United States, sending message after message warning that he would have to use his oil muscle if the US did not make moves to budge Israel from the territory.

His efforts were fruitless and in the end King Faisal resorted to joining the oil embargo. In 1975 his reign ended when he was shot to death by his nephew and succeeded by his brother, Prince Khalid.

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