Pirates of the Capital Beltway

October 3, 2008

Last week it looked as though my email filter had developed a tear. A letter, which addressed me simply as “Dear American,” urged me “to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.”

Last week it looked as though my email filter had developed a tear. A letter, which addressed me simply as "Dear American," urged me "to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude."

My finger hovered over the delete key, and then pulled back as I read the next two lines: "I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds.... If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you."

A shudder ran down my spine. Could this be what I had been hoping for - a ray of light in the darkness that had gripped not only my friends but the president of the U.S., who had spoken to me, in prime time, just a few days earlier? The email continued:

"This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible."

Ordinarily, I am very cautious. Emails like these usually come from Nigeria. But this was different. It was signed by "Minister of Treasury Paulson" who assured me that "this transaction is 100% safe."

Earlier this week, in speaking with leaders of the imaging industry, I had come to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis. The volatility of publicly traded companies that we're now seeing, I was told, is a signal that we have entered a dangerous period in finance, one that could have serious consequences for the vendors of medical equipment.

Hospitals often finance equipment by issuing bonds, said Jim Davis, vice president and general manager of GE's global MR business. If borrowing costs rise significantly or there is a lack of liquidity in the market, hospitals will have trouble getting their hands on cheap money.

"This could pose a problem for the industry," Davis said. "It is certainly not a helpful trend."

And its effect may not be limited to big-ticket items such as MR scanners. Gordon Parhar, business unit director for ultrasound at Toshiba America Medical Systems, told me that hospital administrators tend to lump all medical imaging equipment together. This includes ultrasound scanners.

"Ultrasound scanners are lower in price, but in overall terms, people look at healthcare financials in a comprehensive way," he said. "How they fund capital spending is a component of that."

As if the president telling me my house was in jeopardy wasn't enough, now I was facing the loss of something to write about. This had to end, a conviction that brought me squarely in line with the bailout being planned in our nation's capital.

The email said that everything would be all right as soon as I replied with the account numbers of my bank account, IRA, and college fund, as well as and those of my children and grandchildren.

As I signed onto the idea, a wave of relief rolled over me. This, I thought, had come just a little too close for comfort.