Why Wall Street Is Ready To Rise Again
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Happily, I can say with some confidence that we’ve reached the bottom of this particular Wall Street meltdown. Why? Because Warren Buffett told us so, and I’m easily influenced by people who have made billions of dollars.
Mr. Buffett, for all his “I don’t know which fork to choose” folksiness, is a hard-nosed investor and a veteran Wall Streeter. Having bought a 12% interest in Salomon Brothers in 1987, he took charge of the firm when it had a little dust-up with regulators and ultimately sold the company to Citigroup for more than twice his investment. In short, he knows his way around.
His $5 billion-plus stake in Goldman Sachs is a great vote of confidence not only for the firm, but for the future of Wall Street. He is confident, I assume, that the Treasury’s rescue plan will take hold in some fashion, after Congress gets its fill of posturing for the C-SPAN crowd. Presumably our legislators will realize that the country needs credit to operate, that the owners of businesses large and small will disappear without sound financial intermediaries. They will remember that these folks, and their employees, are voters, too.
Mr. Buffett is not alone in trying to cash in on Wall Street’s disasters. Japanese shares traded higher on Tuesday on top of news that Mitsubishi UFJ would acquire a 20% stake in Morgan Stanley, and Nomura would purchase Lehman’s European operations. This reminds us that there is money on the sidelines — in fact, there is a huge amount of money. The vast liquidity buildup that led to the stupid lending practices igniting all our troubles has been drained, but it is not gone.
Despite the cash still held by sovereign wealth funds, the Japanese banks, hedge funds, and corporations, among others, companies have not been able to raise money in the commercial paper markets for over a year, and last week, there was not a single bond offering completed. That is the disaster that we have seen unfolding, and it stems as much from fear as from a lack of available funds. This is truly the ultimate “confidence game.”
Congress may take comfort that the Fat Cats on Wall Street had their Purina Chow taken away more than a year ago. Investment bankers are typically paid in stock and stock options, and most firms have encouraged employees to hold onto their shares out of loyalty. As a result, tens of thousands have lost most of their savings in this cycle. Many of those employed at Lehman and Bear Stearns have lost everything.
Meanwhile, the recovery in financial markets must absolutely stem from an improvement in housing. I believe we are nearing the cyclical low for this sector. The great slide in home prices continues — down 9.5% year-over-year for existing homes in August — but reduced prices are stimulating sales. According to Walter Molony of the National Association of Realtors, the pace of home sales, which dropped slightly in the most recent 30 days, as mortgage rates backed up, has been quite steady over the past year.
More encouraging, Mr. Molony points to research indicating that in about 40% of the regions across the country, home prices are now below replacement costs — an unheard of situation. His organization reported yesterday that the inventory of unsold homes fell 7% in August, a welcome and encouraging turnaround.
The housing industry’s woes are concentrated in a few states — particularly California and Florida, which are distorting the national numbers. In several regions of the country, the outlook has improved.
Meanwhile, default rates in the last quarter were running at about 19% of all subprime mortgages, but the securities backed by such debt are selling at 20 to 25 cents on the dollar. That valuation suggests that either default rates will climb enormously, or that those repossessing the homes will recover almost none of their value. Most likely, neither of those things will happen. So, it could turn out that Uncle Sam might actually turn a profit on this deal, just as the government made money, eventually, on the Resolution Trust Company.
None of these goings-on were visible four years ago, when I began writing columns for this paper. Oil prices were low, employment was rising, but not so rapidly as to boost inflation, and stocks were reasonably valued, but climbing as America recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In retrospect, things were pretty good; we just didn’t know it.
The New York Sun was beginning to carve out an audience and an identity when I joined the ranks. I have been allowed by the Sun’s editors (who were not always happy at this state of affairs and to whom I will be ever grateful) to bump around and cover all kinds of stories. I have interviewed hundreds of people, including fashion icon Josie Natori; a former secretary of the Navy, John Lehman; Republican stalwart Georgette Mosbacher; Washington bureaucrats such as the head of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.; legislators such as Senate Majority Leader William Frist; brilliant economists such as Henry Kaufman and Alan Blinder; Wall Street standouts such as Ed Hyman and Byron Wien; society diarist David Patrick Columbia; investors such as Wilbur Ross and Don Marron, and, of course, Lassie.
I have talked to people who catch lobsters for a living, create fabulous jewelry, make designer popcorn, are fourth-generation furriers, provide yoga relief for troubled Wall Street bigwigs, provide catering to New York’s snazziest events, and help companies develop creative ideas. Talk about fun.
Here’s what I’ve learned, and have passed on to my children, who agonize regularly about career paths: No one, but no one, whom I have interviewed is doing what they expected when they started out. Life is full of surprises.