The first victims of the economic crisis were the brokers and traders of Wall street who lost their jobs.But don’t shed too many tears for these masters of the universe. Most of them are back at work already, practising their particular financial alchemy. Only a year ago they were stunned as their bank, Lehman brothers, collapsed. 158 years of trading dissolved in a weekend of panicked talks with the US authorities, who decided to let the bank fail. A former vice president of Lehman’s and author of “A colossal failure of common sense”, Larry McDonald, remembers: “That day was a day that changed the world. I was on the mat, I was just devastated. My cellphone went dead three times that day. Everybody I spoke to that day was devastated. It was really like watching giants weep.” The shockwave the failure caused was so great Washington had to step in. The world’s largest insurer, AIG, and investment bank Merryl Lynch, were nationalised. Tens of billions of dollars were injected into various groups to avoid a domino effect but a White House rescue plan was rejected by Congress on September the 29th. Wall street plunged 777 points. Ted Weisberg is a trader at Seaport securities: “I think the market just reacted so negatively because I guess the feeling was, you know what, we don’t have a plan, we don’t know where we’re going, it’s all about politics, and what are we going to do now?” An amended plan would finally be passed a few days later, and the federal dollars started to flow, along with plans to stabilise the housing market, whose collapse in 2007 had undermined the subprime loan system at the heart of the problem. The call went up for more, not less regulation, the setting up of early warning systems, and above all, a change in behaviour on Wall street’s trading floors. And that is still the challenge a year on. The practice of betting your shirt on risky products in the quest for short-term profit created the mess, and it is back with a vengeance says financial expert Richard Bookstaber: “We know for example Goldman increased its risk posture and profited from it. And that’s a bad sign because other firms will feel that they have to follow suit.” Money markets have always acted as if they were a law unto themselves. The challenge remains of getting them to recognise the world has changed, and so must they.
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