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The Age of Austerity


We're seeing a seismic shift in social mood.


"You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people." Billy Ray Valentine, Trading Places

Have you ever had vuja de? It's the feeling you get when you experience the same thing and wish you never had the feeling in the first place.

As September turns to October, perception catches up to reality and social mood turns for the worse, we find ourselves back at an all-too-familiar table.

On the one side is government intervention.

On the other is the "free" market.

We spoke about this dynamic in September but the stakes have risen exponentially. It's not just about profit and loss, it's about right or wrong.

It's about faith in the system and credibility on a global stage.

It's about our name and our word and our core belief systems.

It is, in many ways, about survival.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Through that lens-and as a function of pure exhaustion-I share the following fare for the benefit of ye faithful:

Stomping Grounds

I'm a creature of habit that enjoys creature comforts. Living in New York City -and working the incessant hours I do-one of my few indulgences is the consumption of food and beverage.

I like what I know and I know what I like. There's comfort in familiarity and I tend to frequent the same spots.

Serendipity 3, for a Frozen Hot Chocolate.

Raouls, at a cozy corner table in the back.

BLT Steak, for a hot popover with buttah.

And the Four Seas Hotel Bar.

Given the Age of Austerity
, the mere mention of luxury properties is considered bad taste in some circles.

We have entered class war-Wall Street vs. Main Street, the "Have's" vs. the "Have Not's," the fortunate vs. the slighted-as societal acrimony continues to build.

Old School Minyans know my story-I appreciate the little things in life-and they know the Seas is my haunt. I've been going there for 15 years, I'm friendly with the staff and they always circle the corner for me.

It's the little things that make me happy-consistent smiles, familiar faces, table treats. Or that's my post-rationalization every time I drop $17 for a Grey Goose martini (up, stirred, olives).

Last night, after another day in the stressful fray, Billy Meehan and I popped into the Seas for a quick schnitzel (just like his dad and I used to do). Rather than sit in a spot of our own, we pulled up to a table with some friends.

"So, what do you do?" I asked one of the ladies sitting with my friend Jamie.

There was uncomfortable silence and unease.

"Uh, I'm unemployed," she finally said, "I used to work on Wall Street."

We exchanged some pleasantries as she gulped down her drink and ordered another. I turned to my right. "And you? How do you spend your day?"

"I spent today running in the park," she said, "I'm in real estate but there's no business, no meetings, no interest. At this point, I'm just trying to stay in shape." She too ordered another drink.

Over the next twenty minutes, I sat back and surveyed the room.

The buzz was palpable and the energy thick. It's been like that all month in Manhattan, almost like an air of Armageddon has arrived.

Between Bear Stears, Lehman Brothers, AIG (AIG) and the seismic shifts at Merrill (MER), Morgan (MS), Goldman (GS) and other investment banks, the tension in Gotham is thick and the mood in Manhattan is darkening.

I saw that fear in the faces of those I spoke with yesterday at NYU. The financial industry suspended hiring and cancelled existing employment agreements that were extended to students. Those who studied finance for the last four years have no place to go and nowhere to hide.

Make no mistake, people are scared. They're nervous about their future, they're concerned for the safety of their savings-if they're lucky enough to have any-and they're worried what the next day will bring.

Billy and I walked out of the bar and on to 57th Street and there were several homeless people meandering about (not a judgment, as you know).

One of them walked up to me and said "Brother, can you spare a few hundred dollars?" I gave him a few bucks as I stepped back-he was a little too close for comfort.

As we walked away, as I kept an eye over my shoulder, I said to Bill "It's getting to the point where wearing a suit in New York City could very well be a liability."

Random Thoughts

  • Where does social mood sit in the denial-migration-panic continuum? Much like the markets can be viewed as a function of time horizon, psychological shifts may be viewed the same way.

  • For the first time in a while, as discussed on the Buzz, I went home last night with some upside risk (yes trading-it has nothing to do with the Four Seas!). My defined risk vehicle was Weatherford (WFT) calls into the 60% decline since July.

  • The OSX, for its part, is down 46% over the same span. I'm not into picking bottoms-particularly given the continued chasm between credit and equity-but I have dry powder, which gives me the ability to pick my spots.

  • Call me an old fashioned free market capitalist but I, for one, applaud the Wells Fargo (WFC)-Wachovia (WB) deal sans government assistance.

  • My first thought when I head the deal, by the way, was "Maybe Citigroup (C) isn't circled as a survivor after all?"

  • My natural inclination as a contrarian is to take the other side of all this Depression talk. Still, as we discussed in 2006, odds continue to favor "a prolonged period of socioeconomic malaise… that is entirely more depressing than a recession."

  • I hope I'm wrong but I'm not hoping for hope's sake, if that makes any sense.

Hey YOU-Festivus 2008 is right around the corner! The low price point covers our cost with a lil' extra to help the kids. The entire MV community comes together once a year-in my grandfather's good name-to do our part in giving back. Please feel free to circle your spot as it's gonna be a rockin' good time.


Position in WFT
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