to New York in the summer of 2007 to work on a financial news desk. Our newsroom was in Lower Manhattan, just across from Ground Zero, which at that point was a giant excavated pit, lined with concrete and known as “The Bathtub.” This was just a couple months before the stock market hit its pre-crisis peak (S&P 500 index at 1,565). Every morning around 5:30, before the pre- market news releases began marching out, I would roll out of bed, get dressed and catch the subway to work, usually the E train which was filled with construction workers headed to the morning shift at the World Trade Center site. The train ended at Chambers Street station, which for some reason was decorated with wall mosaics featuring nothing but eyes — frightened eyes, sleepy eyes, angry eyes — staring out at the passing commuters, and I always found that creepy, as if the ghosts of 9/11 were watching. When I would walk back to subway in the afternoon, the sidewalks were crowded with tourists checking out Ground Zero, and maybe there was something creepy about that too, though who am I to judge? Being in New York, I figured I should also be a Giants fan, and I watched all their games that year. It was well worth it: After a weak start they surged in the second half of the season, wildcarded their way into the playoffs, and improbably won the Super Bowl, beating rival Boston, whose New England Patriots were undefeated heading into the game. The ticker-tape parade to celebrate the victory was to head down Broadway, just on the other side of Ground Zero from where I worked, so me and a colleague decided to go down there and check it out during our lunch break. We walked over to a large paved plaza that lay between Church Street and Broadway where a crowd was forming, with everyone from investment bankers in expensive suits to teens in NY Giants ball caps all jostling for a position near the route. Now here’s an example of how stupid I can be. After a little while, some people in the crowd started chanting, some three-syllable slogan in which I could only make out the last word, which was “SUCKS!” I listened closely, trying to figure out what they were saying — at one point it sounded like “WALL STREET SUCKS!” This seemed a little unusual, and my guess was based mainly on the fact that we were just a block away from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. I asked my colleague, “Are they saying ‘Wall Street sucks’?” and he was very surprised and said, “What? No, they’re saying ‘Boston Sucks!’ … Wall Street?! Naw, they LOVE Wall Street. All their money comes from Wall Street.” Ironically, that plaza, which I had only known as “that plaza over on Church Street,” was actually called Zuccotti Park and would later be the center of the Occupy Wall Street movement, members of which may or may not have chanted “Wall Street sucks” at some point. But that was all a couple years in the future, and on that day in February people were cheering and throwing makeshift confetti down from the buildings as the Giants rode by in tall open-air buses and waved to us all.   after the Giants parade, Bear Stearns failed and had to be rescued by J.P. Morgan Chase & Company for a measly $2 a share (later upped to an only-slightly-less-measly $10, apparently under pressure from some of the shareholders). It was the topic of conversation for a week or so, but then things seemed to go on. Likewise later, near the end of the summer, mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in government conservatorship. It made big headlines, but there was still no clear signal of how close the collapse now was, at least from what most people were saying. The day the meltdown began — September 15, when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch had to be sold to Bank of America to avoid the same fate — I had just gotten back from a trip to Montreal with my wife. When we left, there had still been some talk that Lehman might be near to finding a buyer, but while on vacation I kept only half an eye on the story. So when I scrambled into work that early Monday morning, and the assignment editor, who was one of the only other people in at that early hour, said “Wow, what a crazy morning,” I had to pretend to know what she was talking about. Once I turned on my computer though, I learned about the Lehman filing having happened several hours earlier, with the Merrill news breaking soon after. Weather-wise, it turned out to be a beautiful day (as, I’m told, 9/11 had been), and our video team sent a camera crew to film the furious traders streaming out of the Lehman headquarters near Times Square in Midtown. I was naïve enough to think that, once the government announced the TARP plan to save the banks, the storm would begin to clear. Instead, of course, the House failed to approve TARP, and the market did one of its biggest nosedives ever (by the end the day, the S&P 500 was at 1,106). The opponents of the bailout later backtracked and passed it, but the market kept falling anyway. For me though, the most stunning development came about a week later, when the world’s top central banks got together and all cut their interest rates on the same day. Central banks never did this — it was the financial equivalent of all the countries joining to shoot down an asteroid headed toward Earth. And yet still the market kept falling anyway.   .and a half earlier, when we moved to New York from Singapore, one of the first tasks had been to open a bank account. We had just signed a lease for a walk-up studio on Ninth Avenue in the gentrified Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and found the closest bank to be a Washington Mutual branch a block away. My wife had a green card, but she had never lived in the U.S. and didn’t yet have a Social Security card. When the branch manager discovered this, she refused to open a joint account for us, turning us away with supreme indifference. We wandered a couple blocks further and came across a Chase branch where, in contrast, the manager was very friendly, welcomed us into his office and opened an account. No worry, we could report the Social Security number once we got it. One night a few weeks after the Lehman collapse, we were walking, I think to see a movie, and we needed to get some cash along the way. Just to save time, we decided to use the ATM at Washington Mutual (or “WaMu”) and pay the extra fee rather than take a two-block detour to our Chase branch. But when my wife inserted her bank card, a message popped up saying “Welcome Chase customer! This ATM is free to all Chase customers.” I had been aware that WaMu had gone bankrupt and all its assets sold off to J.P. Morgan, just as had happened with Bear Stearns, but I didn’t realize the ATMs had been changed over so quickly. WaMu had apparently been a complete mess, and it easily toppled over in the first gust of wind from the financial crisis. Weirdly though, I felt that by banking at Chase, we were now some part of a conquering army of Chase depositors, taking the spoils of waived ATM feeds. But that said, I have no idea what WaMu customers saw if they tried to use the Chase ATM up the street. And anyway, I guess the real conquering army was the J.P. Morgan shareholders, with WaMu shareholders, creditors and employees as the vanquished. Certainly nothing fun about it for them. Meanwhile, the market kept plumbing new depths, and now in the wider economy the job losses were starting to accelerate, but at the end of October my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first child, and just a few weeks later I was given a new job in the same news organization but in Los Angeles, so I had huge distractions from the financial crash. I followed the news closely of course — the economic and market news, the presidential election and all the rest — but a lot of times my mind was elsewhere. We moved to L.A. that March, and by coincidence, just as the market had topped when we came to New York, it bottomed (S&P 500 at 677) as we left.
Wall Street bankers and other assorted New Yorkers stand on benches at Zuccotti Park in February 2008, just a month before the collapse of Bear Stearns and a little over seven months before Lehman Brothers fell. The bankers are the ones not wearing jeans. (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
I moved back
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No WaMu, don’t do it! This Washington Mutual flier, advertising adjustable-rate home equity loans, came tucked inside my WaMu credit card bill sometime in 2003 (even though I am a lifelong renter). The ad even suggests using the loan to take a vacation or buy a car. In large part because of its exposure to real- estate lending, WaMu became the biggest financial institution to go bust in U.S. history.