We confess we did not think we would find the words of an investment banker to be the inspiration with which we would elect to reflect on 2008 and start out 2009. Yet it is so.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a non-fiction potboiler entitled, The Weekend That Wall Street Died. It is the true story of the financial crisis as played out at the highest levels and of a comeuppance that included the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the “end of Wall Street,” as all the major investment banks wound up being acquired or converting to conventional banks.
The article is the story of the ending, perhaps forever, of the freewheeling, lightly regulated culture of Wall Street investment banking.
In a sidebar to the print edition of the story,The Wall Street Journal featured quotes from different investment bankers at different phases in the crisis. We’ve selected one of these quotes as our first Perishable Thought of 2009:
“You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve, you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach, so keep things in perspective.”
— Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein
speaking on September 14, 2008 to a Goldman aide, who had said he couldn’t take much more following weeks of market turmoil and two days of meetings with Fed officials.
The year 2008 has been a difficult year for many. We are not such dreamers that we can just sing “The Best Things In Life are Free” and dismiss the loss of nest eggs that people worked lifetimes to build.
We have had fraud, as with the Bernie Maddoff scandal, the collapse of institutions such as Lehman Brothers and the loss of substantial equity by people who owned homes and had retirement accounts. We personally know people who were well-established in retirement and have now lost so much they have had to seek a job.
Money is not a trivial matter. In real ways it represents a variant of freedom and opportunity. When dramatic losses affect people who thought they were doing all the “right things” — say investing regularly in diversified mutual funds in a 401-K — it stresses the social fabric.
Yet Blankfein’s admonition to his aide to “keep things in perspective” strikes us as not only almost precisely correct but as a kind of wisdom that we can all take from this “annus horriblus.”
The Momma Pundit always taught us to count our blessings and, as bad as things may be, they are so incomprehensibly better than the conditions most of the world is born, lives and dies in and so much better than virtually everyone, throughout human history, has lived with, that appreciation for living where and when we do is really mandatory. Remember even the mighty Charlemagne could not summer up an antibiotic.
If being grateful for what we have is a good resolution, learning is an important one as well. We bet the young aide listening to Lloyd Blankfein admonish him only knew what a Higgins boat was by context. There is even a decent shot that the aide didn’t know about Omaha beach. Back in 2004, as the 50th anniversary of D-Day approached and the newspapers were filled with articles, Gallup did a poll. One of the questions it asked was: Where did the U.S. and Allied troops land for the D-Day invasion? Gallup accepted as a correct answer Normandy or France or Omaha Beach. Among 18-29 years olds, only 40% got any of those answers.
That is sad and one suspects it has gotten worse. A resolution to learn more and make sure our children and grandchildren learn more would be a bully resolution for 2009.
As for ourselves, we are going to keep this quote in mind and next time we are stressed about our 401-K statement or the difficulties of business, next time we find ourselves in a tough spot, we are going to think of a 17-year-old kid climbing out of a Higgins boat with bullets bearing down on him.
We are going to think about how he felt when his best friend was hit, but he had to go on, when he saw blood in the water and on the beaches and he had to go on and when he thought about whether there was a bullet out there with his name on it. And we are going to remember it was kids like that who won the Second World War, and we are going to remember how lucky we are.
Here is to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2009 for all the readers of this page.
Perishable Thoughts is a regular section of the Perishable Pundit. If you have a favorite quote that you would like to share with the industry, please send it on. You can do so right here.