Wall Street blues

  • Jon Kelly
  • 15 Oct 08, 03:46 AM GMT

NEW YORK, NY: Here I was at last: Wall Street. So often in the past few weeks, since the $700bn bail-out, I'd heard that address spat out rather than spoken. Now I could see the focus of so many Americans' fury for myself.

It was narrower than I expected, less prepossessing. Then I noticed the glittering window displays of Tiffany's and the ostentatious frontage of Trump Building: conspicuous wealth wasn't quite so well-concealed after all.

As brusque, anxious-looking young men in suits bustled past me, I thought back to all the working people I'd encountered who had referred to America's financial institutions with fear, contempt and anger.

Steven SchimbleWell, here was my chance to pass on what they'd told me. Sitting outside the Stock Exchange, rubbing the bridge of his nose, was 48-year-old floor trader Steven Schimble. He wasn't having a good day: shares were dropping and forecasts were grim.

I introduced myself, explained what I was doing here. I'd been travelling across the US for the past month, I told him, and the ordinary Americans I'd spoken to were really angry. Angry about foreclosures, angry that the economy looked as if it was nosediving, angry that they'd had to bail out the companies they held responsible.

Steven was no Gordon Gekko: affable, pugnacious, speaking with a grainy New York twang. He threw up his hands - of course everyone thought it was all his fault.

"I just saw a guy in the street throw something at one of the traders," he said. "Everyone blames Wall Street because they know the address.

"But down on the floor, we were executing orders to the best of our ability. It was all down to the big banks: blame Lehmann Brothers, blame JP Morgan, blame Bear Stearns."

This wouldn't be enough to placate people, I said. Those who had seen their investments wiped out, and were then asked to come to the rescue with their tax dollars, surely had a right to be upset.

"Right," he nodded. "But investing in stocks is like gambling in a casino. It's legalised gambling. We need to make people aware of that."

Billy McInerneyHe called over his friend and fellow trader, 45-year-old Billy McInerney. Billy needed a break, too: he'd already seen the exchange fall by 300 points since the morning.

I ran through everything I'd told Steven: people out there were livid at the whole financial system.

Billy looked skywards. "It all comes down to mortgages. Giving people who make $50,000 loans for $200,000 houses: I wouldn't sign up for those terms, and I make five times as much."

He could understand, though, why people felt such a strong sense of injustice.

"Look, I don't like it either," he sighed. "But we need to do this. If we don't, then we go into recession and more people lose their jobs."

I had to give them credit for answering the charges against them. Faced with an entire nation's hostility, I might have preferred to keep a low profile. But essentially their message was: it was someone else's fault.

Not everyone on Wall Street was a banker or a broker, however. At the junction with Broadway, 49-year-old Asif Khan was packing away his fruit stall.

Asif Khan Business was terrible, he told me. Sales were down by 50% - even the traders were spending less. "The only thing I'm selling more of is bananas, because you can get three for $1," he grimaced.

The slowdown was hurting Asif, who had moved to New York from Pakistan in 1985. He had a wife and a 12-year-old daughter over in Queens to support. I wondered if he blamed his customers for the downturn.

He shook his head. "No, it's not them I blame. It was the White House - they should have put proper regulation in place.

"The only people they cared about were the billionaires, not the middle class - that's what got us into trouble."

At last, a charitable view of the banks and the Stock Market. Asif's opinion that politicians were ultimately responsible will be widely shared. But I don't think the rest of the country is ready to forgive Wall Street just yet.

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