The roller-coaster ride for Lehmanites

Six days later, so was Lehman Brothers. Federal regulators let the foundering firm slip into bankruptcy, a collapse that touched off the most perilous week of the financial debacle, after years of freewheeling lending, trading and regulation produced outsize losses that devastated the banking system and brought the economy to its knees.

For Ollquist, the implosion had direct consequences: he lost his job, his savings, and his dreams of kicking back and retiring soon to become a high school basketball coach. He now spends his days making cold calls and peddling bonds for a firm that few have ever heard of, missing the old days at Lehman when he sold mortgage securities to investors around the country.

It was a good job, one that, if it did not make him rich by the gilded standards of Wall Street, still enabled him to buy the nicest house on his block in Hempstead, New York, less than a mile from his childhood home. His job also made him a member of a Lehman unit whose handiwork helped lead to the demise of the bank he loved and to an economic unraveling worldwide.

“I have blood on my hands,” Ollquist acknowledges, fiddling with several bracelets he wears, each with its own sentimental story, before he quickly ticks off a list of other parties he thinks are even more culpable than salesmen like him for the meltdown: regulators, senior executives, rival firms and traders who believed that their elaborate computer algorithms insulated them from risk.

As he wrestles with his conscience, Ollquist is just one among legions of former Wall Streeters who continue to move past, adapt to or struggle with an event that has been a personal and professional watershed for all of them. Their industry was certainly battered, but, for the time being at least, it has demonstrated more resilience than some analysts predicted a year ago.

While many ordinary Americans are still waiting for an economic recovery, the very worst fears of the financial industry — the nationalisation of giant banks, tough new regulation, a second Great Depression — haven’t materialised. The global panic touched off by Lehman’s collapse has receded, thanks largely to all those bailouts and other government life support for banks and firms that were principal architects of the mess.

Profits too
True, thousands of financial industry jobs have vanished and several of the country’s best-known banks and brokerage firms have disappeared. Since a peak in 2007, the market valuation of the country’s 29 biggest financial services firms has been cleaved by about half. But significant parts of Wall Street endure, and some firms are raking in handsome profits. Indeed, many bankers and traders are looking forward to big bonuses once again.

Some of those Lehman alumni who didn’t manage to hang on to Wall Street jobs are still angry, bitter and confused; many others, like  Ollquist, have moved on in their lives. The luckiest, like Ken Linton, a former Lehman trader, made enough money during the boom years to avoid having to think about their next paychecks. He spends his time flying jets. Others, unable to find banking jobs, are building new work lives. Jeff Schaefer, a former managing director, for instance, now owns a car wash and gas station in Florida. And, of course, there are those like Leslee Gelber, who is out of work, professionally adrift, and fearful that Wall Street will bounce back without her.

Reluctant to shoulder what they see as an unfair measure of blame for their bit parts in the financial meltdown, many former Lehmanites also note that their firm’s demise visited dizzying and life-altering setbacks upon them as well.

International Herald Tribune

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