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The Magic Number

Everybody has a price, the amount it would take to live well without ever working again. But now that the dot-com generation has redefined the playing field, the price is higher than ever. Does $10 million sound about right?

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"One . . . million . . . dollars." This moment of misguided extortion was one of the finest in Austin Powers -- Dr. Evil, all pinkies and giggles and scars, gloating and demanding this puny sum from an assembly of world leaders, convinced he was taking them for all they were worth. He'd been cryogenically frozen for 30 years, so it was an honest mistake: A million bucks could buy a lot back in 1967. It was his magic number, the number he probably figured he needed to quit the terrorism business and go off somewhere to open an Evil bed-and-breakfast.

A lot of people I know have Magic Numbers. A depressingly accomplished 31-year-old friend from college confessed over dinner a few months back that he's been marching toward $3.5 million ever since graduation. Another, a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, just told me he thinks about his number "all the fucking time" -- but his is $10 million, not $3.5. (This number comes up a lot, 10 million. We'll get back to that.)

Of course, guys on Wall Street have had magic numbers for years, as necessary fantasies to get them through the long work days and insane pressures and general anomie that come from having a job without meaningful human contact or emotional rewards. "The difference today," explains James Grant, editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, "is that coming into the Number has become an apparently reasonable expectation."

Why wouldn't it be? The bull market, combined with the sudden valorization of all things dot-com, has generated a sociology of spontaneous, freakish wealth. A key part of this sociology is the belief that one can get rich quick. Another is what Alan Greenspan might call numerical exuberance.

An Internet entrepreneur tells me from his downtown office that he has a magic number: $40 million. Rodney Gray, a 33-year-old director of real-estate-capital markets at Price Waterhouse, says he'd like $50 million -- enough to retire with a house in Monaco, a ranch in Texas, and an apartment in Manhattan. At Johnney's Fish Grill, a seascape of blue suits during happy hour, I ask a trio of traders from Lehman Brothers whether they have a number, and if so, what it is. "That's easy," says Greg Meyer, a dapper 27-year-old graduate of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "Ben Franklin." He means $100 million, of course, not $100 (now, that would be a Dr. Evil moment), and proceeds to limn: "Fifty million in interest-bearing investments, which should conservatively net $2.5 million per year, assuming 5 percent interest rates; the rest is for philanthropy and just having fun."

This number isn't just sky-high. It's I-high, defined by the new extravagant standards of the Internet. The real and paper wealth of cyberspace beneficiaries -- those punks! -- seems to have awakened every last unemployed ounce of competitive envy in those who toil on the Street. "We think we're on top of the world," explains a friend of Meyer's, who says he'll be content to call it quits at $3 million. "Then we hear about these guys at eBay who are worth $200 million, and suddenly, we're not. So now everybody's working to make the same number as these guys, and that's really stupid. If I buy a thousand shares of one of these stocks, and I sell them up a quarter, that's a great trade. But that's nothing compared to what they're making. What am I gonna do?"

It doesn't help, either, that many of these stock-optioned fortunates were former business-school classmates. Underachieving business-school classmates, in some instances. "I did my MBA in 1990," says Dan Perla, a good-natured 34-year-old who runs his own hedge fund. "And the irony is, the average Joes who couldn't get jobs consulting or on Wall Street are having the last laughs. Their salaries are still $150,000, but they've got thousands of stock options worth millions of dollars in companies like Microsoft and start-up Web ventures."


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