On Wall Street, Losses Can Never Be Whole Again

These are my guys they killed. My buddies who work downtown – next to me, with me – they were the targets of the terror. Dads and moms who by day make bids and offers, transact business, and then head home, many to their families in my hometown of Summit, New Jersey. We on Wall Street view ourselves as wise guys, grizzly guys, indestructible folks who like to laugh at danger and make jokes about anything, who trade on anything, shorting Boeing on plane crashes, buying treasuries on war rumors, and scrambling for shares of Chevron and Schlumberger on Middle East flare-ups. We think of ourselves as a brotherhood, maybe not like firefighters or police, but part of a tough fabric of individuals who see or talk to each other by phone hundreds of times a day as we go about buying and selling shares or bonds or commercial paper or commodities or even insurance risk.

We were wrong. We were meager flesh and blood trapped in smoking buildings, jumping from burning buildings, and we had no jokes, no words, no gallows humor to make things better. Too many people from our tight-knit little network dead and missing to make light of things. We were just scared people trying not to panic, trying to figure out whether we would get out alive by staying in our buildings or by going outside into the pitch-black confusion. Not whether to buy or sell, but whether to make a run for it or stay put.

For me, twenty years in the business, I know or have traded with pretty much everybody. When the first plane hit, I counted down the floors and said, “That’s Cantor Fitz.” When the second smashed through, I knew it was Morgan Stanley Asset Management, Keefe Bruyette, Sandler O’Neill. These were folks who had covered me, folks I had interviewed on CNBC, people who had been on the other end of the line hundreds of thousands of times to do a trade. The guys at Sandler O’Neill and Keefe Bruyette came through when I was in a jam in ‘98 and needed capital – these were friends who helped save my business. They were my go-to guys, the ones you could trust not to betray you in your worst financial hours.

They’re gone now.

We who watch CNBC for a living had no doubt after the first hit. Squawk Box anchor (and friend) Mark Haines, unlike everyone else on television, declared it a terrorist act right away, and with that gave us the signal to run. The others kept up with the theme of a random aircraft collision, even as Mark told us point-blank that no plane could accidentally hit that tower on such a beautiful day.

Trapped on the fifteenth floor on the north side of 14 Wall Street, two blocks from the World Trade Center, I didn’t know what to do. Maybe it was better to stay put, even though we were across the street from the logical target, the New York Stock Exchange. Or maybe it was better to go outside, into the strange gray twilight, with the wind blowing a dark ticker-tape parade of Wall Street research and invoices right by my window. And then the pictures of a listing tower on television – we still had cable, but only intermittent phones – and we were close enough both times to believe that our building had been hit when each tower collapsed in a deafening boom. I cowered below my desk in fear of debris breaking through our windows and wanted to talk to my wife and kids to say, who knows, that I was safe? Was I safe? We couldn’t leave after the towers collapsed, the sky totally black, and our building filled with smoke from outside that smelled of the burning plastic of furniture and computers.

No way out now. The only communication channel working was America Online. I e-mailed and instant-messaged anyone who could call my family to tell them I was okay.

Two long hours later, when cell phones were working again (only Verizon; AT&T didn’t work, what else is new?), we checked in with loved ones. Finally, at 2:30, they evacuated our building, and we snuck out through some exit into a health club and found ourselves on Pine Street, staring down at our feet, where three inches of snowlike soot buried my wing tips. I stooped down and saw clumps of Morgan Stanley research everywhere, single pages reiterating a Sun Micro buy recommendation. I slipped on an untouched Insurance Report of Audit for Morton’s Restaurant, sent by an agent from Aon Risk Services, 2 World Trade Center, 92nd floor. Did the paper survive while its author died?

If you have a good job at the World Trade Center, you want to live in Summit. In off-peak traffic you can be home in fifteen minutes. On my block, there are four dads who work there. Luckily, they all came back that night, but make a left, go up a hundred yards, and there you’ll find two who didn’t. I was among the last to make it home Tuesday night, but the commuter parking lot in Summit was still filled with cars, a terrible omen.

The police closed my temple for security – a wrong but understandable act – so we headed to St. Theresa’s to pray for survivors. It felt better, less helpless, to be together in somebody else’s house of worship than to be alone at home watching those damned shots of One and Two going down.

We wouldn’t know who died from our town until the following night, at the Village Green interfaith service. Outside a makeshift band shell, at the urging of religious leaders in Summit, individuals shouted out names of those friends who didn’t make it out alive. The finality of hearing each name brought instant tears, which continued as the bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” and the several thousand assembled tried to sing over the sobbing.

News organizations wanted me to come on TV, to talk about what it meant for stocks and bonds, but not that night, nor the night after. Let someone else say that you should buy blue chips or defense stocks, or sell the airlines and leisure stocks. It didn’t have to be me. Plenty of time for that later.

Anyway, it’s not hard to see what will happen. The economy will turn, probably faster than we thought, despite the naysayers. Why? The day before the attack, Tom Clarke, the CEO at TheStreet.com, was bemoaning the perpetual red ink on our screens, and he asked, “Jim, this is the worst market I have ever seen. What can turn it around?” I looked at him, knowing my market history, and said simply, “War.” One day, maybe, a long time from now, we’ll be able to joke that we got just that, right on time.

In the short term, the panic sellers will duel it out with cooler-headed buyers and the latter will win. But in the longer term, the kind of drawn-out war we must fight is not the kind of war that’s good for equities. Still, when it’s all over, the victory will make you wish you had invested in America back when things looked darkest.

For now, though, I just wish we were back with that same old horrible market we had on September 10, that miserable market where only stocks, not friends, floated down into oblivion.

On Wall Street, Losses Can Never Be Whole Again