We Are Not Cattle–They Are, but We’re Not

May 25, 2008

Wall Street Exodus: Fear, Panic and Anger

THE mind wraps itself around losing a job, one of life’s great traumas, in jagged and swerving fits. When the call comes in, when rumor turns to reality, when it’s not the broker in the next cubicle but you who is presented with a stack of severance papers, the psyche takes over.
It goes numb. It goes into survival mode. Fear quickly turns into anger. For some, there may be relief in saying goodbye to what therapists call the “psychological terror” that has haunted the corridors of troubled financial institutions since last summer. But what follows — the unknown — may be no less frightening.
Since August, banks worldwide have announced plans to eliminate as many as 65,000 jobs. Many losing their jobs now have lived through other crises on Wall Street — the 1987 market crash, the widespread layoffs of the early 1990s and the financial upheaval of 1998. But investment bankers, recruiters and psychologists say the current economic downturn, the cascade of layoffs and the steady beat of grim financial news have exacted an especially daunting psychic price.
“These are people’s lives,” said an investment banker in his 30s who was laid off in November from his job at a Bank of America office in New York. “It’s not head count. We’re not cattle.”
. . .“The financial market volatility leads to a kind of emotional volatility,” Dr. Potash said. “There are seismic shifts, up and down and up and down: ‘I’m optimistic — the market’s looking good, the mortgage crisis is over. Oh, my God, they canceled an order. I can’t concentrate.’ ”
Among the patients who have seen Alden M. Cass, a psychologist who treats Wall Street traders and executives, are several who were laid off from Bear Stearns after the bank collapsed.
“They felt as if they were led with blindfolds on into a firing squad,” Dr. Cass said.
What is that they say on the street? Never let them see you sweat?
There’s another side to this coin–the reader side, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of those laid off by mergers funded by and profited by these very investment banks that are now eating their own. Not a pretty sight, but you won’t hear so much as a sniffle from the previously employed at this or that airline, telecom, food franchise or media giant. The wounds are still too raw.
In a larger than life “what goes ’round, comes ’round,” the very hedge fund hotshots who invented sub-prime mortgages are in fear of losing their homes. The same guys who crunched the numbers that made thousands redundant and juiced the share price of the next big next, are on the street with a severance package and an ice-cube in their stomach.
A bunch of summer rentals in the Hamptons may come back on the market. Summer camp may turn to summer jobs for kids who never faced the possibility and the promise of Princeton may go unfulfilled.
We are not cattle.
It all depends upon who’s doing the defining, whose ox is being gored (if that metaphor is not too close to home) and whatever happened to bull markets.
Occasionally–just occasionally, but often enough to witness if you live long enough, we are all cattle.

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