|So where’s the bear?|
On the surface, Manhattan is still restless as ever. But a stroll through law firms is all it takes to notice that the crisis hasn’t yet turned up all of its wreckage
The limo driver who drives Manhattan executives back and forth from New York’s international airport, JFK, has never heard of the crisis. The tourists who gather in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) are concerned with the best angle of the building façade, but not with an unsteady Dow Jones. Many have a laugh petting the bull sculpted in bronze, which represents the strength of the “bull market”, a few feet away from the exchange. “Actually, where is the bear statue again, the one for the ‘bear market’?” someone less than savvy could ask, about the falling market’s symbol. Though appropriate today, this sculpture is not part of Wall Street’s landscape.
Walking northward from there at rush hour, one will find sidewalks filled with people, groups with modern cell phones or digital cameras in hand to record the charming details of the autumn colors. In the subway, the usual overcrowding sometimes reminds one of São Paulo. Arriving on Broadway, one sees that tickets for the most popular musicals still sell out before the line ends. After all, this isn’t 9/11. New Yorkers and visitors in general continue to go out on the street, occupy restaurant tables, and inject millions of dollars into commerce. Of course, perhaps they are doing this with a smaller appetite, as trumpeted by the newspaper articles about the falling consumer confidence index.
To breathe in the crisis air a little deeper, one needs to enter the financial district’s nerve center. After a restless trading session, The New York Stock Exchange’s operation room literally looks like the end of a day at the farmer’s market. Scraps of paper, plastic, and leftover food are scattered all over the floor. Mashed-up Starbucks cups show that traders don’t pass up a good dose of caffeine to keep up with the frenzied pace of trading. There, and it couldn’t be any different, the market never stopped.
It is the financial industry that’s really shaky on its feet, especially banks, as everyone already knows. It’s curious to notice how agents on the outskirts of this web are now feeling the toxic effects of the subprime crisis. Large law firms are having a hard time. Some of them, which are among the largest in the world in offering services to the capital market, and who have Brazilians among their partners, spoke to CAPITAL ABERTO.
“Everything shut down around here”, said a source tied to one of these firms. According to her, instead of the hustle and bustle of the IPO period, now there’s an uncomfortable amount of free time all around. It’s merger and acquisition operations that still drive the firm’s business – and even those have been cooling down lately. At another firm, tension is also present. “Fortunately, we are balanced and don’t depend so much on a certain segment”, says one of the partners. The capital market arm of his Brazilian office is practically frozen. “We haven’t received any new requests for IPOs or debt security offerings since mid-September, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt”, said one of the firm’s representatives in the country.
A common point among three of the firms contacted for this article is the certainty that contentious practice of Law will gain relevance as a source of revenue. “We have been consulted often by companies and investors”, a partner said. The crisis is likely to trigger a series of lawsuits, such as for faulty disclosure of exposure to excessive exchange risks, for example.
Activist investors are sharpening their claws and fangs to demand that companies take up their banners. “Banks need to review their credit policies, and executive remuneration needs to be more in line with shareholders’ interests”, stresses Stuart Dalheim, activism and litigations manager at Calvert, an asset manager with US$ 12.5 million in socially responsible investments. In order to be heard, Calvert may take its battles beyond shareholder meetings and resort to the legal system. Truly peaceful, Wall Street shall never be.