After Lehman - Fear and wariness

We're recovering but we're more cautious. And that may not be so bad.

By Andy Serwer, managing editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It was around 10 p.m., exactly one year ago today, and I was standing out in front of Lehman Brothers on 7th Avenue watching as the then fourth largest investment bank in the world melted down. As I took in the scene, Lehman employees carrying out boxes under the kleig lights, past the police cordons, some shouting out angrily to perplexed tourists who had no idea what was going on, it dawned on me that the world was going to change. (The last time I felt anything like that, by the way, was when I watched the World Trade Center collapse, seven years to the month earlier.)

Today, we do seem to be on the mend. An investment banker friend of mine at Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500) reports that he is extremely busy...finally. A derivative banker reports that he has just priced a new issue at a much higher price than he anticipated. Wall Street sage Vince Farrell notes the incipient recovery is proceeding on a variety of fronts, most especially in China.

And yet employment remains a problem and if there were ever a true barometer of economic well-being, that is it. Bottom line: There is still a paucity of demand, and businesses either have no need to hire (and may still be cutting back), or if they are seeing inklings of demand will wait before rehiring.

Underpinning all this is fear, and that ladies and gentleman is not necessarily such a bad thing. Because the simple fact is that what got us into this horrible mess was the flip side to the current sentiment, i.e., a lack of fear. As in: "Have no fear, this homeowner can pay, and if they can't they will sell and the loan will be whole because the house will have appreciated." Couple that line with myriad other "fear not" sales pitches, and all of a sudden you have yourself a full-blown bubble.

So being wary is a good thing. We all need to ask: What could wrong with a given transaction? What is the worst case scenario? How am I protected? At Lehman back then, the answer all too frequently was "fear not." This is Lehman. What's the worst that can happen? Implicit was that bankruptcy and liquidation were not possibilities. But they were. They always are. And all of us would do well to never forget that. To top of page

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