Clear blue skies, no humidity and a slight breeze. It’s somewhat sad that the ingredients for an amazing fall day can stir up such shilling memories from more than a decade ago. On a day of cruel ironies, one of the oddest disconnects was the glorious weather. Did it have to happen on such a beautiful day?
I got my job thanks to Osama Bin Laden. I thought of this variation of the classic "I got my job through the New York Times" ad campaign in the weeks after the attacks when I accepted a position at a financial technology magazine that had lost people on 9/11. They were holding their first annual congress at Windows on the World atop the North Tower and 16 employees - one of them a temp who was hired for that very event - and 65 delegates were lost when the towers fell. On my first day at work on the Monday after Thanksgiving a surviving employee showed me how to set up my office phone but first she had to delete dozens of worried voicemails from people asking if the previous occupant at my desk was okay. "David, are you okay? Please call." He was David Rivers, editor of Waters, and he left behind a wife and a son. I later took his position as editor but I knew I never took his place.
New York City was different back then. Not to sound like Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan and Bush 41 speechwriter who can gush and swoon on cue, but people were nicer and more polite in the days that followed to attacks. The city had been traumatized and the financial industry had been devastated. Firms like Cantor Fitzgerald lost hundreds of employees, entire trading floors were leveled and some very smart people who contributed to the industry were gone forever. Back then, industry leaders with foresight were pushing for T+1, the settlement of trades one day after the deal was made. The collapse of the towers and the push to get back to work put this noble goal to the backburner. One person later told me that a lot of the people pushing for T+1 were lost at the Waters Congress and so a smart idea was delayed.
Looking back at the last decade, one has to wonder which was the more catastrophic event to hit Wall Street. Of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001 had an almost unfathomable loss of life - nearly 2,500 people died in the span of 90 minutes - but fast forward a few years and we remember a more slow-moving disaster. The credit crisis of 2008 may not have been something out of a Michael Bay blockbuster but it was far more destructive to Wall Street and the reputation of anyone who worked in finance. Entire firms that seemed healthy teetered and collapsed or were forced into shotgun mergers in order to avoid the fates of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The greed and the cluelessness are shocking to us now, not the violence and the loss of life of 2001. If a pair of hijacked airliners hit Wall Street now, one wonders how many would truly mourn for the one percent.
A Mission to Rebuild
What a change. In the days after 9/11, the entire financial industry rallied to get back to work. The New York Stock Exchange did not trade for a week so that financial firms could rebuild trading floors, set up new offices and fire up new equipment. The Sungard recovery center in northern New Jersey was humming within hours after the events. One Sungard employee recalled that when traders reported to the recovery center, some were covered in dust and ash from the cloud that rolled from what was to called Ground Zero. People embraced one another in sheer relief. "They didn't know that the person who sat next to them in the office was still alive," he recalled.
The sheer determination to show the terrorists that this attack - no matter how audacious and spectacular - would not destroy Wall Street was palpable. Technology providers like Microsoft, IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems moved heaven and Earth to get equipment to the financial district. One Sun employee remembered that they had drivers working in pairs so that one could sleep while the other drove blade servers and workstations to Manhattan. Firms that had lost entire offices, like the soon-to-disappear Lehman Brothers, built a brand new trading floor from scratch so that it could trade when the markets opened. If you were a technologist, it was your shining moment.
What a change indeed. We now live in a financial world where investment firms gamble vast sums, fire off algos that they cannot entirely control, and demand bonuses even when a firm loses money and the economy remains in a ditch. The investment firms and banks that took bailouts refuse to learn any lessons that brought them to the brink - look no further than the London Whale betting and losing billions inside JP Morgan Chase this summer. For an industry full of smart men and women, no one seems to have a sense of history or proportion. Is this really the same Wall Street that worked so hard to trade another day?
We’re now into the second decade since the attacks of 9/11. That gorgeous yet chilling day may fade somewhat in our memories but there are still lessons to be learned. This is why we remember and reflect.