Wall Street bullish on nation's future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- It took Paul Kothari 24 hours to become an official American capitalist. The online Wall Street publication he helped build, TheStreet.com, went public the morning of May 11, 1999, its stock value soaring in frenzied trading.

That afternoon, a far-richer Kothari left the trading-floor excitement, climbed into a waiting car and arrived at a crowded immigration office in Newark, N.J., where the Indian immigrant promptly took an oath to become a U.S. citizen.

Since his first weekend in the United States in 1976, when he watched the bicentennial fireworks over the Washington Monument, Kothari has been waiting for his wild ride on Wall Street.

He's finally getting it. The 46-year-old, undaunted by TheStreet.com's tumble in the spring's dizzying tech stock shakedown, promptly quit the company and raised $140 million for his new telecommunications firm in anticipation of even greater rewards.

"This is," he says, "a wonderful American dream we are dreaming."

Wall Street is having a party. The place that during the past decade or so has provided a gusher of wealth, if also some dizzying downturns, offers a picture of high life and heady optimism.

Wall Street denizens, their prospects made many times brighter by soaring markets, epic mergers and a technology boom that has turned entrepreneurs into cult figures, believe in the future and want badly to preserve the abundance.

But beneath their confidence is an undercurrent of anxiety. Mergers are leaving corporate castoffs. Overvalued tech start-ups are running aground. Even vastly successful brokers wonder if it is all too good to be true.

The nervousness seeped into a recent book group selection by spouses of Wall Street executives, who chose to read "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale of roaring times gone sour in the 1920s. Even as hot dog stand umbrellas exuberantly shout "Buy! Sell!" the young-and-hungries spilling out of the skyscrapers at lunchtime worry where all that fervor could lead.

"I make a very good living, but I spend it fast. I wake up every day thinking it could all be gone tomorrow," says Michael Oromaner, 30, a hard-charging broker who fills million-dollar orders each day but takes anti-depressants to cope with panic attacks. "They call it 'affluenza.'"

A new Gilded Age

Still, most Wall Street faithful see the future of the country in terms of the future of the financial district -- as long as the economy delivers, so, too, does the nation. With the caveat that the government shouldn't tinker and tax and regulate too much, most Wall Street regulars say the country will continue to enjoy a new Gilded Age -- the longest sustained period of peacetime economic growth on record.

Though many fret that much of the next generation will lack the skills to compete, fear a recession or war, and worry that the country is losing its moral compass, those concerns are overshadowed by an abiding hopefulness about the here and now.

"It's been straight-up, good-time sailing," says Wall Street investment banker Chris Camerino, 31, before hopping a plane to Italy for a three-week vacation. "I'm definitely better off than I was eight years ago. Lots of people are."

To many, the prosperity owes much to the digital era, with ever-larger waves of people getting access to the markets and new industries fueled by a technological age.

"I don't know how long it will last, I don't know if it will ever come around again in our lifetime, but I put what is happening in the country right now on par with a revolution," says Michael Bell, a Washington lawyer whose client had just gone public on the New York Stock Exchange that morning. "At [first] we had the Industrial Revolution. This is a new Information Revolution."

For Wall Street's contrarians, though, the vast prosperity is slowly coarsening the society that shares in it, making the haves far less interested in the have-nots and turning materialism into a national craze. Self-made businessmen like Oromaner are keenly aware of the trade-offs in his profession.

He is a creature of the primal Wall Street experience -- 15-hour days that start at 4 a.m., strip clubs after work, penny stock trading for cash and $1,500-a-night benders with his office buddies. He works out every evening to blow off steam and then returns to the office when most people are heading home. He wears custom-made, monogrammed shirts even though he does most of his work by phone ("They can hear it if you're cheaply dressed") and went from a "dead broke" job driving limousines for rock bands to a $170,000 income last year. His girlfriend left him after deciding he worked too much. He doesn't blame her.

"You get too callous," says Oromaner, who sports a no-maintenance buzz cut and dark circles under piercing hazel eyes. "This business is a huge wear and tear on your soul. You make money, but you make a sacrifice."

Inside Wall Street's storied canyons, beyond the BMW coupes and idling Town Cars, some here are building up far less eye-catching bank accounts as they struggle with the everyday cost of living and the soaring price of a college education.

"I haven't bought shoes in five years," says Michael McCarty, 35, a technical coordinator for the National Association of Securities Dealers, anxious about the cost of raising his small children. "If you're young and very aggressive, there's millions to be made here. But for guys like me, you want to prioritize and put your family first, you've got to work most of your life. You can't retire tomorrow."

A certain sobriety has surfaced on Wall Street after this year's tech stock crash, which halved some brokers' accounts, squashed some tech mergers, hurt dot-coms in search of venture capital and scared investors.

"Credit card debt and personal bankruptcies are high. People have less of a cushion to fall back on," says Donna Childs, CEO of a financial services advisory firm on Wall Street. "We gather around tickertapes like fireplaces, but there's not enough attention on the long-term health of the economy. Is this wealth really lasting?"

But dot-com stocks are only a piece of the picture, and even the tech stock plunge of April 14 settled 40 percent higher than the low of the previous year. The Dow has soared, as investors jumped at new stocks and stood by the old standard, blue chips. The market has gone mainstream, with even the untested new investors staring fixedly at stock quotes on CNBC. High-profile corporate acquisitions have dominated the front pages and triggered a buying mania. Not just the executives in high-rise suites, but the security guard outside the offices of J. P. Morgan owns stock. As tourists wait in long lines to see the stock exchange, the new economy seems like the city's hottest celebrity.

"It's the world of money," says Anya Block, 31, with the design think tank New York Zoom Inc., down the street from the exchange. "The people who didn't survive left and the people who did stayed."

The picture painted by most on Wall Street is one of comfort, indulgence and anxieties that come mostly from good times. Instead of fearing joblessness or slashed pay, many worry about finding more family time or wonder whether their 401(k) is growing fast enough or fret about when they can quit and be their own boss.

Slap suntan oil on Wall Street's new optimism and you get the world view of Mike Giarretto. At a Wall Street bar, the 28-year-old broker with Zurich Capital Markets regales his buddies with the sights on his recent vacation at Hedonism III -- a Jamaican resort where clothing is optional and the trapeze rides are free. Over the cocktail hour din, Giarretto avoids talk about the nude hot tub long enough to note that in four years his wealth has grown 200 percent.

"I finally have things in my life that I know I always wanted," says Giarretto, the son of a Brooklyn luncheonette owner, who plans to pay for his father's retirement. "The old generation is shifting out."

On The Street itself, festooned with signs declaring the city "The Millennium Capital of the World," the enthusiasm is catching. "Even if someone's down," says hot dog vendor Antonio Psaroudis, "somebody else is up."

Money politics, few worries

Conventional wisdom has it that Wall Street will be kind to the Republicans. But avowed members of the GOP give President Clinton grudging credit for "not messing up" the economy. Here, in fact, even many Democrats want capital-gains tax cuts and the government's hands off Wall Street's affairs. Here, allegiances are to money, not party.

Even so, concerns loom over the fate of the next generation. Among them, fears of a growing digital divide, in which students from low-income families are unable to take advantage of the Computer Age. Many worry that this divide will ultimately clobber the economy.

"Children educated in New York City schools can barely read," says Jerry Colonna, 36, a venture capitalist and an active Democrat who wants the government to pour money into public education. "All of a sudden, people are going to realize a wide disparity in access to knowledge, and that could grind the economy to a halt and create enormous conflict."

A flock of tech-age anxieties also abound -- like the belief that computers are slowly stripping away personal privacy and putting confidential information into the hands of governments, neighbors, even criminals.

The ultimate casualty of this fast-paced culture, some say, is morality. Critics contend Wall Street did not show nearly enough outrage when the Clinton administration became embroiled in scandals or when children shot each other in schoolyards -- mainly because people here were too distracted by their own progress and prosperity.

"The yuppie couples are doing better every quarter; they don't care about disgrace in the White House," says Bob Cunningham, 41, a day trader throwing back a Coors at Delmonico's steakhouse after the closing bell. "Everyone has their second SUV and their second house, and they don't need anything else. It makes me ill. Parents are not at home looking after their kids. They're out making more money, and the kids are shooting guns like with Columbine."

Others simply feel forgotten.

"I see the system failing people," says Susan Agoglia, 43, a hairdresser working in the basement of a Wall Street skyscraper. After a stint on welfare, a period in shelters for battered women and a court fight that cost her custody of her children, she feels voiceless. "I'm just now trying to get back on my feet," she says, "but the cost of living is killing me."

But such concerns are a few blocks and a long elevator ride away from J. P. Morgan's old pied-a-terre at 14 Wall St., now a penthouse restaurant. Here at the bar looking down on the financial district, even looking down on the Statue of Liberty, people like Tony Segreti still consider Wall Street the ultimate power -- bigger than presidents, even. The greatest hope is that the money keeps flowing and the government stays quietly out of the way.

"It works beautifully when nothing gets done in Washington," says Republican Segreti, 53, an operations manager for the specialist firm Stern and Kennedy, over Merits and white wine. "Let's say there's a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress -- that's the best. People are pretty smart, they know to tie the politicians' hands."

Listening to the New America

Sunday: Some older Americans enjoy an active, engaged retirement - and the financial freedom to look beyond their own needs to more public-spirited concerns.

Monday: Many blue-collar workers are struggling to find their place in an American economy turned topsy-turvy by technology.

Wednesday: How do members of the new black economic elite view the future for themselves, their children and the nation?

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