In 1988, I went to work on Wall Street. It was a job that I was thrilled to have, because even though I graduated with highest honors from a top school (Harvard), Wall Street was not terribly friendly to women and it had taken me a year to get hired. This was despite an amazing Wall Street boom during which the banks were throwing around money like confetti. I remember particularly my interview with Merrill Lynch, where I was met at the airport by a stretch limousine (my first ever) and taken to Princeton for a long series of meetings about a job that I hadn’t directly applied for — I couldn’t even quite figure out how I’d gotten in the running for it.
After my hire I quickly realized that we were at the end of the party. There had been a terrible stock drop — a "crash" — in 1987, and everyone was fearful that it would happen again. Banks started cutting costs in all sorts of annoying little ways — the dinner allowance was only $14 dollars, not quite enough to cover sushi, and you could no longer get the company to pay waiting time on a car service if you started to take it home and then decided to drop by a bar for a couple of hours.
And then one day, it happened: Black Friday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 7 percent in a single day. We pros always sniffed at the idea of the Dow, a basket of only 30 stocks, representing the broader market, so we all clustered around the Quotron — the one data machine our department had — and kept asking it about other indices. Unfortunately, the story of SPIN and SPAL — the then-acronyms for the broader Standard & Poor’s market index, was the same.
Well, times have changed. For one thing, if I wanted to know what the stock market was doing, I could ask the computer I’m typing on, tune nearly any TV to a financial cable channel, or just press a few buttons on my phone. (Down 116 points, or 1.4 percent, as I write this, according to Yahoo Finance.)
But for another, I gained some perspective by living through the mini-crash: The world didn’t end. Sure, the banks tightened their belts (mostly by "misfiling" the car service vouchers so we couldn’t find them) and some people lost jobs, but Wall Street reconstituted itself. The real estate market in New York City went down — good for me as a first-time buyer — but then it went up again.
This is what I try to tell my clients: markets are cyclical, sometimes impressively so. For example, Wall Street recessions are remarkably similar to each other. I wrote a blog post that shows that when Wall Street dives, it generally loses around a quarter of its jobs. That would mean a downturn would result in 40,000-50,000 layoffs (the city’s own forecast is currently 35,000). Since Wall Street tables generate a lot of crumbs, those job losses would ripple through the economy and there would probably be three times that many people actually out of work.
Horrible, yes, but not unprecedented, and not to the point where we’ll all be wearing barrels and selling apples on the street. I try to tell my clients that. I had a buyer client last fall who had inherited $10 million and was reluctant to spend $1 million of it on an apartment. "My family is just so nervous about where the economy is going," he said.
He ended up not buying, which I told him at the time was the wrong call. "Offer under asking," I had said. "Where are you going to put your money?" I added. "If the world really goes into the toilet, and China and India start eating everybody’s lunch, do you think your stocks will be worth anything? Or even your cash?"
Fast forward a year: the client lives in a rental. The apartment that he didn’t buy is probably worth 15 percent less than a year ago, while his stocks presumably have been hit 20 percent like everybody else’s. Any cash he has is presumably even, because he probably made 5 percent on it in some investment account, which balances current inflation of about 5 percent. So whether he’s up or down overall depends on his asset allocation.
However, he did miss a year of having a dining room and an office (we’re in New York, we deal in small and slightly-less-small here). In the interim, he paid Uncle Sam some of his money because he missed a year of mortgage-interest-deduction tax breaks.
What about next year? Up or down? My guess is flattish, but I just don’t know who can say. Henry Paulson? Warren Buffett? Even great minds like theirs can’t tell us what’s going to happen in 12 months. The one thing I would put money on is that over time, the price of that apartment goes back up again. I know that I certainly can’t predict the future — but I’ve seen it happen before.
Alison Rogers is a licensed salesperson and author of "Diary of a Real Estate Rookie."
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