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The big apple and the big worm


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An article of mine dated Feb 2009 when the crisis was already tangible but too many optimistic liberal didn't want to see it

Published in: Economy & Finance, Business
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The big apple and the big worm

  1. 1. The Big Apple and the Big Wormby Pierluigi OratiIt’s six o’clock in the afternoon local time on Tuesday, February 3, 2009 when I land in freezing New York fora week of work with colleagues from energy companies all over the world to finalize a document that we’vebeen drawing up for two years in working groups moving around the planet.For our final session, we decided to meet in the Big Apple, because we would be the guests of a consultingfirm that apparently – nothing is free-of-charge here – is hunting for large and prosperous clients to whichthey can offer their costly services.I go through the ordeal of the increasingly technological and thorough security checks. This time, in additionto my digitalized fingerprints, CIA’s database – as statistically ineffective as it is vast – acquired a photo ofmy iris, which a paunchy policeman with a clearly Italian surname took with a webcam similar to the onesyou use when you chat from home. The schizophrenia of the place I’m going to be visiting for the fourth timein my life is emphasized by the fact that, once I’ve collected my baggage, there is an umpteenth check, thistime by a colored policeman, who, after roughly inspecting everything down to the last pair of socks, says,“Welcome to the United States of America, sir”. Thank goodness I’m welcome; otherwise, they would haveput an orange sweat suit on me and sent me to “American Cuba” as one of the last guests before the alreadyannounced closure of the “Guantanamo Hotel”, which has few stars, but many stripes.I take a taxi from JFK Airport and my driver’s name is Ali. (His license and name are prominently displayedfor passengers, and I can make a complaint through a toll-free number at any time during the trip.) He asksme right away where I’m going, not out of interest or to start calculating how to squeeze more money out ofme as he would have in Rome. Here there is a flat fare of 45 dollars from the airport to Manhattan, set notby the market, but by Mayor Bloomberg, the neo-planner of New York’s transportation economy.Ali’s question is urgent, because – like 90% of the taxi drivers who will take me around during the rest of theweek – he is an observant Moslem and must pray four times a day according to a precise schedule. I hopehe has calculated correctly. Otherwise, I’ll be jet-lagging in a New York taxi pointed in the direction of Mecca:me, a person who, already racked by the excessive presence of bishops in the Italian media, just wants a hotshower and a comfortable bed.Since I’m in the area and waiting for the welcoming dinner with my colleagues that will take place in a fewhours (where we all pay for ourselves, because – as I’ve said – there are no free meals here, much lessduring a crisis), I stroll through the financial district. Pine Street, Wall Street, William Street: these constitutethe throbbing heart – which, having suffered an attack, now has numerous pacemakers – of the Americaneconomy.The Celsius-scale thermometer that I brought with me shows 10 degrees below zero at 9 in the morning. Itseems that lately the minus sign (especially around the New York Stock Exchange) has been a sad constantand it occurs to me that perhaps, in their unbridled optimism, the pioneers chose the Fahrenheit scaleprecisely in order to not feel below zero even when the temperature was polar.All things considered, they made a wise decision back then. It appears that nowadays the “perceived”temperature is more important than the “real” one, and would you rather have minus ten Celsius or the muchmore “spring-like” 15 degrees Fahrenheit?
  2. 2. In addition to the bustle of traders and bankers on the streets of the financial district, as well as of extremelyelegant women always engaged in conversations on their cell phones (the only real traders whose market isstill flourishing and vibrant), the place is constantly swarming with tourists and pilgrims devoted to the moneygod. It’s not unusual to see entire families, of all ethnic groups and origins, snapping photos as they smileagainst the background of gray Wall Street (gray by definition, because it’s in the shadow of skyscrapers,and thus with very little, if any, sunlight) or squeezing the testicles of the statue of the bull, which representsthe strength and power of the market.iNeedless to say, an indication of the “rationality” that guides the traders of the third millennium is that itwould be futile to look for the “Bear”, which, in the semiotics of the NYSE and its colonies throughout theworld, indicates a downward trend and thus unfavorable circumstances. And then, as a Neapolitan taxi driverconfirmed to me, they say that New York is run by the Italian mafia. Considering its huge internationalbusiness and its cosmopolitanism, if that were true, it would have relocated the Stock Exchange of StockExchanges in the Horn of Africa quite a while ago.At the intersection of Wall Street and Pine Street I run into a sandwich man, who asks me to follow him into anearby store. Before I even open my mouth, he immediately identifies me as a European, and then, asecond later, as an Italian. (He’s certainly more effective than the diabolical instruments of the immigrationoffice at customs. All it took him was a glance at my clothes.) As someone who grew up with serials like TheJeffersons, which was already being televised by Channel 5 in the 1980s, I don’t find his appearancedisturbing, but I’m not in the mood for shopping, and so I ask him to explain the “deal” that he’s about to offerme.Before he responds, I quickly glance over the sign he’s wearing and see that “WE BUY GOLD”, words thatstand out aggressively all over the financial district. Then he starts off by saying that surely I make a goodliving and am well off and that, therefore, I own gold and/or jewels. That’s what he wants from me: gold. Andhe’s ready to bargain securely and fairly with me, with lots of greenbacks for every ounce. I elude his offer ina nice way, explaining with a couple of quips that the only gold I always carry with me is in my surname[translator’s note: Orati derives from ‘oro’, the Italian word for gold] and then continue my walk in the cementjungle surrounding me. I’m sure that if he trusted me more he would propose the purchase of Rolexes withthe yellow metal, of which many yuppies must have unburdened themselves while waiting for better times.This morning I am stopped and requested to bargain like I just told about at least three times by gentlemenwho are very visible and more insistent than ever, with an escalation of offers and possible solutions tofinalizing the deal.
  3. 3. Somewhat surprised and shocked by it all, I go back towards the hotel wondering about the meaning ofwhat has just happened. Are we perhaps going back to the gold standard? Do the gentlemen who insistentlystopped me on the street perhaps “sense” that the currency in circulation is dangerously becoming wastepaper and therefore consider that the only life buoy to hold on to is the noble metal?I just have time to stop at a crowded cafe where the TV continuously spews out news about financialmarkets when, confirming what I just experienced, I see a commercial in pure Yankee style, with a blondfather recommending that his audience invest in gold: “a safe haven for you and your families”.It makes you think that something is really wrong, not in the economy itself, where the recession is deep andis proclaimed as such, but in the technical “culture” of the highest economic policymakers. The demand forthe “shelter good” par excellence, the considerable drop in the prices of all kinds of products, andshopkeepers standing at the door of their half-empty stores are sure signs of the classic dearth of “cash”. Iwonder what has happened to the millions of dollars that the Fed has injected into the market in the last year
  4. 4. and a half. Of course, I don’t have to marshal “scientists” to remind us that during a serious recession theeconomy is like a horse to which you can take all the water you want without it drinking any, indicating thatthe cause of the credit crunch isn’t monetary.Of course, the practically negative real interest rate at least ensures that – unlike what happened in 1929 –you can walk in the bank district without suicide bankers falling on top of you. However, you have to stay onthe sidewalk as much as possible and be especially cautious when crossing a street. Otherwise, you riskbeing run over by CEOs who – having flooding the world with toxic securities and exploited the “monetarist”blindness that led to the belief that everything stemmed from a shortage of “liquidity” – are beating it atbreak-neck speed after taking advantage of Bernanke’s generous udder to further drain the coffers of their“enterprises” and give themselves mind-boggling golden handshakes.(The subway: Should Wall Street or the Bronx be considered more” disreputable” and dangerous nowadays?)It is only because of their different position in the “international division of labor” that their moral equivalentsin Colombia are pursued by police from all over the world. But there has to be a difference between citizensof the “developed” world and those of the underdeveloped one.The “Big Apple”! I think I understand the deep reasons for such a nickname for the metropolis that is still thecapital of the business world. When these are seen in the context of capitalism, which never ceases tocyclically wreak havoc and produce “poverty in the midst of abundance” – not according to Lenin, but thesnob of the Society of the Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group, Keynes – they are an indication that the “bigworm” of crisis is insidiously thriving there.And when you least expect it – while you believe in the perennial wonders of the “Bull” and the infinite waysof growth – the worm breaks the polished and smiling surface of Snow White’s fruit and, instead of PrinceCharming, steps out of the Hollywood-made fairy tale and offers to buy “GOLD” in the vicinity of Wall Street.And curiously enough, in the States the Big Apple is also the capital of the aptly named “Barbary Coast”.