REFLECTIONS (c) June, 2010

The broker leaned back in his seat as the Friday evening express pulled out of Grand Central Terminal. He was relieved to be out of Manhattan for the weekend. In Stamford, he’d switch to his own car for the final leg of the journey home. Maybe he’d beat midnight.

The train coach was less than a third full, so the broker had a seating area to himself. He chose the aisle seat, placing his briefcase protectively between his body and the window. He didn’t mind the homebound commute. The solitary ride would give him space to process the week.  

And what a week. The broker turned off his cell phone and removed the wireless earpiece, dropping both into his suit coat pocket. He couldn’t bear another phone conversation. He needed to unwind. What a year.

He contemplated his situation. He had worked exhausting schedules for two decades to attain and maintain a seven-figure income. By all rights, he should be comfortable in his profession, but he felt anything but. Economic, political and regulatory winds were swirling.

The markets routinely rose and fell, but this was different. The soaring national debt, residential mortgage meltdown and impending bond implosion threatened a catastrophic failure of the system. The Federal government was fueling the chaos through capricious intervention. Unaccountable bureaucrats arbitrarily wielded power to reshape and limit his profession.

The hairpin turns on the money highway were becoming perilously difficult to negotiate.

The train stopped briefly at the 125th Street station in Harlem. He watched several passengers rise and shuffle through the exit. No one else boarded. The journey resumed and a conductor strolled through the car checking tickets. The man offered his without comment.

Not that the financial services industry is without sin, he admitted.

Boundless greed had taken the investment community far beyond the protective boundaries of common sense and basic integrity. Over time, greed had parented an irrevocable co-dependency between the investment community and the Feds: the financial houses covering their astronomical losses with blank checks from the Treasury; the Feds purchasing greater and greater control with each transfer of wealth.

Who will prove the greater fools in the end? he wondered.

The effect of this transformed business landscape was to wedge individual brokers into a dangerous position. He was legally bound by established investment protocol in the counsel he gave his clients. But events and intentions were systematically eroding those presuppositions. That loss of a reliable basis for financial counsel placed him and clients at risk.

Though his peers dared not speak openly, the whispers were getting louder.

Over drinks that week, a fellow broker compared their situation to a football team driving for the winning touchdown, only to discover the officials had just torn up the rulebook. “Just run your plays as usual,” instructs the head linesman, “after which we’ll flag you if you’ve violated any of the new, unpublished rules.”

The financial landscape was contorting. A blizzard of regulatory reforms was rewriting the traditional rules for financial planning. Givens were morphing into guesses. Perhaps no financial advice given today would prove valid three years from now. Or six months from now.

Apprehension was drifting in like a toxic fog. How could the best financial planning today avoid running aground on tomorrow’s still-to-be-determined realities? What new liabilities would accrue to him because of unavoidable negative outcomes? He could only imagine what his errors and omissions insurance would cost next year.

The train passed through Fordham Station without stopping.

His clients were becoming restless. And rightly so. While they did not know what he knew, most were well enough informed to know the system was being gamed. They rightly judged that the system was not being gamed to their advantage.

Confidence was at risk. The self-defeating responses of Wall Street and the culture-crashing intervention of Pennsylvania Avenue to the nation’s mounting financial woes were telegraphing the system’s inability to properly manage the investment services industry. Confidence was the bedrock of the system. Without investor confidence….

The train jerked as it passed under an overpass.

The man glanced to his right to steady his briefcase. The tinted window reflected back the interior of the car with his face in the center. He winced. His shirt and suit were wrinkled after a fourteen hour day. His tie was crooked. His five o’clock shadow was heavy. His eyes dark.

He stared into his reflected eyes. He was troubled by their troubled look. Business success demanded an aura of confidence. His eyes barely concealed his anxiety. Barely concealed the lie. He willed them to project an attitude of supreme confidence, but they stared back troubled and unyielding. He looked away first, losing the battle of the will.

The lights of Williams Bridge slipped by as the train sped toward Pelham. 

He closed his eyes and shifted his weight to relieve the pain in his back. If he allowed himself to relax, he would fall asleep in moments. Not good. He might miss his stop. And he had his briefcase to protect. He tried to rest without dozing.

How had things degraded so? How had things reached this point? How had the government taken such liberties without challenge? How had his own industry lost its senses in the derivatives market?

The weary man’s mind continued to spin, so he gave up the effort to rest and gazed mindlessly at the urban lights slipping by in the darkness.

And, at the…?

There was something odd reflecting in the train window. Something other than the interior of the car and his own figure. He focused on the reflected image in the window. There was a faint picture visible within the reflection of the train car’s interior. Something strange.

He turned to survey his surroundings. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There was nothing in the passenger car to produce an abnormal reflection in the window. But he had seen something.

Or had he?

He shook his head and massaged his face and eyes with his palms. The stress must be affecting my vision. He’d need to be particularly careful on the drive home from the station.

Another mile passed and he glimpsed the strange reflection off the inside of the coach window again. This time the image was more distinct. He saw what appeared to be a rural setting. Lush, green fields rose gently to an ancient forest. The trees were close together, massive and tall.

What in the world…?

The train passed through Pelham Station and the image disappeared in the brighter lighting.

When the train re-entered the darkness, the reflection returned, more distinct than before. There were people now, a crowd of them, moving purposefully up the slope toward the forest with tools in their hands. They were dressed is primitive attire. Their hair styles were different than any he had seen. The scene was obviously not in America.

Africa, perhaps?

Some of the figures were chopping at the base of a huge tree with the obvious intention of felling it. To one side, a second group was cutting at a similar tree lying on the ground. Their companions were dragging away pieces of the dismembered tree to long pits in the ground.

There, other workers were piling the wood into the pits, setting them afire and covering them with earth. Further along, other workers were uncovering similar pits and removing what appeared to be charcoal. A final group could be seen carrying large bags down the slope.

The image vanished.

I’d better get some rest this weekend, he cautioned himself.

No, the financial picture was beyond disturbing. If current trends continued, mega-inflation would soon devour the endowments and retirement accounts of two generations. Decades of work, savings and hopes would be gone with the wind.

For younger clients, life might still provide the opportunity to recover and restore lost fortunes. But for retirement-aged Boomers, the losses would be disastrously permanent. The disinherited would face a financially-strapped retirement rather than the life of ease they had worked so long to create. Many of his older clients fell into the latter category. He grunted.

Gold!

Many investors were already fleeing the markets. Many were choosing gold as their final refugee. Though gold did hold its value, gold’s net worth did not increase. And gold shared the disadvantages of all tangible assets: it had to be stored, protected and eventually converted.

The gossip on the Street was that the Feds were waiting for just the right moment to confiscate the yellow metal. They would pay for it, of course, with Monopoly money. Roosevelt had stripped the country of its gold. There was no reason to think the current administration would respect personal ownership any more than he had.

Everyone was looking for was a safe haven. A fiscal shelter where wealth could be securely preserved and enjoyed. But did such a place exist in 21st century America? He could think of none.

There it is again.

The reflected interior of the rail car was once again infused with the earlier rural scene. The activities of the people were continuing. In fact, the number of workers had increased. Other details had changed. Half the forest was gone and the grass seemed less luxuriant. The broker felt uneasy.

Brighter outdoor lights dimmed the reflection again.

All brokers attended mandatory ethics courses, but how many took the continuing education classes seriously? In private, however, the discussions were, How can we increase profits? and, In the end, what can be defended as having been legal? Most talk of ethics was social window dressing. God help the broker who raised genuine ethical concerns with management over sales practices! If there were a god, he probably wouldn’t.

The reflection returned.

The broker’s unease grew with the reappearance of the apparition. And his fascination. What was producing the images? What could this scene be? What could it mean? Certainly there was nothing in the rail coach to generate the reflection. There was nothing in his imagination to create such pictures.

Most of the trees were gone. The ground was deformed by the scars of innumerable pits. The number of workers was decreased by half. The grass was brown and brittle. Everything was dulled by a jaundiced haze.

The lights of Greenwich passed. The city of millionaires. He straightened his tie and rested his case on the floor between his feet. What would happen if the dollar collapsed? What would happen if everything built on the dollar came down with it? He wondered how the city of millionaires would fare in the coming collapse? Not that he cared.

Almost to Stamford.

He had read articles about Zimbabwe’s politically-driven fiscal collapse. Disease and hunger and tyranny followed. A decade ago the Zimbabwe dollar was strong. Today one US dollar purchased 1 trillion Zimbabwe dollars.

Of course nothing so drastic could happen in America. America was too stable. America was too wealthy.  America was too powerful. America was too big to fail.

The reflection reappeared.

He straightened with a start. The trees were gone. The slope and its scars were covered with drifting sand. Only a handful of people remained, scratching in the dunes. The world in the reflection was severely degraded. The world in the window was dead.

The train slowed into Stamford station. The reflection died.

The broker gathered himself and his case and headed for the platform. His mind had already shifted to the weekend schedule. Saturday’s activities surrounding the Yale game. Bedtime sex with Liz if she could be pursuaded. Sunday afternoon’s charity walk. He was determined to pack a lost week of life into two days.

On Monday he would return  to the city early. He would make his fortune before confiscatory taxes made new fortunes impossible. He would look outside the box for his personal finances. Maybe he’d move everything off-shore. He vowed to do whatever was necessary to preserve what he had accumulated.

The broker cleared the station platform and strode toward the car park. The sharp wind whipped several fallen leaves across his path. The chill suggested an early winter. Perhaps a long one.

By the time the broker buckled his seat belt and started his luxury car, he had already forgotten the reflections in the window. By the time the images came back to him, by the time understanding of their import finally dawned, it would be too late to do him any good.

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