Michael Schnayerson’s very long and somewhat rambling account of the panic through the eyes of over-extended bankers in Vanity Fair may be the most insightful take on the whole mess. Or it may just be schaden-porn, a great way to both ogle over-spending while feeling superior to it. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.
Schnayerson tries to connect the I-banker’s (and hedgie’s) culture of excess with the experience of Lehman’s disinherited, especially Joseph Gregory who seems to have wound up with . . . nothing.
Only months ago, ordering that $1,950 bottle of 2003 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at Craft restaurant or the $26-per-ounce Wagyu beef at Nobu, or sliding into Masa for the $600 prix fixe dinner (not including tax, tip, or drinks), was a way of life for many Wall Street investment bankers. “The culture was that if you didn’t spend extravagantly you’d be ridiculed at work,” says a former Lehmanite. But that was when there were investment banks.[ . . . ]
Most 60-year-old ex–Lehman Brothers bankers likely squirreled away enough to at least scrape by on a couple of million a year. As for the 25-year-olds, they never earned enough to have much to lose. But the mid-30s or mid-40s Lehman banker who lived up to his high compensation—or beyond it—is reeling, hurting, and possibly bankrupt.
One Sunday evening in October, a former Lehmanite in his mid-30s settles into a velvet banquette at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s elegant Rose Bar. At first he’s circumspect. But after a couple of Johnnie Walker Blacks on the rocks, he opens up.
“Let’s take a guy who makes $5 million a year,” the banker suggests. “He’s paid two and a half million dollars of that in equity compensation”—Lehman Brothers stock. Plus he gets to buy that stock at a 30 percent discount, so he’s really getting $3.25 million in stock. “Plus appreciation? Over five years? That’s $25 to $30 million!
“Then let’s say a guy in that position borrowed $5 million against the $30 million in stock. It would seem a very conservative loan, right? Until the $30 million goes down to zero, which is what happened. So now he’s negative $5 million.”
True, that same Lehman banker got the other half of his compensation in cash. The banker nods. “For five years, he made two and a half million dollars a year in cash. So that’s twelve and a half million dollars. But of course he’s had to pay more or less 50 percent in taxes, so divide that and he’s got six and a quarter million. He’s probably spent that money over those five years—$1 million a year, it’s not so hard to do, right? So he has nothing—and he has to repay that $5 million loan.” [ . . . ]
Alexandra Lebenthal, a New York–based wealth manager for investors with between $2 million and $20 million in assets—the modest to mid-level rich—offers a keenly authoritative portrait of a thirtysomething Lehman banker, married with kids, in a guest column called “What It Costs” on the Web site NewYorkSocialDiary. Blake and Grigsby Somerset are fictional, their finances all too plausible.
Before Lehman’s stock began to plummet, Lebenthal suggests, Blake’s annual compensation was $9.5 million—much of that in company stock. He was carrying a $2 million loan used for a house in the Hamptons, but felt perfectly able to afford his annual expenses: the Park Avenue apartment maintenance ($120,000); the Hamptons house mortgage ($75,000); the nanny and driver ($100,000); his wife’s clothing ($100,000); the personal trainer three times a week ($18,000); food, including restaurants ($30,000); charitable benefits and other nonprofit causes ($200,000); private school for three children ($78,000); Christmas in Palm Beach ($15,000); spring in Aspen ($15,000); and a wedding-anniversary diamond necklace for Grigsby ($50,000).
Profiles in Panic
Vanity Fair, December, 2008