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Not wanting to be too conspicuous about their bounce-back from the recession, the biggest earners, and spenders—Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the like—generally opted out of the lavish party scene this year, at least for many of their underlings. Not nearly as many opulent holiday feasts. Drinks were much more often on individual bosses than on the firms' corporate accounts, according to an unscientific but in-person Voice tour of Wall Street parties and party spots.
Wall Street skipped a beat, but the holiday parties are a lagging indicator. The December '08 parties were lavish, despite the meltdown. (There may have been a mood akin to dancing on the Titanic.) This year's parties were, in general, scaled back, despite the Street's having righted itself with a government rescue.
This season, employees got some choice advice from their firms: Avoid groups larger than 10 (Goldman). If someone asks where you are from, don't answer (Morgan). Having a lavish party, explained a banker who was drinking at Delmonico's, is like "wearing a sign on your forehead that says, 'I'm about to get a huge freakin' bonus.' " (The banker was hoping for just that.)
Among themselves, though, the mood was decidedly upbeat, especially when compared to the apocalyptic December of 2008. Things are much better now, and Wall Streeters aren't exactly wearing sackcloth. People have been wrong to demonize Wall Street, insisted a 26-year-old banker, who added that even his parents didn't understand what he did. "Look," he explained during a party at Fraunces Tavern, "we're providing liquidity in the market." Referring to the mortgage crisis, he said, "Were it not for Wall Street, that family could not have bought that house in the first place."
But what about that family's foreclosed home and lost jobs? Was he angry or upset? The banker shook his head and quickly replied, "Not at all." Then he shrugged and said he had nothing to be angry about. "I have a good life," he said. "I have fun on the weekends."
A colleague standing nearby agreed—and marveled at how far removed his own job was from the reality for many on Main Street. "Today, I was on the phone doing a $250 million deal," he said. "And while I'm doing it, I'm thinking, 'It's nuts! It's really nuts! Two hundred and fifty million—and it means nothing.' " Is Wall Street divorced from reality? Not really, he said, adding, "They know the effect this has on average persons' lives. They know."
Last year, at this time, the young bankers were focusing on their own, imperiled lives. "Last year, everyone was in a panic," said Riad Aafouallah, a manager at Harry's Steakhouse, the longtime Hanover Square establishment. Owner Harry Poulakakos also runs Bayard's, a pricy private club in the same building that features nautical paintings and replicas of ships dating from the city's days as a Dutch colony. Every night, in the final weeks of December '09, the strobe lights in Bayard's second-floor ballroom flickered merrily onto the sidewalk below. "Last year," said Aafouallah, "the question was, 'Are we going to have a depression?' It wasn't 'How long is the recession going to last?' "
What a difference eight or nine months can make. "I'm booking parties where people say, 'Don't hold back,' " the manager said midway through the holiday season. "And that's nice to hear. It's been a long time."
In general, though, this year's partying was much more on the cheap. At nearby Fraunces, one night during the holidays, a group of Morgan Stanley bankers were having a low-key affair—no food, with drinks on the boss. The bankers were young—mostly everyone was under 30.
"This is our unofficial official party," said a banker who was drinking an India Pale Ale on tap. In previous years, the firm threw fully catered private parties. Tarot card readers were hired. Jazz bands played. This year, despite the fact that the banker was getting only a few cheap beers on the boss, he felt good about the year to come.
But not quite as good as in the years before the Wall Street crisis. Another young banker, a recent college graduate immersed in derivatives, explained that working on Wall Street no longer came with the same set of expectations. "We're coming up in a different time—we don't know if we'll get a bonus, or if we'll lose our jobs tomorrow," he fretted. Another recalled the halcyon days of 2006, 2007, and some of 2008: "It was a shitshow. We were selling things even we didn't understand." A guest from AIG agreed that, yes, the end of 2008 was a humbling experience.
The great panic of late 2008/early 2009 didn't stop Wall Streeters from going out, but it did change their habits—namely, said Aafouallah, they moved from the restaurant to the bar. "In dining, there was a decrease, but at the bar, we saw an increase, so it didn't really make a difference," he said.
But for his customers, there was a big difference. Their usual networking took on new meaning in December '08. "At the bar, there were people trying to save their companies," the manager said. "There were people trying to get jobs. They were going out to network, through a friend, somebody who knows somebody, who might get them a job."
It was a bleak period with an atypical mood of helplessness. "I saw people not knowing what to do with the situation," said Aafouallah. "People who said, 'OK, I just got laid off today, after 25 years of work.' People were unhappy. I saw people who didn't know if they could get a job anywhere else. The most affected ones were the newcomers to Wall Street, the young people. I was talking to one of the CEOs who felt so bad for his son and his colleagues, these guys who just came out of college, who had just gotten married. They had a lot of debts. Now, they can't find a job. For them, now, it's much harder than it was for their parents."
This year, not so much. At Harry's Steakhouse on a Tuesday night in late December, Aafouallah rushed around between the kitchen, the dining room, and the restaurant's two bars. Wine bottle in hand, he was quick with the refills. Waiters sped past him with big trays of food. At one of the bars, a law firm was holding a party for Chase Bank's mortgage division—thanks for bringing us the business!
Some women were sitting around a table munching on small pieces of tenderloin on toast. At a nearby table, there was a modest spread—cheese, breadsticks, some cursory vegetables with dipping sauce, fried balls of what appeared to be fish. It wasn't what it had been in previous years—oh, those catered, full-course dinners—but people weren't upset. As one woman from Chase's mortgage team put it, "For us to be able to talk in full sentences—without rushing around and everything falling apart—that's why we're optimistic."
Yes, she said, it has been tough seeing the impact of the mortgage crisis, the foreclosures, and so on. Seeing that day in and day out, she acknowledged, was very difficult. But she was adamant that the banks' mortgage divisions weren't at fault—they were simply the sales force. The bankers above them who bundled the mortgages into shaky instruments were to blame. "It is the banks' fault," she said. "If the bank makes a product—we're going to sell it."
By the end of the night at Fraunces Tavern, Wall Street's youngest and brightest had reverted to just being kids. As everyone was moving to leave—rummaging for coats and taking last sips—a French fry fell on the floor. Someone promised a banker $50 if he would eat it. Before the banker could make a decision, a colleague raised the stakes and, on the spot, devised a new financial instrument—$100, if he didn't eat it. Things stood like that, at a drunken impasse, until a young female colleague butted in: It wasn't right, she said, to just leave it on the floor. She picked it up with a napkin, left it at the bar, and walked out into the cold night.