New York Copes With Extremes of the “New Economy”

Good architecture speaks volumes, and the digital façade of the Lehman Brothers building on Seventh Avenue says “welcome to the new economy.”

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The building was commissioned in 1999 when the term “new economy” was in vogue, and books were on the bestseller list with titles like The Roaring 2000s: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History. It’s hard to believe that Lehman purchased the towering building in 2001, just seven years before the 158 year-old firm came apart like crumb cake.

For a newer skyscraper, it isn’t that bad. Where corporate America in the post-9/11 era has turned inward with its advertising, Lehman Brothers’ street level decorations scream global. Its futuristic jumbo screens help make Times Square America’s only answer to the sensory overload of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. The heads at Lehman Brothers must have been feeling very confident to purchase a building like that.

According to Lehman’s official timeline, this decade has been going great. In 2005, they report, Standard and Poors upgraded their debt rating from A to A plus, citing its “strong risk management.” Last year Lehman achieved “record net revenues, net income, and earnings per common share.” Here is what their careers page still tells prospective employees: “Make an impact. Engage your passion. Realize your potential. Around the world the Lehman Team is growing.” The Lehman Brothers building embodies that optimism. And if Lehman didn’t have much of value before it filed the biggest bankruptcy in history, at least it had its building. Lehman’s real estate holdings constituted the bulk the firm’s fire sale asking price.

The term “new economy” was shuttled from the popular lexicon after the tech crash, but I vote for bringing it back. It sounds too optimistic for this decade, but the truth is we’re in the same economy now as we were then, and ought to take into account the good along with the nightmarish. In the new economy a gigantic firm can be riding high one year and turn to smoke the next. This is the economy of Arthur Andersen accounting and inflated investment grades, where Wall Street’s last two “booms” were based on falsely glorified tech and real estate investments.

New York’s place as the nation’s financial capital amplifies all of what’s best and worst about the new economy. More than any other North American city, it is at the center of the global market that our leaders have been creating through decades of trade and capital liberalization. A recent survey, conducted by several leading urban economists for MasterCard, rated New York the world’s second most important commercial center. The lords of this roost are Manhattan’s ethereal financial workers, who account for one-sixth of its workforce but take in half of all pay.

In that halcyon age of late 2006, the New York Times reported that “the good times are rolling with no end in sight.” Now analysts are saying New York’s financial sector risks going the way of Detroit’s auto industry. The potential loss of 40,000 financial jobs in the area threatens to take down a big part of the service and real estate sectors that depend on Wall Street’s massive incomes. But most New Yorkers weren’t doing so well even during the flush times. Nearly 20 percent of the city is below the poverty line. Its median income is below the national average, which leaves New Yorkers straining to afford the city’s exorbitant cost of living. The city’s school district can’t even graduate half of its students.

Now that Wall Street’s optimism turned out to be (once again) based on Orwellian math, the city is bracing for a direct hit. Whatever chance the city had to address its lingering problems is disappearing. The record budget surplus of 2006 has given way to large deficit projections through 2012. This week, the city’s Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to department heads calling for permanent across-the-board cuts, sparing no vital service. We don’t know how many New Yorkers dependent on city services are about to be tossed overboard, because the “full extent” of the actions needed “may not be clear for some time.” Even the Bloomberg sages don’t seem to know whether the Wall Street blowout has left them in it up to their knees, chests or noses. “Hopefully,” noted the OMB director, “the recent market extremes will run their course sooner rather than later.”

For years we’ve been reading about what the new economy’s experiments in market extremes have done for New York. Now we’re finding out what they’re doing to it.

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Tags: new york city

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