- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

NEW YORK | So these two stockbrokers walk into a bar. They order drinks before they think about lunch, but they don’t say anything funny.

In fact, no one is saying anything inside the Full Shilling, a typical dark-wood bar across the street from American International Group Inc. (AIG) headquarters near Wall Street.

More than a dozen men in shirtsleeves or sport coats stare intently at the television airing CNBC, mesmerized by the stock and news crawls at the bottom of the screen.

Few are eating, and no one is talking. It is a laid-back pub with a poisonously tense atmosphere.

“We’re waiting to see if anyone is going to bail out AIG,” said Bill (“just Bill”), a stockbroker nursing a cola.

He says none of his clients are invested in the largest — and shakiest — insurance company in the world, but the implications can hardly be avoided, no matter where one’s money is parked.

“A dollar says the Fed will lower rates by a quarter-point,” he calls to the brokers and lawyers beside him at the bar.

Ten minutes later, he loses his bet to the lawyer to his right.

The stock market gained some of the ground it had lost in Monday’s bloodbath on Tuesday’s news that Washington would offer AIG a “loan package” to bridge its liquidity crisis. And investors were modestly cheered that Barclays Bank would buy a piece of the venerable Lehman Brothers, saving thousands of jobs.

But there was little joy in New York’s financial center.

Shares of Lehman, AIG and Washington Mutual, the largest thrift in the country, were trading close to the penny stocks Tuesday, despite slivers of good news amid the wreckage.

Even Goldman Sachs, which received a favorable rating Tuesday from Standard & Poor’s, posted its biggest decline since the company went public in 1999.

Notably, JPMorgan and Bank of America, both up 11 percent, help offset the AIG undertow.

“Do you work down here?” asked a reporter.

“For now,” snapped a man in a herringbone suit, waving away further questions.

The men and women who draw bonuses seem to know that public sympathy might be thin, especially compared with footage of families in Galveston, Texas, who lost their homes to Hurricane Ike.

Experts say it’s too soon to know how much blood will be shed in the financial centers, but few expect the overlapping crises of the subprime-mortgage scandals, the bank collapses and, soon perhaps, the auto and airline industries, to end soon — or well.

Outside the glass towers that house the headquarters of AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and CitiGroup — shrunken behemoths that a year ago seemed too big to fail — the scenes appeared to be business as usual Tuesday.

The lobby newsstands were filled with gut-wrenching headlines and the Rolaids to treat their side effects. The entrances sheltered employees commiserating over cigarettes and sodas.

The top executives dined, albeit a little guiltily, at high-dollar restaurants; the midlevel bankers and brokers drowned their sorrows in a burger and draft at one of the scores of five-tap pubs throughout the areas; and the administrative assistants grabbed their salads and sandwiches from chain restaurants.

Even the employees of unaffected law and real estate firms said they felt something crackly and sad this week in the atmosphere around them.

“We’re getting a few more resumes,” said an employee of Downtown Graphics, which boasts copy and typesetting services.

“Mostly administrative people, secretaries,” he said. “Not the executives.”

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