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Kass: Fear and Loathing on Wall Street

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.... And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

-- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "The Wave Speech"

Just as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a benchmark in American literature about U.S. society in the 1960s and the early 1970s, the melodrama of the last five years is becoming a seminal economic and investment experience.

The parallel between the drug addictions in Hunter S. Thompson's book and the credit addictions in the New Millennium hold similarities, and the withdrawal from the most recent dependency on debt has had unrivaled implications. The unwind will continue to be painful for some time to come.

"Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'"

-- Charles M. Schulz

It took a while for our country to turn around from the 1960s. There are still those who have not left the decade of peace and love (many of whom seem to still reside in Ithaca, N.Y.!). Similarly, it will likely take time for our country to turn around from the abuse of credit and the consumption binge experienced in the 2000-2006 interim interval.

A moment last Monday, just after noon, in Manhattan.... I'm in the 90s on Fifth heading south, enjoying the broad avenue, the trees, the wide cobblestone walkway that rings Central Park. Suddenly I realize: Something's odd here. Something's strange. It's quiet. I can hear each car go by. The traffic's not an indistinct roar. The sidewalks aren't full, as they normally are. It's like a holiday, but it's not, it's the middle of a business day in February. I thought back to two weeks before when a friend and I zoomed down Park Avenue at evening rush hour in what should have been bumper-to-bumper traffic.

This is New York five months into hard times.

One senses it, for the first time: a shift in energy. Something new has taken hold, a new air of peace, perhaps, or tentativeness. The old hustle and bustle, the wild and daily assertion of dynamism, is calmed....

Any great nation would worry at closed-up shops and a professional governing class that doesn't have a clue what to do. But a great nation that fears, deep down, that it may be becoming more Suley than Sully -- that nation will enter a true depression.

-- Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal op-ed, " Is 'Octomom' America's Future?"

Nowadays, investors lead lives of noisy desperation.

The fear and loathing is palpable:

  • It is palpable every time investors read their monthly brokerage, hedge fund and 401(k) statements.
  • It is palpable in the loss of wealth in our educational institutions, corporate pension plans and endowments.
  • It is palpable in the lost liquidity and lost confidence in the gating of some hedge fund investments.
  • It is palpable in the obliteration of value in private equity.

Fear and loathing also abounds from the transparency and partisanship of our all-too-visible political process, which has served to further reinforce a negative feedback loop.

The headwinds working against an economic resolution this year seem cast in stone. Those few who still express confidence in a second-half recovery, similar to the characters Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, are either taking too many drugs or are oblivious to the clogged transmission of credit, the steady drop in business and investor confidence and the general waning of business activity.
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