NEW YORK -- During these days of anxiety and extraordinary volatility on Wall Street, with emotions rising and falling in beat to wildly fluctuating daily market prices, an axiom almost as old as the republic once again has come strongly into play.
In good times, Wall Street wants Washington to leave it alone. In bad times, it wants Washington to act.
"What we've seen essentially is the first global election," said American Stock Exchange Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr., referring to the October stock market plunge and resulting turbulence and uncertainty in markets around the world. "By that I mean a very significant massive vote of no confidence in our Congress and in our administration."
Levitt's assessment is echoed elsewhere on Wall Street, and the same message is repeatedly directed toward Washington -- do something.
Underlying the concern about what Washington does is a deeper emotion -- fear that the dramatic fall of the markets means that events are out of control. The metaphor of a frightening free fall crops up in conversations.
"There's nothing comparable to what we've gone through, at least for me and indeed for most people on Wall Street," one prominent Wall Street player said. "I guess it's a little bit the same as a parachutist who drops and drops and drops and never knows when the parachute's going to open -- or if it's going to open. You assume it's going to open, but it's that uncertainty of knowing when . . . . In terms of institutions, I think we've weathered the storm very, very well. But one really has to look at the health of the market, which is the broader gauge, and the broader gauge is that a market that declines this much is suffering from some fundamental misapprehensions about the economy."
Spending three days on Wall Street talking to financial executives is a disturbing experience. In all, conversations were held with 16 people, some individually, some in groups around a luncheon table at a private club or at dinner in an executive suite. Around these tables sat men and women from prominent firms, all directly active in the daily decision-making process of Wall Street. In most cases, conversations were tape-recorded. Except where people are named, ground rules were that no names or firms would be identified.
Levitt of the American exchange spoke on the record in characteristic terms, especially of his disappointment over the Reagan administration's response to the crisis.
"I don't think what I've seen so far gives me a feeling of encouragement," Levitt said of the congressional-executive branch deliberations under way in Washington. "What I would like to see from both sides is for them to get together and for no one to leave until they come up with a specific plan. The signal the global voters are sending is that this is not business as usual . . . .
"We're in a different world today than we were a week ago. We are because so many people have been hurt, so many myths have been punctured. I think a lot of what happened has yet to be learned."
What Wall Street has learned from this tumultuous episode, judging from the comments, is that Washington doesn't seem capable of putting aside political partisanship in a moment of great national stress -- a time, one executive said, "when the cardiovascular system of capitalism" is under direct assault.
The price of inaction and division, in the view expressed here, is a period of national drift, akin to a ship aimlessly circling after its anchor has been cut. Private comments about both Congress and President Reagan are scathing.
Many view the president as out of touch and irrelevant; the comparison to Herbert Hoover is drawn repeatedly. Interestingly, the names of two hitherto discredited or disparaged presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, are heard now in favorable context: They were strong presidents. They would have acted instantly. They would not have tolerated a climate of indecision and uncertainty.
"They're looking to Washington because there's nothing else to look to," said Robert Hormats, an investment banker and economist who was a high official in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations before becoming a senior executive of Goldman Sachs & Co. "The act has shifted from Wall Street to Washington for the moment. And they're looking to Washington for leadership . . . . They're looking to Washington to say, 'We understand that there's an imbalance here. And we are damned well going to do something about it. And we are going to deal with the budget deficit. And we are going to deal with the trade imbalance. And we're going to try to pull our allies together.'
". . .You hear people saying, 'Johnson would have handled this . . . . He would have met with all the people here. He would have brought them down to the White House. He would have sat them down and said: What's on your mind? What's causing this? And he would have come out with a five-point program for dealing with the problem.' That's what you want. When you come to think of it, that's the way a Kissinger would have handled a foreign policy crisis. Nixon would have come to grips with it. He would have had the top 10 guys on Wall Street down to see him. And asked them, 'What do we need to do?' And then he would have gotten the top members of Congress and said, 'Here's what the top people on Wall Street want us to do. Here's what we think we can do. Let's get together and do it.' And projected some force.
"And it has to come from the White House because it's a national issue. The psychology of it requires a president to play a role. And Nixon would have played a role. LBJ would have played a role. A forceful role. Most presidents would have said, 'Here's a problem, I've got to really get into it and sit down with these people myself and understand what the major people in the market are saying to one another, what they want me to know.' The president has to do this."
On Wall Street it seems generally agreed that Reagan does not play a significant role in economic policy-making. That is being handled by what more than one executive called the triumverate, or "financial regency," of "the two Bakers and Greenspan" -- White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr., Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan.
As for Congress, a bitter remark by one stock exchange member seemed to sum up the feelings of many. "Those jokers think they know America," he said at lunch before several other money managers and investors from prominent Wall Street firms. "They may know the Grand Canyon, but they don't know diddly-squat about the real world. What are they -- lawyers, most of them, aren't they?"
Such a contemptuous tone is not unusual even in normal times. Wall Street and Washington have always been uneasy allies at best. They are traditional rivals in the exercise of American political and economic power. Each camp thinks its view of events the soundest and most realistic. And it is true that it was not Washington but Wall Street that happily kept cashing in on the boom up until the very moment of the plunge. Until the tidal wave of panic selling that swamped the markets on Black Monday, many of the great Wall Street firms were advising clients to continue buying stocks, continuing to profit from the overvalued market and continuing to predict that the averages would soar higher and higher. So Washington can point to Wall Street and say with accuracy that some of the present cries for help and complaints against the government's inaction are like foxhole conversions.
But though America's financial and political capitals are distant physically and attitudinally, they are inseparably linked by history and responsibilities -- a fact symbolized mutely on Wall Street by the towering statue of George Washington overlooking the nation's financial heart, the New York Stock Exchange, from the spot where the nation's first president was inaugurated.
The present climate, however, appears to transcend the ordinary mutual recriminations.
A striking uniformity of opinion seems to exist on Wall Street. The central themes are the lack of leadership from Washington and the necessity for policy-makers, as one senior executive said, "to do something relatively soon to get this process pulled together. There's already been a lot of buying power taken out of this market. And they simply have to stop the drift, the uncertainty. They have to make sure the parachute shoots out."
Another theme, also most often expressed privately, is the belief that the plunge of '87 will likely be viewed as a historic event with consequences that could possibly be felt for a generation to come.
"Speaking just for myself," said Levitt, "I have never experienced the shock -- and that's the best way to call it -- nor the personal travail, nor the personal heroism, that I saw exhibited in five short days. Shock -- as it was happening, watching the tape, listening to the specialists, hearing from the companies. Travail -- fear from investors, companies I spoke to, who didn't know what was going to happen to them. Heroism -- and in some ways the most impressive -- people under the greatest pressures, fielding massive amount of stocks, handling millions and millions of dollars, and by and large they just sat there and did their jobs professionally."
One executive, with major clients around the world and heavy responsibilities on Wall Street, was in Tokyo the day the market plunged. He described his feelings to three other senior colleagues during dinner.
"When I was overseas, I was stroking traders in Tokyo and London, and trying to direct and inspire a sense of control," he said. "And I kept telling myself, 'I'm experienced, I've been through things like this before.' The fact is, I never have. I've been in this business since 1959. I've lived through protracted bear markets where it was difficult to get people to buy or take action, I've lived through periods when people thought the president of the United States was an idiot -- the Carter years, well-meaning but ineffectual -- and I've been through crises of one kind or another.
"But what I felt mostly last week was oppressive fear. I felt as if I was present at the funeral. I realized, 'My God, the kids, the car, the job, the career.' And then: 'What the hell are you going to do if this blows out?' The sense of welfare I had evaporated with the markets. I mean, people call this the neutron bomb. Moreover, I thought, '. . .What followed '29? Depression. And what followed '32? 1939!' And I was driving through Tokyo the day of the crash listening to Japanese right-wingers on the radio talking about rearming Japan!
"I didn't think the world was going to come to an end, but there was an alarming comparison to things my parents had told me . . . . I do believe that history repeats itself. I think you do have to believe in cycles, political cycles, economic cycles. So how do I feel? I feel we've been to the brink and back. I feel a sense of helplessness. It's ironic in this case.
"The market is confiscating wealth that the United States government is unwilling to take. If the United States government had said on Oct. 1 that it was going to place a tax on wealth on Americans and we're going to raise $1 trillion and $500 billion is going to be used to repay all the trade deficit in some form and $500 billion is going to be put in trust funds to be used for debt reduction around the world, people would think the president and whoever proposed it and voted for it had lost their minds. But the market itself took action and confiscated half a trillion dollars on one day. So are we going to do something? It's tragic. It was such an opportunity."
None of this means Wall Street sees no hope. It does strongly suggest, though, that Wall Street, Washington and the country have entered a new era.
No one expressed that idea better than Hormats.
"This brings us back to reality," he said. "It is the end of Alice in Wonderland economics. You've got to pay as you go. To be five years into a recovery, with a budget deficit as big as this, indicates a loss of control over the budget process. And that is fundamentally the problem here. That you have lost control over that. It's not that you have a budget deficit. It's that you have a budget deficit five years into a recovery, deficits of this magnitude, which you shouldn't have. As a result we have very little room for fiscal latitude.
"The country, I think, will be fundamentally different. I think it will inject a measure of fiscal and consumer caution in our society for a number of years to come, probably for a generation. It's a painful way of telling you to slow down your spending and slow down your debt accumulation . . . .
"It's going to be a very painful, difficult adjustment. The economics of happiness are paid for by the next generation. We all thought it was a one-way street. It brought us down to Earth. It's painful, but we will be much more sober in the future about letting the economy get out of control."