Guided tours of the scenes of Wall Street excess are now popular with visitors.
Dwarfed by the Corinthian columns of the New York Stock Exchange’s towering facade, Wall Street tour guide Tom Comerford opens a weather-beaten folder on a busy street in the heart of the Big Apple’s financial district.
”I’m going to show you a toxic asset,” he tells a group of curious tourists. ”You can even touch it.”
Comerford, a graphics employee at Goldman Sachs who leads guided walks in his spare time, gets out the front page of a legal document that is 2½ centimetres thick and comprised a $US1.5 billion collateralised debt obligation, issued in 2006.
The derivative, which credit agencies granted a AAA rating for its top tranches, went spectacularly sour. Investors lost 80¢ in every dollar. He says: ”The collateral for this deal was subprime mortgages or, as we know it today, crap.”
As financial turbulence grinds on and the global economy stutters towards a half-hearted recovery, a cottage industry has sprung up in ”credit crunch tourism”. At least two companies have set up financial crisis tours of New York’s financial district, while the Museum of American Finance is drawing a steady stream of visitors to its new exhibition on Wall Street scandal.
Comerford runs tours for The Wall Street Experience, a business set up last year by a former Deutsche Bank bond trader, Andrew Luan, to capitalise on public fascination with the industry’s villainous excesses.
Tourists get to gawp at AIG’s head office, the original Lehman Brothers building, the Standard & Poor’s tower block and New York’s Federal Reserve – all to a running commentary of anecdotes about bankers’ excesses. In an alleyway outside AIG, Comerford pauses to explain the size of the insurance company’s taxpayer-funded bailout. A million dollars in $100 bills, he says, could just about fit into his shoulder bag. But the $US185 billion AIG received would fill the entire alley to a height of nearly two metres.
There’s a murmur of outrage from the group. Kathleen Maher from Montreal is unimpressed: ”When you say Wall Street, the first word that comes to my mind is greed.”
For all the wrong reasons, the credit crunch has put finance on the agenda for many tourists in New York. Annaline Dinkelmann, a former information technology worker at Morgan Stanley, runs a rival operation, Wall Street Walks. This month her company began a tour called ”scandals and scoundrels of Wall Street”, which runs from 18th-century speculator William Duer to the collapse of Enron and the arrest of Bernard Madoff.
”My most frequently asked question is, will we see Goldman Sachs?” Dinkelmann says. ”They haven’t been found guilty so they’re not a scandal yet.”
She adds that as Americans have seen their savings and pension funds dwindle in wilting markets, interest in Wall Street has picked up: ”There’s a curiosity, a willingness to learn.”
The gift shop at the Museum of American Finance sells posters illustrating key events in the credit crunch. Its deputy director, Kristin Aguilera, says visitors have been eager for details: ”People were wanting to learn much more about the current crisis. We’ve been updating our exhibits every few months to keep people informed of what’s going on.”
New York’s tourism authority, NYC & Company, suggests that a day on the credit crunch scene could be topped off with a drink at the Exchange Bar and Grill, a new establishment in Gramercy Park, a kilometre or two to the north, co-founded by a former Wall Street trader. The cost of food and drinks here is set by an in-house stock market. Prices, displayed on a digital ticker, go up and down in 25¢ increments, according to demand.
But not everybody is interested in the fine details of high finance. One of the most popular tourist stop-offs in downtown Manhattan is Arturo di Modica’s famous statue of a charging bull, which is in Bowling Green Park, just in front of the bankruptcy court. On a typical morning last week, dozens of visitors were jostling to have their pictures taken astride, or alongside, the bull. Another popular pose is at the rear, crouching next to the beast’s melon-sized testicles.
Back on his walking tour, Comerford points to Goldman Sachs’s old office block in Broad Street, which never had much of a sign outside. ”There was no insignia on it. If you didn’t know what this building was, you didn’t deserve to be here,” he says.
In front of Deutsche Bank, he tells of raucous bonding activity among employees: ”They have competitions on the trading floor to see who can eat the most cheeseburgers in five minutes, or who can lose the most weight in a week.”
Gwen Phanijphand, a PhD student showing her parents around New York, was stung into sarcasm: ”It’s great to know the people handling these CDOs are so goal-orientated.”
Her assessment of financial professionals: ”I wouldn’t say they’re stupid but maybe they think they’re a little bit invincible. There are a few too many type-A personalities. A little bit of arrogance.”