Wall Street bullish on nation's future

Optimism: If Washington doesn't interfere, these go-getters say, America's long run of prosperity will continue.

July 21, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- It took Paul Kothari 24 hours to become an official American capitalist. The online Wall Street publication he helped build, TheStreet.com, went public the morning of May 11, 1999, its stock value soaring in frenzied trading.

That afternoon, a far-richer Kothari left the trading-floor excitement, climbed into a waiting car and arrived at a crowded immigration office in Newark, N.J., where the Indian immigrant promptly took an oath to become a U.S. citizen.

Since his first weekend in the United States in 1976, when he watched the bicentennial fireworks over the Washington Monument, Kothari has been waiting for his wild ride on Wall Street.

He's finally getting it. The 46-year-old, undaunted by TheStreet.com's tumble in the spring's dizzying tech stock shakedown, promptly quit the company and raised $140 million for his new telecommunications firm in anticipation of even greater rewards.

"This is," he says, "a wonderful American dream we are dreaming."

Wall Street is having a party. The place that during the past decade or so has provided a gusher of wealth, if also some dizzying downturns, offers a picture of high life and heady optimism.

Wall Street denizens, their prospects made many times brighter by soaring markets, epic mergers and a technology boom that has turned entrepreneurs into cult figures, believe in the future and want badly to preserve the abundance.

But beneath their confidence is an undercurrent of anxiety. Mergers are leaving corporate castoffs. Overvalued tech start-ups are running aground. Even vastly successful brokers wonder if it is all too good to be true.

The nervousness seeped into a recent book group selection by spouses of Wall Street executives, who chose to read "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale of roaring times gone sour in the 1920s. Even as hot dog stand umbrellas exuberantly shout "Buy! Sell!" the young-and-hungries spilling out of the skyscrapers at lunchtime worry where all that fervor could lead.

"I make a very good living, but I spend it fast. I wake up every day thinking it could all be gone tomorrow," says Michael Oromaner, 30, a hard-charging broker who fills million-dollar orders each day but takes anti-depressants to cope with panic attacks. "They call it `affluenza.'"

A new Gilded Age

Still, most Wall Street faithful see the future of the country in terms of the future of the financial district -- as long as the economy delivers, so, too, does the nation. With the caveat that the government shouldn't tinker and tax and regulate too much, most Wall Street regulars say the country will continue to enjoy a new Gilded Age -- the longest sustained period of peacetime economic growth on record.

Though many fret that much of the next generation will lack the skills to compete, fear a recession or war, and worry that the country is losing its moral compass, those concerns are overshadowed by an abiding hopefulness about the here and now.

"It's been straight-up, good-time sailing," says Wall Street investment banker Chris Camerino, 31, before hopping a plane to Italy for a three-week vacation. "I'm definitely better off than I was eight years ago. Lots of people are."

To many, the prosperity owes much to the digital era, with ever-larger waves of people getting access to the markets and new industries fueled by a technological age.

"I don't know how long it will last, I don't know if it will ever come around again in our lifetime, but I put what is happening in the country right now on par with a revolution," says Michael Bell, a Washington lawyer whose client had just gone public on the New York Stock Exchange that morning. "At [first] we had the Industrial Revolution. This is a new Information Revolution."

For Wall Street's contrarians, though, the vast prosperity is slowly coarsening the society that shares in it, making the haves far less interested in the have-nots and turning materialism into a national craze. Self-made businessmen like Oromaner are keenly aware of the trade-offs in his profession.

He is a creature of the primal Wall Street experience -- 15-hour days that start at 4 a.m., strip clubs after work, penny stock trading for cash and $1,500-a-night benders with his office buddies. He works out every evening to blow off steam and then returns to the office when most people are heading home. He wears custom-made, monogrammed shirts even though he does most of his work by phone ("They can hear it if you're cheaply dressed") and went from a "dead broke" job driving limousines for rock bands to a $170,000 income last year. His girlfriend left him after deciding he worked too much. He doesn't blame her.

"You get too callous," says Oromaner, who sports a no-maintenance buzz cut and dark circles under piercing hazel eyes. "This business is a huge wear and tear on your soul. You make money, but you make a sacrifice."

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