Lehman’s collapse rattles the really rich

T he phone has rung off the hook all weekend. “Are you OK?” I’ve asked friends whose husbands have been at Lehman Brothers. No, of course they are not. They just saw everything they’ve worked for go down the drain. A lunch barbecue with a Lehman executive who has been there 16 years was cancelled. No explanation needed.

The Saturday papers predicted the end of other institutions, too: Merrill Lynch, AIG. On Sunday morning one of my savviest investor friends told me not to worry about Merrill Lynch. He said it had too many good parts to implode. He had seen John Thain, the chief, very recently and had a long talk. Thain had said his bank was too valuable to go under.

By Sunday night my friend was on the phone again. Now, the news was that the Bank of America was ready to buy Merrill at $29 a share. Given that Merrill’s share price had fallen to $17 on Friday, this news, said my friend, proved that he and Thain had been right.

Sort of. We live in terrifying times. Even the election is not as much of a distraction as it should be from the economic pandemonium we are experiencing. At lunch and at dinner we all debate whether the panic is manufactured or whether a collective mental panic has always played an integral role in recessions, regardless of what the reality is.

Ordinarily people might be wondering about other things right now. For instance, there is ­artist Damien Hirst’s brash step of cutting out the ­middle man in selling his works; there is the huge exhibition of contemporary art in Russia on Wednesday. Soon Daniel Radcliffe comes to Broadway in Equus. We’re ending fashion week. But women talked not about clothes but about ­children, schools and how stressed their ­husbands were.

Until this week I’ve never heard really rich people — as in billionaires — sound scared. But now they do. Sure, they say, it’s no time to be panicking. Stay calm and there are fortunes to be made. There are lots of assets going cheap and some people are going to get rich.

But for most of us it is time to hunker down. Time to hope we don’t get that phone call: “Are you OK?” The answer, for all of us in New York, is no, we are not. V

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