Up Front: February 2009

Hard times

Except when I’m in a bind and prevail upon someone to pinch-hit, I have dutifully performed the task of writing this monthly column going on 22 years now. Over the course of a couple of decades, I might be excused for retreading certain tiresome topics, especially on the rare occasion the reason is not mental sloth but the simple fact that if business is a magazine’s meat, some of what it must chew is cyclical.

This is the third recession during my time as Business North Carolina’s chief editor, though the experts say there’s not been a financial crisis the like since the Great Depression. Just how bad is it? For our annual Business Handbook issue, that’s the question we asked people who should know: our new governor and leaders in 10 of the state’s top industries. What we found — and what you will learn on the pages that follow — is that they don’t sugarcoat the year ahead, but neither are they a chorus of Cassandras. Nobody believes, dire as these days might be, that we’ll wind up reliving the 1930s. I concur, even though as I write this, the stock market just closed, on the day a president takes office to usher in a new era, with Bank of America trading down to little more than $5 a share.

One way these times do echo those: The Depression made heroes of bank robbers; people now want to brand certain bank bosses as badmen. After all, some of them have lost investors a lot more money than

J. Edgar Hoover’s most-wanted ever stole, and the excuse that they had no choice — circumstances tied to the times forced their hand — is as tired as an old Warner Brothers script. Overreaching is no crime, but surely Ken Lewis must have thought that snatching Merrill Lynch was a real steal. Now, like Cagney in the final reel, he and BofA shareholders must pay the price. Contributing Editor G.D. Gearino, who wrote last month’s cover story on Wachovia’s Ken Thompson, will turn to the other Ken in his column next month.

That both these men and what once were the state’s two biggest banks got stuck up by mortgages gone bad — a bane of business back then, too — is an irony Woody Guthrie would have appreciated, one he addressed in Pretty Boy Floyd, the ballad of the Dust Bowl desperado he wrote 70 years ago. The version The Byrds recorded three decades later — five recessions back — ends this way:

As through this life you travel, you meet some funny men

Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen

As through this life you ramble, as through this life you roam

You’ll never see an outlaw take a family from their home