Wall Street: A Blow to U.S. Prestige?

The surprising answer is no. Most business people still view the U.S. as a beacon of free enterprise and praise its swift response to the crisis
Andy Martin

The boulevards of Paris are a pretty reliable place to troll for anti-American sentiment. And sure enough, self-described anarchist Bernard Barbry is happy to weigh in with his opinion of the U.S. financial system. "The banks have brought this on themselves, and they deserve what they get," says Barbry, out for a stroll on a busy street in southwestern Paris. Surprisingly, though, the retired journalist isn't predicting America's downfall. The U.S., he believes, will remain powerful, and the crisis on Wall Street won't affect Washington's influence on world affairs. "I like Americans," he says.

Tokyo's financial district, in contrast, isn't the kind of place where you typically find an excess of vitriol aimed at the U.S. But some there are plenty miffed after seeing how the hubris of Wall Street wizards has wiped out billions of dollars of wealth in stock markets from Toronto to Tokyo. "We feel betrayed by Lehman," says Tetsuo Ishihara, a credit analyst at Mizuho Securities in the Japanese capital. "We feel betrayed by Bear Stearns. We feel betrayed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We feel betrayed by the U.S. government…Losing trust can happen in a second, but regaining it takes years."

As the world grapples with the fallout from Wall Street's shenanigans, there's no shortage of consternation, and even anger. But so far the international image of the U.S. economic model has shown amazing resilience. Lehman Brothers may be in the morgue and AIG on government-funded life support, but most businesspeople think the U.S. is more about Silicon Valley and Hollywood than the erstwhile dynamos of Wall Street. Even in China—where broadcaster CCTV-2 has been running two hours of special programming every night about the financial crisis—the U.S. is still a land to be emulated. "I see two Americas: One is wealth-creating, innovative, with people like Bill Gates, and the other is made up of speculators," says Wang Jianmao, an economics professor at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. "China should learn more from wealth-creating America."

The prospect of a diminished U.S., though, is sobering. What will take its place as a beacon of free enterprise? Not Europe, which still speaks with too many voices to play a leadership role. Not China or Russia. Their economies are still developing, the motives of their leaders suspect. So as businesspeople survey the rubble on Wall Street and look for an alternative, they don't see any nation that's as accommodating to innovators and entrepreneurs—or as rich in expertise. For instance, Ulf Mark Schneider, CEO of German health-care provider Fresenius, remains a fan of the likes of Morgan Stanley, which handled a recent acquisition in India. "When it comes to democracy and free market economics, the U.S. is still the original article," says Schneider. "Nobody wants to see it fail."

Of course, it hasn't taken long for critics to descend on the carcass of U.S. finance. Fredmund Malik, an influential Swiss management consultant who has long criticized U.S. business practices, dispatched an e-mail to clients on Sept. 19 reminding them that he predicted the collapse of U.S. investment banking back in 2004. Others are using the crisis to flog an agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the occasion to renew her calls—in the past largely ignored by other Group of Seven members—for more regulation of international banking. "The current financial crisis will nudge the whole liberalization process backwards," says Liu Jing, a finance professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

where will the best and brightest go?

Most often, the reaction abroad has been jaw-dropping disbelief. Hope Chen, a partner at venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson China in Shanghai, spent the weekend of Sept. 13-14 glued to coverage of the crisis. "I was shocked and very concerned to be sure," says Chen. Still, she has no plans to sell the home she owns near San Francisco nor stop sending her two kids to the U.S. every summer.

A long-term issue for the U.S. may be the attitudes of future masters of the universe. America's extraordinary ability to attract the smartest people in the world could be eroded if the globe's overachievers decide that the center of the universe is no longer Manhattan. Sally Gong, a 25-year-old working in the Beijing office of a small American investment bank, has postponed plans to attend grad school in the U.S. "There are more opportunities in China," she says.

In some areas, Wall Street's comeuppance is a plus: It vindicates Europe's less profitable—but less risky—banking practices. Either because they were more prudent or because regulators tied their hands, the likes of Germany's Deutsche Bank and Spain's Banco Santander look strong. But Deutsche CEO Josef Ackermann isn't writing off his American rivals. "I wouldn't bet against U.S. banks," he says in an e-mail. "It's still unclear who the winners of this crisis will be."

It's important to remember that in much of the world, crises are met with parliamentary dithering at best, or at worst opaque decision-making by an unaccountable elite. So among foreign bankers and citizens alike there is admiration for the way Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson tossed out decades of Republican free-market dogma and pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue the banking system. "The speed with which America has moved over the past 8 to 10 days is truly phenomenal," says Uday Kotak, vice-chairman at Mumbai's Kotak Mahindra Bank. "I don't think any other country could have done that."

To foreign eyes, the crisis has brought a humbler, more cooperative U.S. After nearly eight years of a George W. Bush White House not known for multilateral decision-making, foreign leaders are pleasantly surprised by the degree to which U.S. officials have kept everyone in the loop. "I've had several conference calls with Hank Paulson over the last few days, and there have been daily—and nightly—calls between our respective deputies," says French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

Not everyone welcomes the new leadership coming out of Washington. The U.S. decision to halt short-selling of stocks, for instance, was followed by France, Britain, Taiwan, Australia, and others. "When the Asian central banks and securities regulators heard that the U.S. had banned short-selling, they couldn't believe their luck," says Thomas Naughton, chief investment officer for equities at PMA Investment Advisors in Hong Kong. "They've always hated short-selling, and having the SEC ban it gave a big boost to the forces of regulation."

That could be a problem: A less competitive U.S., many fear, will cut pressure on foreign governments to fix their own systems. Recent European reforms have been driven largely by envy of U.S. growth. And in India, opponents of reform may be hoping America's troubles will put the brakes on change. Raghuram Rajan, ex-chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and a University of Chicago professor, led a commission studying financial reforms. When Rajan presented the group's findings in Mumbai just a day or two after the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac bailouts, he recalls, "people were saying to me: 'Is the U.S. the kind of model we want to go with?'"

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