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Jewish World Review
April 8, 2008
/ 3 Nissan 5768
When markets come crashing down, send for the man with the big red nose
Too early yet to say whether the present financial turmoils will end in a catastrophic maelstrom or simply slip away like an angry tide, leaving puddles. One has no great confidence in the authorities on either side of the Atlantic. Would that J.P. Morgan were still around to take charge of things and recreate order out of chaos! He solved three financial crises single-handedly. In 1877 his personal intervention enabled the army's payroll to be met. In 1893, called in by President Cleveland, he stemmed the gold outflow from the United States. And in 1907 he calmed the universal panic by simply sitting in his library and summoning people to come to him.
I know a little about this library because I once gave a series of lectures on American history there. Housed in Morgan's own splendid mansion in Manhattan, it is one of the most agreeable places in the world in which to learn and reflect. It contains a choice selection of Old Master drawings but its chief treasure is its immense collection of rare books and manuscripts, which puts it fourth in the world after the Library of Congress, the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was not entirely Morgan's own creation because, in 1905, he appointed the ravishing Virginian, Belle da Costa Greene, then 21, his librarian, and sent her on buying sprees all over the world. He encouraged her to stay at the Ritz in Paris and Claridge's in London, and to get her clothes at the leading couturiers. It says a lot for Morgan's impeccable reputation that no one ever questioned the propriety of their relationship, and his judgment in picking her so young was fully vindicated by the shrewdness and taste of her purchases.
The basis of Morgan's power and influence was complex. He was not a self-made man, having inherited much of his money. Nor was he in the very top rank of the rich. When he died his liquid assets scarcely topped $100 million, provoking John D. Rockefeller's famous comment, 'Well, well. And to think that Mr Morgan was not even a wealthy man.' Morgan's authority lay in his reputation for absolutely straight dealing and scrupulous truth-telling. He was never detected, in a long and intricately complex career of mergers, takeovers and trust-creations, in a lie or a piece of sharp practice. But he was not only respected, he was feared. There is a riveting photograph of him, having just stepped out of his limo, raising his silver-topped ebony cane to strike, or more likely just to threaten, a crowd of intrusive paparazzi. The expression of his face is formidable. His eyes, like Gladstone's, had the fierceness and penetration of an eagle owl's. The photographer Edward Steichen said: 'Meeting his eye is like facing the headlight of an express train bearing down upon you.' He was an exponent of righteous anger. So the unrighteous trembled in his presence. But so did many other people. At his dinner parties he liked to give ladies fine gold trinkets. But they were scared of him too.
Morgan's presence was dominated, one might almost say lit up, by his large, red and swollen nose. This was the result of a chronic skin complaint, rhinophyma, of which he was painfully conscious. You had to keep your eyes off it not easy. When Mrs Dwight Morrow, the young wife of one of his partners, had to entertain him to tea, she told her four-year-old daughter, Euphemia, not to stare at his nose and on no account to mention it. The little girl dutifully complied, and after she had sat on the great man's knee for a suitable period, her mother thankfully dismissed her to her nursery. Then she started pouring, and found herself saying: 'Mr Morgan, do you take nose in your tea?'
Conscious of visual authority, Morgan ran an open-plan office, and worked in full view of his staff, and they in his. He moved in an orderly and impressive routine. He had a succession of yachts, always called Corsair. When he arrived by liner from his biannual trips to Europe, his current Corsair picked him up in New York harbour and took him straight to his home, Cragston, on the Hudson. When the panic began in October 1907, Morgan was just coming up to 70 and had recently moved into his new mansion in New York, where his library was already looming down from the giant shelving. It was an impressive setting in which to confront the majestic tycoon. On Sunday 20 October he met first his partners, then leaders of the New York financial and business community, in a series of confidential groups, in which all were ordered to be frank. Having thus briefed himself on the size of the danger, he put together a team of clever young men to go through the accounts overnight, and see which of the big houses were too weak to survive and must go to the wall, and which could be saved. That done, he summoned the bankers and the US Treasury (there was then no central bank) and set about raising liquidity by authoritative gouging, lending the proceeds to those to be saved at 10 per cent. Once the US stock exchange knew the money was available, albeit at high rates, the panic began to subside, though it is interesting to note that the man who made this key announcement had his frock-coat and even his waistcoat torn in the tumult. One who watched Morgan throughout the crisis said: 'He was the embodiment of power and purpose.' Just by walking around the financial district, and raising his hat occasionally, Morgan had a reassuring effect. Seven years later the US Federal Reserve Bank was created to replace a single man by an institution.
A man like Morgan, who combines shrewdness and celerity in action with a lifetime's reputation for honesty, is of inestimable value, capable of saving society countless billions which an uncontrolled financial panic may cost. This set me thinking about worth and rewards. In Sesame and Lilies (1865) John Ruskin wrote: 'Which of us is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest and for what pay? Who is to do the pleasant and clean work, and for what pay?' He did not answer his question it was ironic and rhetorical. But in 1932 Bertrand Russell came up with a sort of answer: 'Work is of two kinds. First, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter. Second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid. The second is pleasant and highly paid.' Neither seer knew much about finance, though Russell wrote down everything he ever earned by writing or lecturing, in minute handwriting, in a small thick notebook (how one would like to see it!). But the complaints both men registered are generally shared, and are felt particularly strongly today. For the present turmoil comes after a long period when bankers have earned colossal sums in salaries and bonuses, and it is essentially the bankers, thanks to their misjudgment and greed, who have got us all into the mess, by lending large sums of money to improvident masses of people who could not afford to borrow it.
But here lies the paradox. There is no one alive today like J.P. Morgan, who can put the financial world to rights simply by his judgment, personality and reputation. But if there were such a person, how lucky we would be! And what we would be prepared to pay him to come to our rescue!
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© 2006, Paul Johnson