First fear, then loathing, toward Wall Street

Steve Ebels hasn’t been that hurt by the recent stock market roller-coaster ride because he no longer has much to lose.

Ebels, who owns a heating business, said he already lost much of his life savings when a general contractor he was doing work for went belly up, leaving Ebels with a pile of bills for materials and labor he had already invested in the project.

And that is perhaps the biggest reason why Ebels, 51, would like to see the failed Wall Street titans pay for the actions that have led to this crisis. If he has to start over because of a soured business deal, he figures, so should they.

“I would just like to see some way that these people are held personally accountable,” he said. “We’ve got to do more of that in this country: personal responsibility and accountability.”

For Ebels, who lives in Falmouth, Mich., it’s also especially galling that people like him, who are already suffering from the weak economy, will now end up footing the bill for these chief executives’ mistakes.

“All (the bailout has) done is transfer all the indiscretions of all these people onto the shoulders of the taxpayers,” he said.

As Americans digest a dizzying series of events that has left Wall Street shaken to its core, the mood on Main Street is shifting from fear to loathing. They are angry that government regulators did not do enough to prevent this — and protect them — in the first place. They are upset the government is proposing billions of dollars in bailouts for Wall Street, even as many regular Americans are struggling to hang onto their homes and pay their bills.

They also are livid that massive financial firms in which they trusted took wild risks and made incredibly bad decisions, in turn impacting their personal finances. Some wonder why, in the face of such a massive financial crisis, so few of these executives have stepped up to apologize for, or even try to explain, their actions.

Mostly, they think it’s despicable that many of these top executives could walk away with millions of dollars in their bank accounts, even as some average Americans see their retirement plans thrown into chaos.

A series of congressional hearings on the bailout plan, beginning Tuesday, will address some of the issues, such as executive compensation and relief for regular homeowners, that has drawn some of the outrage.

The one thing Susan Provencal, 63, knows is that her retirement will not go as planned. First, Provencal was laid off from one, then another, high-paying job training workers. Then, she had to abandon a plan to live in her getaway home in the mountains because she couldn’t find enough work there, either.

So, Provencal decided to sell that home and put all her equity into a condo in the northern California city of Fairfield, where she found clerical work. But in the year since she bought the condo — and after staving off phone calls urging her to take on the type of non-traditional home loans at the center of this crisis — she has seen its value plummet.

Now, with her home equity wiped out, her regular income down and her retirement investments suffering, Provencal figures there will no way she will retire in three years as she had hoped. Plus, she’s worried about her kids and grandkids, who she wouldn’t be able to help if they lost their homes or their jobs.

As she struggles to figure out her drastically changed situation, Provencal says it’s aggravating to think that Wall Street executives aren’t suffering a similar financial fate.

“It’s like adding insult to injury to then see that the government is going to step in, and these idiots that have done wrongdoing for a long time are still going to retain big bonuses,” she said.

Provencal thinks the executives should have seen these problems coming. And if they couldn’t foresee it, then she thinks safeguards are needed to prevent the same thing from happening again.

“I hate to see too much regulation in place, but the bottom line is, these institutions have not been self-regulating,” she said.

At 59, Richard Martin also is dealing with a suddenly changed financial landscape. Martin had planned to stop working next year, using his 401(k) savings and two pensions he has earned to finance his retirement. But after watching his investment portfolio shrink for the past 12 months, he said that plan is looking iffy at best.

Adding to his woes, Martin now isn’t sure he’ll have a job, even if he does decide to keep working. The Grand Prairie, Texas, resident works for Electronic Data Systems, which was recently bought by Hewlett-Packard. Last week, HP announced plans to cut 24,600 jobs over the next few years as it absorbs EDS.

But even if he postpones retirement, Martin isn’t going to hold out for a stock market rebound. Last week, he arranged to have his 401(k) investments moved completely into cash-like investments. News later in the week of the proposed massive bailout plan didn’t make him feel better about betting on the markets.

“I’m not sure anything gives me any confidence anymore,” he said.

In fact, to Martin, the bailout seems to just be giving corporations what they want, without forcing them to change their ways enough to prevent the same thing from happening again. If these companies have spent the last few decades arguing for deregulation, he figures they should be willing to live with the consequences of a free market.

“I would have loved to have seen a few of these go under, personally,” Martin said. “The idea of the free market is that the strong survive and if they’re not capable of surviving, they shouldn’t be in the marketplace.”

Michael Danter, 45, thinks the government did the right thing by coming to the aid of a few financial institutions, in an effort to maintain some measure of confidence in the U.S. financial system.

Still, he thinks the top executives at companies getting federal aid should pay for their misdeeds in the form of a substantially smaller paycheck, especially since the savings could be enough to save a couple thousand regular workers their jobs.

“I know they work hard and I’m not into this socialism, but what’s enough? One million? Two million?” he asked.

Still, despite the current crisis, in general Danter said he’s against more regulation of the financial markets. The physician, who lives in St. Louis, also has no plans to get out of the stock market, especially since retirement is still a long way off for him.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a good time to buy,” he said.

Even among experts, there is some room for anger.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who was among the few predicting this type of mortgage-related disaster years ago, has the biggest beef with former Fed chief Alan Greenspan, who he believes should have done more to temper the housing bubble that is at the root of the crisis.

“If he didn’t know it was going on, it was undoubtedly incompetence on his part,” Baker said of Greenspan.

Mark Gertler, a professor of economics at New York University, also thinks Americans have a right to be angry, both at the regulators who failed to police these financial institutions and at the companies who didn’t see this mess coming.

While many Americans may have assumed that the denizens of Wall Street had a keener understanding of the situation than they did, he said it’s been sobering to realize that even executives at some of the biggest financial companies, such as insurance giant AIG, didn’t fully appreciate the risk involved.

“The thing you learn is people who seem smarter than you may not be,” he said. “That’s the scary thing.”

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