Looking at the sunrise through the 24th-story window of my doctor’s office, I see a forest of cranes. Houston is building apace, an economic powerhouse defying economic gravity the way its skyscrapers defy the Newtonian kind. Recession? What recession?
Someone is investing in Houston’s future. In the financial centers, I can see little trace of the Wall Street crash. Houses in River Oaks remain elegant and exquisitely maintained. The Galleria is jammed, the parking valets hopping. There’s money here. I imagine bankers hunched over piles of mortgages, tucked away in their JPMorgan Chase fortress, their elegant building near the historic center.
Financiers of probity have left marks in Houston. The motto on the State National Building reads,”FRVGALITY IS THE MOTHER OF THE VIRTVES.” Indeed. The kind of sentiment that breeds confidence. Trustworthy hands guide Houston’s economics.
More signs of growth—the old part of town is undergoing a renaissance. Marvelous historic buildings are being renovated, finding new life as restaurants, cafés, and professional offices. Dr. M. M. Henderson, Dentist appears to be the first tenant in this spruced-up space, his 1930s-style sign stenciled on the window.
Look closer, though, and you see cracks beginning to appear. Dr. Henderson won’t be practicing here after all. Looks like the bank—JPMorgan Chase perhaps—has repossessed the place, and they’re hoping to unload it fast.
I saw these things all over town: boarded up storefronts, closed restaurants, homeless hordes riding the MetroRail without paying fares—taking small revenge against financiers who awarded themselves record bonuses while their companies tanked. I wonder whose IRA contains the securitized loan on Dr. Henderson’s building? Is 1014 Prairie Street one of mine? It was all done on easy credit. For a while, everyone was tapping their home equity, wearing out their plastic, flipping retirement condos in Arizona.
Not for a minute am I swayed by arguments that no one saw the crash coming. Get real: we all saw it coming. But so many were playing the game, hoping to get off the speeding train just before it hit that sharp, unbanked curve. Those whose motto should have been “Frvgality is the mother of the virtves” busied themselves mixing toxic loans in with the good ones until no one knew what they were getting. Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corp. of America, mixed salmonella infected peanuts into his shipments. Stewart declined a request by Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon to eat some of his company's own product. Good move, Stew. And you can bet executives at JPMorgan Chase would decline to take their bonuses in securitized bundled loans if someone asked them to. The downtown is beginning to look careworn. The smaller developments are feeling the crunch first. But southward along Fannin and Main Streets, high rises still sprout up at a blistering pace. Are they real? Is there actual money behind them, or some kind of tricky derivative? When they’re finished, will they fill up with businesses? Would you bet your IRA on it?