Monday, March 17, 2008

Adios, Bear Stearns, and Thanks for the Memory

By golly, we all have our own Bear Stearns stories, don't we? No? Well, I do. And I don't mean one along the lines of the poor sap I heard about on the radio today who bought more that $50,000 in Bear Sterns stock last week, just ahead of the implosion. Or the former CEO's taste for bridge, or odd talk from the Fed about "moral hazards" or suchlike.

Back in early 1999, I wrote: " 'How does this year's convention compare to last year's?' I asked a number of seasoned mortgage banking professionals at this year's gathering of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America in February.

" 'It's more sober.'

" 'Definitely more restrained.'

" 'You should have been at Nomura's party last year.'

"The sense [of the industry] I got was like the one you feel not long after you've nearly run your car off the road. Relief, but with a tinge of dread for what might have happened."

For those who've forgotten -- most everyone -- there was a brief but severe investor panic in the summer of 1998, precipitated by the sudden devaluation of the ruble. It blew over, but left the mortgage banking industry feeling a bit sober by the time MBA '99 in San Diego rolled around. (Ah, for those halcyon, pre-subprime meltdown days. Ruble crisis? Ha!)

That's not what I remember about attending MBA that year anyway, not really. I did my company business, memories of which bundle with other conventions in other places and other times. But in those days, you got a better airfare, at least according to the company's travel agent, if you stayed a Saturday night, and the convention started on a Sunday afternoon. (Company travel agent? Saturday night stays? This posting sure is taking me back to some lost way of life.)

I'd never been to San Diego before, and because of the overnight Saturday practice, I found myself with part of a weekend there with no work obligations. Among other things, I visited the San Diego Zoo and other parts of Balboa Park, and took a walk through the Gaslamp Quarter to a place that intrigued me: the US Grant Hotel.

After that, I had to attend the convention, but there was a surprise bonus, an evening function paid for by Bear Stearns. I wrote: "I did make it to a good party at MBA this year, thrown by Bear Stearns at the extraordinary Hotel del Coronado. The theme was Marti Gras (the party was indeed held on Fat Tuesday), and the food and band had a distinct New Orleans flavor." The party wasn't bad, but I spent more time wandering around the hotel. The Grant was dandy, but the Del was

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