The Bank of Karma

by Alexandra Lebenthal



In life, you meet the same people on the way up as on the way down, but what people often forget is that they don't always get to determine the direction.

Fate can be an unpredictable and heavy-handed operator on this escalator, so there are a few things that matter should you find yourself on the ride back down as you certainly will see some faces you know: how you treat everyone, especially those on the steps behind you, and whether you take your good fortune for granted.

There is also a little-known institution that plays a role should you find yourself in the unfortunate reverse position. It has been around for quite some time. We all have an account there, but not everyone uses it. It is called The Bank of Karma. There are branches on almost every block, but if you aren't looking for them you won't be able to find them.

We all know some successful families that have built up large accounts over generations. Others may not have grown up with great fortunes but they found the Bank by working hard, and never forgetting the few breaks they got from people more successful at the time. Unfortunately a number of others thought they didn't need The Bank and never made deposits on their way up the ladder. Sadly, there was nothing there for them when they needed to make a withdrawal. The doors were shut tight.

The party is always going when there is money, prestige and access. The day the party ends is when the redemptions flood in; the firm shuts down the desk; the scandal hits; the stock becomes worthless; there is downsizing after the merger; the CEO suddenly "resigns to pursue other interests"; the divorce papers are made public; the Page Six items flow fast and furious and those happy pictures taken by Patrick McMullan are suddenly an ironic media perp walk. Then you find out who your friends really are, and if you have an account in good standing at The Bank of Karma.

The house in Telluride ($7.6 million) was always full of people and après ski parties; The Centre Island estate on the North Shore ($14.2 million) was one of the grand houses from the Gilded Age (the first one) and felt as if nary a day had passed since the summer of '29, especially during their annual "Gatsby Gala."

The Georgian Townhouse on Beekman Place ($24.7 million pre-restoration/decoration) had been featured in Architectural Digest, no small feat even with one of the City's top decorators ($350 per hour plus 30% mark up) and the help of a top publicist ($20,000 monthly).

They had virtually everything anyone else could possibly covet ($25 million in art, jewelry, cars, furniture). Not surprisingly there was an almost constant group of people around them who wanted to be with them, be treated to dinner by them, raise money from them.

Everyone loved what they wore ($250,000 annual), places to which they traveled, ($150,000 annual), benefits they attended ($25,000 annual), restaurants they frequented ($25,000 annual), and generally marveled at how perfect their lives were (eternally priceless).

But the fact is they weren't particularly nice to their extensive staff, always caused a bit of difficulty in restaurants by asking for a different (better) table, didn't mentor people less successful than them, were a bit too front and center at every event, rarely bought more than two tickets at charity events even ones they were chairing, were always trying to be the smartest person in the room and always seemed to forget that they'd been introduced to you, as they oh so elegantly and cordially said "nice to meet you" for the umpty umpth time, while looking across the room for someone more notable to greet.

So when their escalator changed directions there were more than a few people who weren't all that sad to see their fortunes changed and in fact were rather gleeful.

Many "friends" soon stopped calling. What was more shocking though was the rumors that started flying that almost seemed to take on a life of their own. Invariably whether at The Regency Hotel for breakfast or the Four Seasons for lunch someone at a business meal would say to their companion "Look who is over there. No!! Don't turn around so quickly!"

Page Six items were devoured and then immediately followed with; "Well that?s not all. I heard?" At cocktail parties the next statement after the invariable weather conversation was "So did you know the?"

It goes without saying that legal scandal, financial malfeasance means daily functions, rather than generating business is replaced by working with top legal representation at rates currently ranging from $850-$1000 for senior partners and $450-600 for associates per hour.

Thus, a good portion of the real estate, art and jewelry will have to be sold, annual expenses, most likely significantly curtailed, staff let go and travel in (gasp!) first class, rather than private.

In this market, there are a lot of people this story could be about - insert your favorites here. The stories are so archetypal, the falls from wealth and grace so far, that they are almost allegorical. And in many cases, the rest of us have a hard time pushing aside our intense feelings of schadenfreude.

Is this what awaits anyone in position of power, money and prestige when the elevator violently shifts and goes down instead of up? Or is it only for these who did not regularly visit the Bank of Karma, who weren't helpful to those less fortunate, only gave money for the glamor and not for the joy of knowing they had helped make the world a little bit better or who never took a humble deep breath at the luck and hard work that brought them prosperity and good fortune.

But there are others, in this terribly stressful time, not reduced to the caricature of suddenly impoverished rich people without a friend in the world. Rather, they bounce back, find opportunity in the turmoil and receive an outpouring of support from their community. In times like these, we must redouble our deposits into the Bank of Karma. Call your friends who have encountered rough patches. Connect people who can be helpful to one another. Turn to your network and be there for them. At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we all end up with the reputations we deserve, and those reputations are built on how assiduously we tend to our portfolio at the Bank of Karma. And how do we measure the internal rate of return on our account in the Bank of Karma? Not pity, not necessarily financial support.

Since our investment is emotion, equanimity, friendship and compassion, that's what we will receive when we need it. Some people will never understand this. As Warren Buffett (who by virtue of his gargantuan gift to the Gates Foundation and his mentoring has a large account at the Bank of Karma) once said, "Of the billionaires I have known, money just brings out the basic traits in them. If they were jerks before they had money, they are simply jerks with a billion dollars."

Make a deposit today in your account at the Bank of Karma.

Alexandra Lebenthal moderates "Conversations With ... Markets 2009. Does it pay to wait? Featuring Jim Lebenthal, Co-Founder Lebenthal & Co; Jimmy Lebenthal, President, Lebenthal Equity Asset Management; Greg Serbe and Rod Smyth. With a special update on Manhattan real estate by Leslie Singer, Brown Harris Stevens.

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