An impressive array of major players gathered in Chicago on Tuesday to recall the virtual Heimlich maneuver that saved the financial sector from choking to death a half-decade ago and thump themselves on the back for keeping the economy alive.
The pols, advisers, regulators, bankers and others brought to town by former White House senior adviser David Axelrod's University of Chicago Institute of Politics and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's Paulson Institute still make it sound like something of a divine miracle that partisan and policy bickering didn't derail efforts to keep the cogs of U.S. markets greased with bailout bucks.
But some sounded warnings that other potential problems remain on the horizon, and several said they understand why many Americans, still not breathing easy and resentful that Wall Street seems to have been nursed back to health, are sore.
Much like justified wars that "have unintended victims … appropriate bailouts have unintended beneficiaries," Lawrence Summers, a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama, said perhaps a bit too coolly.
Tuning out public sentiment was deliberate by policymakers when they were at work in 2008, said Paulson, Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush at the time of the emergency actions.
But he said they failed to anticipate the seething anger of Americans who did not see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the move to keep the economy afloat. And it didn't help that the Wall Street crowd was determined to reward itself with its usual bonuses despite the unusual situation, a move Paulson said showed an "incredible lack of awareness and lack of gratitude."
Axelrod said the bailouts "were absolutely necessary, but they violated the fundamental values" of fairness this nation holds dear.
"There's a notion that you behave responsibly and you're accountable for the mistakes you make, for your failures, so the concept of bailouts is offensive to them," Axelrod said. And "when you overlay this issue of executive compensation, that further infuriates them because not only do they think people are getting bailouts, but they think that some of the people who are culpable are getting rewarded for bad behavior. It fundamentally violates their sense of right and wrong. So it's contributed to the jaundice that we see. All of this continues to be a festering sore in our social fabric."
Even without that buildup of bile, trying to simultaneously look back, look ahead and look at where we now are is bound to leave one a tad cross-eyed and queasy.
BlackRock Chief Executive Officer Laurence Fink suggested that trouble looms if the Federal Reserve doesn't reconsider its program of monthly bond buys. Bush economic adviser Edward Lazear said stimulus is "a stopgap policy at best" and can't spur real growth.
"It's imperative that the Fed begins to taper," Fink said. "We've seen real bubblelike markets again. We've had a huge increase in the equity market. We've seen corporate-debt spreads narrow dramatically."
Minefields — or at least bumps across the landscape — were identified everywhere. Fink said he worries that not enough people are planning adequately for retirement, particularly given increasing life spans. He also expressed concerns that profit-minded operators of trading exchanges might be tempted to spend less on updating technology in slack years, which could leave markets vulnerable to glitches or other problems.
Charles Schwab, founder and chairman of the trading firm that bears his name, suggested variable-rate mortgages might pose a threat if not phased out, and he argued that the central bank should let the market do its thing when it comes to setting rates.
Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat pointed to the huge amount of outstanding college debt hanging over the economy.
Whatever proves to be the catalyst for the next catastrophe, the lesson of five years ago is, it can go from worry to withering in no time.
"The most frightening moment was AIG," Porat said. "It was realizing that the lack of oxygen that could choke AIG would also choke individuals and companies around the country — small, medium and large — and the speed with which it would happen was staggering and the fact that nobody would have time to prepare. It was the single most frightening moment for me of that entire fall period."
Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a target for critics who believe the Dodd-Frank reforms and regulations he co-authored are nettlesome, said he at one time considered campaigning with a bumper sticker that read: "It Would Have Sucked a Lot Worse Without Me."
A member of the audience questioned the cost of Dodd-Frank compliance. Former Sen. Christopher Dodd conceded that the expense was something to keep in mind but raised a point heard too little at the conference focused primarily on how stability was returned to financial institutions and markets.
"Something that's been left out of the conversation," Dodd said, "is 26 million people lost their jobs and $13 trillion in accumulated wealth in this country disappeared almost overnight. We sometimes forget the human impact of all of this. Lives were destroyed.
"We're blessed in this country with having no memory. It works for us and against us. But having some memory of what happened five years ago, it didn't just happen in the fall of 2008. This began a lot earlier than that. … And the wreckage and the carnage, not just here but elsewhere around the globe, is being felt still. So I understand we have to be thoughtful of the cost of compliance, but let's not forget the cost of what we went through."
Just as the symposium's final session was coming to a close, the regular trading day ended with an all-time high for the Dow Jones industrial average as well as the Standard & Poor's 500 index.
Tuesday also happened to be the 84th anniversary of Black Tuesday, an in-the-red-letter day on Wall Street that stunned 1929 America, not quite sensing yet the Great Depression ahead.
Coincidences, but haunting nonetheless — they practically put a lump in one's throat.