Before embracing 2009, a few things to be grateful for in the world of 2008 finance

As we say good-by to 2008, it is time once more to take a last look for the season at that old cinematic chestnut, It’s a Wonderful Life.

For as long as I can remember, I would gather with friends or family around the TV every December to cheer James Stewart as the reluctant leader of the Bedford Falls Savings and Loan Association. Donna Reed, his love interest, is heavenly to gaze upon – like the eternally young maiden on Keats’ Grecian Urn. Lionel Barrymore is wonderfully evil as the parsimonious commercial banker.

But this year, when I reconsidered the script I found myself squirming. George Bailey – the lender who lent to anyone. Everybody loves him. He has an open heart and an open hand.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a tale about counting blessings; it teaches us to appreciate the small acts of kindness we encounter. This year, the blessings I count – in addition to my family and relative financial solvency – are unexpected.

Just before Thanksgiving, Citibank sent me this astonishing email. “Good News!” the cyber-message chirped at 2:47 a.m. “Citibank is participating in the FDIC’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program.” My checking account is safe. So I am grateful.

Not long before that, albeit at a more humane hour, JPMorgan Chase sent along this heartwarming email: “With a company legacy that reaches back more than 200 years, we have a history that points to a company that is trustworthy, stable and experienced.” A stable banking giant. Thank you.

Earlier this month, Staples sent this message, which asked me to consider: “Will Office Depot Closings Affect You?” The body of the email answers: “We invented the office superstore in 1986 and we aren’t going anywhere. And remember, when other suppliers are closing their doors we’re here to stay.” I am always running out of colored ink for my printer. This is very good to know.

And then, of course, I am grateful for all the discounts deluging my email and snail mailboxes. Ten seemed to be the magic number – either $10 or 10% off my purchase. And if I walked into a store without one of my discount cards, no problem. One Barnes & Noble cashier simply pulled out a print-out of an online discount and scanned it into the register. Thank you very much!

In these difficult financial times, I am also grateful for the rituals of years past. Although my family celebrates Hanukah, we always look forward to our umpteenth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. We all know so many people who feel trapped like George Bailey in a life that is ever so much smaller and confined than they had imagined. We find comfort in seeing value in every soul. And we empathize when George sits on the brink of financial ruin and nearly comes under the spell of the successful but malevolent Henry F. Potter.

But then George snaps out of it. He damns Potter for his penurious conservatism:
“You – you said – what’d you say a minute ago? They (loan applicants) had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what?”

The money to repay?

And this is where anyone who hasn’t been sleeping for the past 12 months may start to squirm. Potter, the rental landlord, might have become today’s hero, refusing loans to people who couldn’t afford them. George ‘Give ‘em All Loans’ Bailey might have been the feckless knight leading the charge to re-package Alt-A loans. (Perhaps he would have been running ACORN!)

I still love George and his generous spirit. And I will always get misty-eyed when Clarence, George’s guardian angel, finally gets his wings as everyone joins in a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

And that brings me to my final item on my list of gratitude: The optimism that we should and do cherish in this country — a Bedford Falls with multiplexes, 24-hour banking, and far too many baseball teams. The world may feel upside down: The debtors appear to own us. George Bailey can’t figure out what happened: Didn’t the citizens promise to repay as soon as they could?

At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, even Henry Potter’s accountant contributes to the bailout of George Bailey’s savings and loan association. I suspect Potter and his hard-nosed progeny are helping us now. In fact, I’m counting on them.

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