Greed Gone Wild in 2008

Examining a year of financial reckoning for Americans and what comes next.

Dec. 26, 2008— -- In a year defined by bailouts and bankruptcy, New York painter Geoffrey Raymond is one of the lucky few. His business is booming, selling pricey portraits of the business titans some say are responsible for today's financial crisis.

Caught on canvas are former Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld.

If art is an unspoken language, Raymond has given his a voice, by asking passersby on Wall Street to scrawl their thoughts directly on his work. "Can I tempt you with a marker?" he asks.

A friend gave him the idea to paint the well-known Wall Street figures. "I'm giving a voice to the people who don't have a voice, even if it's five words on a painting; it's something." (Click here to visit Raymond's Web site.)

In September, shortly after Lehman Brothers announced the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history, Raymond stationed himself outside company offices in Manhattan to ask employees and passersby to sign his portrait of Fuld.

"By a wide margin, the most popular word on my painting is greed," Raymond said.

The word "greed" seems to crop up on many portraits, "particularly with the CEOs of companies that have gone under, because people that are writing on those are frequently employees who have just lost their job and they are, in fact, angry," he added. "There's a sense that if people had settled for perhaps a little less, we all wouldn't be in this situation."

Similarly, on the portrait of Cayne, Raymond said, "a middle-aged woman wrote, 'My blood is boiling.'"

He said "many signatures seemed to be filled with anger and frustration, but the last annotation on the Cayne painting was, 'It's been a good ride.'"

Greed: 'More Than They Could Afford'

The image of greed isn't solely in portraits: Massachusetts State Senator Diane Wilkerson was caught on camera allegedly stuffing her bra with cash bribes. Wilkerson, a Democrat, resigned her post recently and pleaded not guilty in U.S. District court to conspiracy and attempted extortion. She's free on bond.

New York financier Bernard Madoff is accused of stuffing his pockets -- squandering $50 billion in investor money.

"Everything that we planned for our whole life is gone," Arnold Sinkin, a retired carpet salesman who had saved close to $1 million, told "Good Morning America."

All his money was managed by Madoff. Film director Steven Spielberg and publishing and real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman were also among the victims -- and the list keeps growing, both in the United States and abroad.

But did greed lead to this year's most iconic images -- of an unprecedented economic meltdown, including the steepest stock market drops in history (Sept. 29, 2008, brought the biggest drop in the Dow's history, 777.68 points.)

As the market continued to fall, unemployment surged to 6.7 percent in November 2008; and unemployed businessmen gained national media attention, caught offering their services wearing signs advertising their experience.

Joshua Persky, an unemployed engineer, wore an "Experienced MIT Grad for Hire" sign around New York City while handing out resumes. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," Persky told the The New York Post.

The economic collapse also led to revered investment banks destroyed practically overnight. "It's terrible, it's terrible ... people are grabbing all of their stuff," one former Bear Stearns worker said.

Diane Swonk, chief economist for Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, compared the economic crisis to a financial "tsunami." But she said the responsibility goes beyond the economic elite, adding that people across all income strata are caught this year, "from the top CEOs ... to the individuals that thought they were buying a part of the American dream."

In an interview with Elizabeth Vargas, she said that "everybody wanted more than they could afford."

Financial Outlook: 'Things Are Going to Get Worse'

On the hot seat now are corporate leaders who made a profit in the midst of the crisis. "They were living so high on the hog, and they were so used to getting, you know, 10, 15, $20 million bonuses, and flying on private planes," Andy Sewer, managing editor at Fortune Magazine, said. "And, then, all of a sudden, the bottom fell out of these companies. It's a reckoning."

It has been a reckoning for former corporate CEOs like Fuld of Lehman Brothers, who faced down questions and cameras on Capitol Hill. "If you haven't discovered your role, you're the villain today," Rep. Tom Mica , R-Fla., told Fuld in one hearing on the causes and effects of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.

Former executives of the insurance giant AIG were also questioned. One topic of discussion: the fancy retreat hosted by AIG after an $85 billion bailout. "The committee has learned that a week after the bailout, executives from AIG's main U.S. life insurance subsidiary, AIG American General, held this week-long conference at an exclusive resort in California," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "They were getting their manicures, their facials, their pedicures and their massages while American people were footing the bill."

Also facing scrutiny are the bosses of the Big Three auto companies, caught by ABC's Brian Ross flying private jets to Washington to beg for bailout money. "It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.

But what about all the average Americans? Were they caught living too large? "The reality is everybody has been guilty in this economy," Swonk said. "Anyone who, you know, put something on a credit card that they couldn't afford, anyone who got that little bigger loan because they wanted a little bigger house."

Indeed, some homeowners this year have confessed that they were in over their heads. "I'm very ashamed that I accepted that mortgage," said Leah Talley, a Floridian who lost her home to foreclosure. "I shouldn't have done it."

Now that we've gone from boom to bust, Americans are finally forced to tighten their belts, even if their belts are diamond studded. "The bling is gone," Swonk said.

On the question of when the econony will bouce back, the "reality is, no matter what we do ... things are going to get worse before they get better," she said. "All we can do at this stage of the game is cushion how hard the landing is. We're still going to land hard and we're still falling."