Tough Kids On the Block

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tough stuff.

Marjorie Coeyman's excellent articles, starting on this page, this week profile some of the great entrepreneurs of America.

These are not the Bill Gateses, Ross Perots, or some of the masters of the universe on Wall Street.

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These are the people who start businesses against the odds and then keep them going when the going gets tough. They are people like Donald Delandro, an African-American who started a janitorial-supply company in one of the grittier neighborhoods of the nation's capital.

The location hurts, but he chose it to bring jobs to his community.

Or people like Iris Santiago, who started a hair salon in Boston's inner city. What she really needed was a teeny-weeny bank loan - $5,000, a sum we won't even begin to try to align with Bill Gates's personal net worth of about $40 billion. He earned it; he deserves it, but Ms. Santiago works just as hard and deserves a shot at defining success on her terms.

Compelling stories about genuine heroes in American business.

They make the machine go.

But this week, other parts of that machine sputtered a bit as Wall Street - plush offices and Mercedes-lined parking garages notwithstanding - becomes something of a tough neighborhood itself.

The Asian gangs came back, ready to rumble.

Some quick history. Asian financial markets started unraveling last July, eventually dragging Wall Street down with them. They all recovered - Wall Street by leaps and bounds - in the following months, but Asian markets cratered again last week.

And Wall Street, again, got panicky, driving the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 207 points on Tuesday.

The big worry was - is - Japan. Its economy, for seven years, has performed like a Yugo, and last week the engine looked ready to fall out completely. If Japan goes, the rest of Asia follows, spelling trouble for almost everyone else in our global economy.

The warning indicator is the Japanese yen. As it weakens, Japanese goods will undercut almost everyone else's.

And for a while, it looked as if the yen was set for a free fall, and US officials indicated no inclination to stop it.

Then China flexed; the US blinked.

China suggested that if the yen weakened substantially, it might respond.

This weak-yen problem hits especially hard at China, making its goods too expensive in world markets. That prospect would put Chinese workers out of work, bring inflation back, and create discontent in a country traditionally ill-equipped to deal with it.

So China said "no thanks." There was an implication that if the US allowed the yen to go limp, China would also devalue its currency, the yuan.

If that happened - wow! Asian economies crumple like paper lanterns.

So the US blinked. The White House moved to help Japan strengthen the yen, and it dispatched a top-gun Treasury official to Tokyo to see about patching up the Japanese economy.

All this happened between Tuesday and Wednesday and sent Wall Street on a spending spree. The Dow shot up 164 points Wednesday, then settled back to see if one Treasury official could overcome, in one meeting, seven years of Japanese government complacency.

Do we sound skeptical?

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