There was a time when failed Wall Street investors hurled themselves from their high-rise offices. Now, their office windows are made of Plexiglas and they are rewarded $700 billion bail-out packages for sending the economy spiraling in on itself. In my weaker moments I pine for 1929-style personal responsibility.
I am not alone. A lot was written in 2010 about how a greed-fueled mortgage industry nourished our current economic crisis by lowering lending standards, propagating the fallacy that home investment was safer than purchasing shares and selling mortgage backed securities while at the same time cranking out one dubious mortgage after another. The common threads being a lack of appropriate government oversight and the fact that our financial systems reward extravagant risk taking. This is to be expected on Wall Street where the primary actors are fattened on the core belief the market will always correct itself (and if it doesn’t, one might now add, the government will).
So, in mid January 2011 as we see the effects of the government bail out of the markets and the roller coaster riding Dow, I am curious about the long term health our economy, of course. But more importantly, how will the plummeting economy effect the Wall Street party season?
You see each year the big firms welcome in its new pack of young, cooler-than-thou first year accountants and attorneys to their new jobs on Wall Street. The scene starts with a lavish gesture of the firm’s wealth: swank hotel ballroom, shimmering ice sculptures of short, plump firm executives, generous small talk from 2nd tier managers who will spend the next two years screaming expletives at you (“wow, what nice incisors you have.”)
Then, somewhere along the line, someone explains how things are: your office has a bed in it. You will work 17 hours a day. After the first year you will be evaluated. If you earn more than the person to your immediate left or right, you will get a raise. The other half of you will be fired. The same thing happens after your third year. If you make it that far you will have enough money to own your own air force.
The army does a version of the same act—you break down a new recruit’s will and restructure it as a killing machine. On Wall Street, you get to wash down fish eggs with white wine in between brainwashing, but the techniques are basically the same: alternate fear and love with a disarming lack of sleep while inculcating new recruits with a self-sustaining mantra: the market will always correct itself; your job is to poach as much as you can.
Will this speech lose any of its red-of-tooth-and-claw glory this trading season? I doubt it, notwithstanding the fact that an insane focus on three-year profit cycles and a lack of transparency and oversight was behind every major financial crisis in this country’s history—from the Great Depression, to the stock market crash of 1987 to the savings and loan crisis. Now that the government has stepped in, one has to wonder whether the massive bailout plan will only incentivize the same shortsighted “greed is good” mentality that caused this whole mess to begin with. How could anyone on Wall Street regard the bailout package as anything other than a green light to continue with more of the same? Now, more than ever, the self-proclaimed captains of the Universe can be rest assured that, in the short term, they’ll line their coffers, and in the long term, the government will clean up the mess.
Missed in the headlong rush to pass the bailout package was a unique opportunity to change the culture of Wall Street by using the bill as leverage to negotiate greater transparency and oversight. Indeed, what the bailout bill needed most—a heavy dose of government oversight—is precisely what is most lacking. To recap: the bailout is supposed to clear $700 billion worth of toxic mortgage back securities from the rolls of our financial institutions. But who is going to decide how the government prices these assets? No one really knows the answer to that question. But I can assure you that bank lobbyists will play a wildly inappropriate role in the process. What’s desperately needed is an independent government agency to price the assets. Absent this, the bailout package may add some kick to the economy by injecting a dose of consumer confidence. But ultimately the solution will become a perverse mirror of the same short sighted thinking that birthed the crisis. Translation: the economy may unfreeze for a year or two, but its bloated heart remains in need of a surgeon’s scalpel.