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Blame Wall Street

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Blame Wall Street

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote an article on October 1 entitled: “Still Stuck in Denial on Wall Street”. He compared the views of Anthony Scaramucci, the founder of SkyBridge Capital, a Wall Street company that manages over $7 billion, with those of Charles Ferguson, the director of “Inside Job”, a documentary about the financial crisis.

Nocera interviewed Scaramucci and reported: “Greed, Mr. Scaramucci conceded, had infected Wall Street during the years leading up to the crisis – but he wouldn’t acknowledge what seems patently obvious to most people: those who gravitate to Wall Street are far less motivated by a desire to, say, supply capital to struggling start-ups than to get really rich…What was most striking to me was Mr. Scaramucci’s utter refusal to accept the notion that something truly systemic had infected the financial industry…Although Mr. Scaramucci seemed to me to be an intelligent and well-meaning man, he also seemed to me to be in denial. Just like the rest of Wall Street.”

Nocera compared this denial to Ferguson’s view that Wall Street was rotten to the core: “An out-of-control industry”. Nocera concluded that Wall Street should see Ferguson’s film to “understand why the American people have no sympathy for its supposed plight.”

They have no sympathy because the politicians and the general public need a scapegoat . Nocera misses the fact tat everyone was an accomplice to Wall Street. Wall Street was simply providing a service to everyone driven by greed. In a way, Wall Street was catering to peoples’ fantasies – much like prostitutes, drug dealers, clubs, casinos, advertising firms and most consumer product companies. To whom does Nocera believe the ads (shoes and boots costing close to $1,000, watches in excess of $10,000, etc.) on the second and third pages of his newspaper appeal?

The buyers of the “toxic” assets created and peddled by Wall Street were big boys and girls – extremely well-paid managers of investment funds. They all were looking for something for nothing – a few more basis points of return for no additional risk. With low interest rates and absurd assumptions regarding returns on investments built into most employer sponsored pension plans, these fund managers needed the “fix” of a higher return. They were paid outrageous amounts of money to outsource the investment of their funds’ money.

They all knew how the game was played on Wall Street. They were just too lazy or incompetent to do their homework. Run with the herd, and make sure you have the defense that the credit rating agencies had given their stamps of approval to the junk, and the junk was being promoted by the best of the banks and the law firms.

Individual investors, rich and not-so-rich, also were driven by greed and the pursuit of a few extra basis points. Why else would they have invested with Bernie Madoff, or together with the large institutional investors agree to pay private equity firms and hedge funds 2 and 20? Madoff did not promise suspiciously high returns, just impossibly steady returns well above prevailing short-term interest rates. The hedge funds promised ridiculous returns. Some that generated very high returns did so because of a small handful of possibly lucky bets. Most of their other investments treaded water at best. Few bothered to do their homework.

Greed was rampant. Denial of responsibility was rampant.

Politician gladly participated in this orgy of greed –  an orgy that has distant roots. They eagerly accepted money from the financial industry – money that has run into the billions of dollars during the past 20 years. Politicians in the US spend more time raising money for their campaigns than they do governing. Politics has become one of the largest industries in the US. But it has become dysfunctional with politicians increasingly reluctant to bite the hands that feed them. Politicians looked the other way, oftentimes after they had changed the rules to expand the scope for gambling on Wall Street and Main Street.

Many articles have been written over the years about the Casino Society in the US with Wall Street and Las Vegas at its core.  Little has changed over the years, except the bets have become bigger, more money is gambled, gambling has drifted online, and state governments reap large windfall revenues from gambling.

Congress recently has been weighing a bill by Representative Barney Frank, an outspoken critic of Wall Street, that would legalize all types of Internet gambling. But Congress views a Tobin tax and limitations on capital gains taxation as the death-knells of capitalism.

And of course, there was a massive failure of corporate governance. Directors have escaped largely unscathed, even they were content to collect their retainers and enjoy their perks without challenging the direction of the banks on whose boards they sat.

Yes, systemic greed is rampant on Wall Street. Should we expect anything else? But it is just as rampant everywhere else round the world, including the New York Times and its reporters, Main Street USA, Pennsylvania Avenue and Avenue K in DC, Shanghai, Dubai, Zurich, etc.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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