Cries For Help From Wall Street

Tie our hands before we strike again

Financial Times columnist John Gapper had a good piece in New York a couple of weeks back about the psychology of Wall Street and how it’s worried about where it’s next big jackpot will be.

The most fascinating aspect of Gapper’s reporting is the quotes he gets from anonymous Wall Street executives—ones that look something like cries for help. Sort of an “Deep down I hate what I do, please tie my hands. ‘Cause if you don’t, then I gotta do what I gotta do.”

Here’s Anonymous Wall Street Exec No. 1:

“I am charitable enough to say that 80 percent of the time, banks try to identify ¬≠clients’ needs and innovate in a healthy fashion to meet them,” says one executive. “Then there is fraud, an activity that ought to be illegal if people were smart enough to write laws that made sense. Do you admit to your boss that your business no longer makes sense, or do you start to cheat? Or, as your margins decline, do you raise the leverage to make up for that? It’s insidious.”

In the admittedly rough estimation of this executive, Wall Street only operates on the level 80 percent of the time, which is amusing. But the other 20 percent is where it gets interesting. He (and I think I’m safe in assuming it’s a he) calls it “fraud,” but also qualifies it as “an activity that ought to be illegal if people were smart enough to write laws that made sense.”

Of course, plenty of people are smart enough to make sensible laws, the problem is that people like Anonymous Wall Street Exec No. 1 use their incredible clout in Washington to make sure we get laws like Dodd-Frank rather than Glass-Steagall and regulators like John Reich rather than Elizabeth Warren.

And that’s why things that should be illegal aren’t, although there’s plenty that still is and hasn’t been prosecuted.

Here’s AWSE No. 2 (emphasis mine):

“I see much less boastful pride than there used to be,” says one top executive at a Wall Street firm. “I wouldn’t call it humility, just shame. I am astonished by how many senior people I meet who are ashamed of their own institutions. They are still a bit paralyzed by the shock of realizing how much of their profits came from unsavory practices.”

If this top exec really has his finger on the pulse of the Street, he’s talking about a very behind-doors sentiment. We haven’t seen admissions of guilt, moral or ethical, much less legal. These quotes would have never happened on the record. These guys can’t or won’t tell us themselves, but they still want us to know.

But it’s also such a self-rationalizing statement: Of course, people knew they were doing unsavory things even before the bubble popped. It’s the catastrophic consequences of their actions that have shocked them.

Anonymous Wall Street Executive No. 3:

“Leverage pushed up returns and encouraged excessive risk-taking, and then the government bailed everyone out, so why won’t it happen again next time?” asks one financier. “A lot of people think it’ll take time for us to figure out what to binge on next, but we’ll find something.”

This is the “please save me from myself” thing. Sort of like an addict who knows it’s wrong to go back on the pipe but if given a choice knows he’s going to do it anyway.

And ultimately the most terrifying of all: The housing recidivist:

“They might take stakes in Facebook and clip the ticket several times with banking and investment fees, but the underlying opportunity is still smaller than the mortgage market. Everyone’s got a mortgage,” says one banker.

Which is probably why Wall Street hasn’t entirely given up on mortgages. Many bankers are hoping to play a bigger role in housing finance as the Obama administration tries to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities. “The reform of Fannie and Freddie is an enormous opportunity. It is the last brick in the Berlin Wall of official intervention in housing finance,” says one executive.

I don’t think the business/political press needed any reminders to be aggressive and severely skeptical when the coming debate on what to do with Fannie and Freddie hits—at least I hope it doesn’t.

But this quote might be worth sticking on the bulletin board just in case.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,