Great Times Piece on Wall Streeters’ Shame

The Times has an amusing story this morning on what it’s like for Wall Streeters now that they’re goats instead of heroes, and less paid ones at that. It’s chock full of schadenfreude moments and pictures of bankers still in utter denial.

Here’s one of the former:

“For a long time, it was kind of glamorous and I had friends who’d ask me ‘Can you get me a job there?’ ” says Ms. Chau, 35, who was part of a recent round of layoffs at the firm’s Manhattan headquarters. A few weeks ago, she mentioned her work to a photographer she’d met through a friend. “And he looks at me and says, ‘Oh, you’re one of them.’ ”

And here’s some denial:

Financiers tell their not-for-attribution account of the mortgage crisis like this: Americans undersaved and overspent for decades, relying on rising property values to bankroll their lifestyles. But nobody on Wall Street forced United States homeowners to take out loans on houses they couldn’t afford, or refinance mortgages to spend money on cars they shouldn’t have bought.

The esoteric securities underneath the current mess are, to the people who invented and marketed them, analogous to pharmaceutical drugs. Used correctly, they can enhance your life. Abused, they are lethal…

You hear a lot about the failure of regulators, too. But it’s difficult to find anyone in the financial trenches who thinks the problem is Wall Street itself.

I don’t think this kid is the type of guy we need in Congress, do you?

Of course, mistakes were made on Wall Street, says Emanuel Pleitez, a 26-year-old former Goldman Sachs employee who resigned from his job a few months ago to run for Congress in his hometown, Los Angeles. But to a great extent, he says, those mistakes were born of misplaced trust.

“Look, you can talk about collateralized debt obligations all day long,” he said, referring to a type of asset-backed security that has turned famously toxic. “But there were ratings agencies that were supposed to tell us how risky these securities were. We essentially closed our eyes and said, ‘O.K., you say this is rated triple-A, fine, I believe you.’ ” In hindsight, he said, “Everyone should have been more skeptical.”

And more schadenfreude:

At JPMorgan, Ms. Chau said, management clamped down on office supplies to the point where employees now need to ask a secretary for the key to the supply room for pens.

At the San Francisco branch of Goldman Sachs, the days of free soy milk and Diet Cokes are over, and one day, the water cooler was wheeled right out of the office. “Word went around pretty quickly,” says Mr. Pleitez. “Bring your own water.”

The Times ends the piece with the Big Point that’s rapidly becoming consensus: We’ve had our best and brightest shuffling paper around, making money out of money, instead of making products or ideas for the last two-plus decades. It starts with this clueless quote from a muni finance banker:

“If you just take your base home, the question becomes, why not just work at a nonprofit from 8 to 4 instead of a bank where you’re expected to work weekends and every night till 10 or 11?” she said.

Or, conversely, why work every night till 10 or 11 for anything when you could work at a nonprofit from eight to four? Go out and have a life. Get your priorities in order.

But the kicker is this nice bit from the ex-chief of the NYSE:

Robert J. Birnbaum, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange, sees an upside to Wall Street’s diminished reputation.

“It’s taken a hit, but so what?” he said. “We don’t need all the bright people going to Wall Street, chasing money. There’s a lot of things bright people can do. Like find a cure for cancer.”

The times, they are a-changin’.

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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.