Myopia on Wall Street

The Observer's Max Abelson finds a prime example in a new book

Wall Street still hasn’t taken responsibility for its central role in creating the housing bubble, the predatory lending, the financial crisis, and the resulting near-depression. It rages at a president who has bent over backwards to install friendlies in key positions (Geithner, Summers, Schapiro, etc.), bailed it out with trillions of dollars in cash, loans, and guarantees, and then slapped it on the wrist with a financial-reform law that does little to fundamentally reform and remake the Street.

“But he called us ‘fat cats’!”

But does the Street really just flat not understand why it’s to blame here? I wonder after reading the latest Max Abelson piece in The New York Observer. He digs up a book by a former Dick Fuld confidant at Lehman Brothers who’s now an AIG executive that purports to explain why the financial crisis occurred and what needs to be done now.

Guess what? The dude blames just about everybody but Wall Street. Abelson and the Observer are particularly strong here in rebutting Thomas Russo’s points (emphasis mine):

MR. RUSSO IS livid about the dark future, but not about Wall Street’s hand in having shaped it. He puts the phrase “bailouts” in scare quotes, dismissing the hubbub. “Yes,” he writes, “it would have been far worse had the government failed to act.”

If he concedes that mistakes were made on Wall Street, what upsets him are the regulators, the senators, the government-sponsored enterprises, the wrongheaded economists, the central bankers, the credit-rating agencies, plus the overleveraged non-financial corporations and especially the overeager home buyers. “On all sides, there are people who could have done things better,” he said. “Everyone shares in this. And my issue is that if you pinpoint one or two and not everyone, you will solve one or two of the problems, but the problem includes everyone.”

Still, he’s not shy about doling out some blame. “Individual borrowers,” he writes, “cannot escape responsibility.” And though he concedes they were encouraged by easy credit, and amazingly low interest rates, and terribly lowered underwriting standards, he doesn’t explain that the financial system was the one providing that encouragement. Likewise, he writes that the central banks, legislators and regulators “cannot escape their share of blame for the crisis” for having allowed such high levels of leverage, and doesn’t mention who’d been furiously lobbying them.

“I’m not saying all the practices were good. I’m not. I’m saying that it should not surprise someone that if you put the speed limit at 100 miles an hour, then A-type personalities will drive at 100 miles an hour,” Mr. Russo said. “It is no surprise that people were driving at 100 miles an hour. Not a surprise.”

The core problem, as he sees it, is that we live in a society that did “everything possible to push homeownership,” not that Wall Street’s creation of mortgage-backed securities, and its leveraged bets on them, amplified the catastrophe of a burst bubble.

That’s really good stuff from Abelson and it gets to the heart of Wall Street’s view of its role: That this was something like a natural disaster, not a crime scene. “Sure, we may have looted a little when the flood hit, but we didn’t blow the levees.”

But sure they did. Almost all roads in the crisis lead right back to Wall Street. Even crucial elements in the bubble and resulting crisis that weren’t directly its fault—like cheap money from the Fed and an out-of-whack global economy distorted by trade imbalances—were things Wall Street lobbied for and greatly benefited from.

Then there are its direct contributions: Financial engineering, predatory lending (and the financing thereof, which is the same thing), overleveraging, short-termism, regulatory capture/deregulation, etc.

Look, borrowers couldn’t have got crazy mortgages if Wall Street hadn’t funded them and incentivized them to get more and more toxic and predatory. Regulators and lawmakers wouldn’t have set the speed limit at 100 miles an hour if Wall Street hadn’t paid them to do so. This isn’t complicated.

This Freudian slip from Russo’s writing partner says a lot about the blinkered view from Wall Street:

“I think he very much does have a sense of public service, or duty, to sort of share his knowledge and experience,” said Mr. Katzel, “and, hopefully, through that knowledge and experience get people to focus on the very significant challenges that the company faces.” He paused. “I’m sorry—the country! I meant to say country.”

It’s no accident that there’s myopic groupthink on Wall Street. Swashbucklers and sharks aren’t necessarily the most self-aware of species. But it’s still astounding, as Abelson writes, that they’re this self-deluded just two years after staring into the abyss—one of its own creation.

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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: , , ,