One Year Later: Five reasons to still hate Wall Street
Sep 15th 2009 3:00PM
Updated Dec 4th 2009 3:27PM
Not much has changed since August 2008, when I first described five ways in which Wall Street wreaks havoc. On September 10, 2008, I was on CNBC's Power Lunch discussing whether Goldman Sachs Group (GS) would rescue Lehman Brothers from its perilous condition. Dennis Kneale thought that was a good idea. As for Goldman, not so much. What we didn't know then was that the same doom loop that caused Lehman to perish was working at Goldman as well -- so it was in no condition to do any rescuing.
But thanks to government inaction in the wake of unprecedented costs to society, the five reasons to hate Wall Street are still as true today as they were 13 months ago. Here's how:
1. Rewards employees, not shareholders: Thirteen months ago I objected because the now defunct Merrill Lynch paid 76 percent of its revenues to the people who work there (e.g., in 2006 Merrill paid $17 billion in compensation and its revenue totaled $22.4 billion). As I said then, that pay is linked to revenue, not how much money their deals make for customers. This encourages them to close big deals fast rather than paying attention to quality. It still is -- and Goldman is on track to pay record bonuses in 2009.
2. Puts its own interests ahead of its clients': One need look no further than how firms pushed their toxic Auction Rate Securities (ARS) off their books and into the accounts of individual investors. This $330 billion scam has robbed people of their savings and Wall Street still has not resolved this situation after 19 months.
3. Absorbs talent that could solve more important problems: As I said back then, Wall Street's money sucks up too many of the world's brightest minds. Those MIT PhDs could have been inventing ways to lessen our dependence on oil and gas instead of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). And this is still true.
4. Too highly leveraged: Wall Street can't make money without borrowing $31 for every dollar of capital it holds. This is great when bets go the right way but it wipes out capital quickly when they lose. And if you look at how Goldman earned its profits in 2009, it's still borrowing huge amount of money to trade, boosting its value at risk by 20 percent.
5. Gets taxpayers to bailout its mistakes: A year ago I was complaining that the Fed had used $29 billion of taxpayer money to bail out Bear Stearns for its poor management. But that turned out to be the tip of the iceberg -- now up to $23.7 trillion has been put at risk to bail out Wall Street.
I believe that politicians protect Wall Street because it provides so much cash for their reelections -- $5 billion in the last decade alone. But if voters still have any influence in politics, they will recognize that the societal costs of Wall Street exceed its benefits. Only then will change become possible.