FPC Blog


Will Wall Street ever be fixed?

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When it comes to the financial industry, there is a major fallacy that exists: that Wall Street deals only with elite, rich people who deserve to lose their money, and that Mom and Pop are not directly affected by the antics and conflicted practices in the industry.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even when Wall Street CEOs are hauled in front of Congress—as Lloyd Blankfein was amid the SEC fraud charges against Goldman Sachs, and as Jamie Dimon was after JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion on bad trades—they try to make this argument. “We are all big boys.” “We are all sophisticated institutional investors who know exactly what we are doing.”

But stop and think about this for a second. Whose money is being played with anyway?

Look at just the recent scandals: Who gets affected when a county in Alabama trades a structured derivative with JPMorgan that goes sour, and brings the county closer to bankruptcy? Who gets impacted when a government such as Greece or Italy trades derivatives with Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan to cover up its debt and kick its problems down the road? Who ultimately loses when Morgan Stanley misprices the Facebook IPO and mutual funds lose billions of dollars of retirement and 401(k) savings?

Mom and Pop, that’s who.

Whose lives are affected when a sovereign entity such as Libya loses a billion dollars of its own people’s money betting on derivatives? Who loses when Barclays and other major banks rig the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), the interest rate that underpins trillions of dollars in student loans and mortgages? Whose savings evaporate when JPMorgan brokers sell underperforming mutual funds to their clients to generate more fees?

The list goes on and on and on. All this ultimately affects the citizens, teachers, pensioners, and retirees whose destinies are tied to these organizations that are managing their money. Mom and Pop are more affected by the bad behavior on Wall Street than anyone else—it is their money on the line. But how does Wall Street make so much money, anyway? Surely there are times when they must lose? Don’t count on it. Think about this:

There are certain quarters when a Wall Street bank makes money every single day of that quarter. Yes: ninety days in a row. One hundred percent of the time, it generates a profit. How is this even possible?

Two words: asymmetric information. The playing field is not even. The bank can see what every client in the marketplace is doing and therefore knows more than everyone else. If the casino could always see your cards, and sometimes even decided what cards to give you, would you expect it ever to lose?

Here’s how it happens: Because Wall Street is facilitating business for the smartest hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and corporations in the world, it knows who is on every side of a trade. It can effectively see everyone’s cards. Therefore, it can bet smarter with its own money.

Worse, if Wall Street can persuade you to trade a custom-made structured derivative that serves the firm’s needs, it is as if your cards have been predetermined. Certainly not much scope for the casino to lose in this scenario.

Now consider where the gambling takes place. In a real casino, it is on a casino floor with cameras all over the place. Even if you don’t like Las Vegas gambling, it is regulated. On Wall Street, the gambling can be moved to a darkened room where nothing is recorded, observed, or tracked. With opaque over-the-counter derivatives, there are no cameras. In this darkened, smoke-filled room, there is maximum temptation to try to exploit clients and conflicts of interest. And this temptation and lack of transparency are what led to the global financial crisis in 2008.

Finally, think about the dealer. Your salesperson or trader might seem objective—like a friendly casino dealer who jokes around and is on your side—but there are times when he or she might be trying to steer you toward the thing that makes the casino the most money. If you were playing blackjack and you had 19, would you ever expect the dealer to tell you to hit? Sometimes, on Wall Street, they urge you to take another card.

Ironically, real casinos may actually be better regulated than Wall Street banks. The SEC and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) were not able to stop what led up to the crisis, and are still struggling to put appropriate measures in place to limit the conflicts I’ve described. With all these advantages, how can Wall Street ever lose? Even real casinos don’t make money every single day of the quarter.

As proof of this information advantage: Why do Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase mutual funds —housed in their respective asset-management divisions on the other side of the Chinese wall—underperform their peers, as measured by Morningstar? Why do some hotshot traders from banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan go out on their own, start their own hedge funds, and flounder? Because they no longer have the advantage of being able to see everyone’s cards. No more asymmetric information, no more batting a thousand, when you are out on your own without unfair advantage.

The reforms Wall Street is pushing back the hardest against are in the areas it knows are the most profitable: opaque derivatives and proprietary trading. But these also happen to be the areas that are most dangerous to the stability of the financial system. The Wall Street lobby has already spent more than $300 million trying to kill measures to regulate derivatives (so that they are brought into the light of day and become transparent on exchanges), and to eliminate proprietary trading so banks can no longer bet against their customers using their information advantage as prescribed by the Volcker Rule. Wall Street hates transparency and will fight as hard as possible to prevent it from coming.

I am a hardcore capitalist. I am all for people getting filthy rich and for businesses making as much money as possible. It is the fuel that keeps our economy growing and wealth should be an aspiration to motivate entrepreneurs everywhere. But I want it to be done fairly. I just don’t believe that capitalism is embedded with some kind of assumption that ethical boundaries should be pushed as far as possible, and that deceiving your customers is necessary to generate maximum returns.

I believe in a business model that is long-term-oriented, where there is an intrinsic fiduciary responsibility to do right by your clients so they will keep coming back to you. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also better for business. You will make just as much money—but you will make it more slowly and steadily and transparently. This should be good for shareholders, too, who like a predictable revenue stream and a steadier book of business. Today’s take-the-money-and-run model is just not responsible, or sustainable.

How can it be that years after the crisis nothing has been done to fix any of this? Don’t we live in the greatest democracy in the world? People should be outraged that there is no political will to fix a problem that hurts everyone, enriches a super minority that has learned to rig the game, and could threaten the world with another calamity in a few years’ time.

People know that there is something deeply wrong with the system, but very few can put their finger on what the problem is. After the crash in 1929, the U.S. Senate conducted the Pecora Hearings, to investigate the causes of the crash. This inquiry led to real reforms that held banks accountable and eliminated the abusive practices that had caused the stock market crash. This was followed by decades of calm in the financial system.

If I ever achieve anything in my financial activism, I hope it will be to empower some people with enough understanding to call their congressman, congresswoman, or senator and ask this question: Why don’t you have the guts to do the same thing?

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