Last week, I had a conversation with a man who runs his own trading firm. In the process of fuming about competition from Goldman Sachs, he said with resignation and exasperation: “The fact that they were bailed out and can borrow for free — It’s pretty sickening.”
Though the sentiment is commonplace these days, I later found myself thinking about his outrage. Here was someone who is in the thick of the business, trading every day, and he is being sickened by the inequities and corruption on Wall Street and utterly persuaded that nothing had changed in the years since the financial crisis of 2008.
Then I realized something odd: I have conversations like this as a matter of routine. I can’t go a week without speaking to a hedge fund manager or analyst or even a banker who registers somewhere on the Wall Street Derangement Scale.
That should be a great relief: Some of them are just like us! Just because you are deranged doesn’t mean you are irrational, after all. Wall Street is already occupied — from within.
The insiders have a critique similar to that of the outsiders. The financial industry has strayed far from being an intermediary between companies that want to raise capital so they can sell people things they want. Instead, it is a machine to enrich itself, fleecing customers and exacerbating inequality. When it goes off the rails, it impoverishes the rest of us. When the crises come, as they inevitably do, banks hold the economy hostage, warning that they will shoot us in the head if we don’t bail them out.
And I won’t pretend this is a widespread view in finance — or even a large minority. You don’t hear this from the executives running the big Wall Street firms; you don’t hear it from the average trader or investment banker. From them, we get self-pity. For every one of the secret Occupy Wall Street sympathizers, there are probably 15 others like Kenneth G. Langone, who, like downtrodden people before him, is trying to reclaim and embrace a pejorative, “fat cat.”
The critics are more often found on the periphery, running hedge funds or working at independent research shops. They are retired, either voluntarily or not. They are low-level executives who haven’t made scrambling up the corporate hierarchy their sole ambition in life. Perhaps their independent status removes the intellectual handcuffs that come with ungodly bonuses. Or perhaps they are able to see Big Money’s flaws because they have to compete with the bigger banks for dollars.
Are these “Wall Streeters”? To civilians, they work on the Street. Bankers at the bulge-bracket firms wouldn’t think they are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t count. They know the financial business intimately.
Sadly, almost none of these closeted occupier-sympathizers go public. But Mike Mayo, a bank analyst with the brokerage firm CLSA, which is majority owned by the French bank Crédit Agricole, has done just that. In his book “Exile on Wall Street” (Wiley), Mr. Mayo offers an unvarnished account of the punishments he experienced after denouncing bank excesses. Talking to him, it’s hard to tell you aren’t interviewing Michael Moore.
Mr. Mayo is particularly outraged over compensation for bank executives. Excessive compensation “sends a signal that you take what you get and take it however you can,” he told me. “That sends another signal to outsiders that the system is rigged. I truly wish the protestors didn’t have a leg to stand on, but the unfortunate truth is that they do.”
I asked Richard Kramer, who used to work as a technology analyst at Goldman Sachs until he got fed up with how it did business and now runs his own firm, Arete Research, what was going wrong. He sees it as part of the business model.
“There have been repeated fines and malfeasance at literally all the investment banks, but it doesn’t seem to affect their behavior much,” he said. “So I have to conclude it is part of strategy as simple cost/benefit analysis, that fines and legal costs are a small price to pay for the profits.”
Last week, in a Bloomberg Television event, both Laurence D. Fink, the chairman and chief executive of the mega-money management firm BlackRock, and Bill Gross, the legendary bond investor, evinced some sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Over the last several decades, “money and finance have dominated at the expense of labor and Main Street, and so how can one not sympathize with their predicament?” Mr. Gross said, speaking of the 99 percent. “To not have sympathy with Main Street as opposed to Wall Street is to have blinders.”
It’s progress that these sentiments now come regularly from people who work in finance. This is an unheralded triumph of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s also an opportunity, to reach out to make common cause with native informants.
It’s also a failure. One notable absence in this crisis and its aftermath was a great statesman from the financial industry who would publicly embrace reform that mattered. Instead, mere months after the trillions had flowed from taxpayers and the Federal Reserve, they were back defending their prerogatives and fighting any regulations or changes to their business.
Perhaps a major reason why so few in this secret confederacy speak out is that they are as flummoxed about practical solutions as the rest of us. They don’t know where to begin.
Over the next year, maybe that will change. Things are going to be tough on Wall Street. Bonuses will be down. Layoffs are coming. Europe seems on the brink of another financial crisis. Maybe from that wreckage, a leader will emerge.