Monthly Archives: December 2012

In This Case, Don’t ‘Hate the Game,’ Hate the Players

“Margin Call,” “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” and “Quants: The Alchemists of Wall Street” are just a small handful of relatively recent released movies that expose shockingly deliberate corruption and greed in America’s financial epicenter. The two words “Wall Street” have become synonymous with (mostly) men who are power-driven to succeed only for themselves. Some may even argue Gordon Gekko would be too nice for today’s modern titan of industry. Is this stereotype fair and true for all who make a living in this four block radius? No. Yet, the perception has been set and to the casual observer, nothing is changing.

This is a big problem.

You go to the grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon and pick up orange juice, milk, cereal, yogurt, meat and vegetables. Throw in a bag of Tostitos Hint of Lime chips and a jar of mild salsa. You walk the cart to the checkout, hand the cashier money and most times you’ll receive some sort of change in return, even if it’s just a humorous penny. Monetary transactions happen every day all over the world. Each region may do so in varying degrees with different currencies, but it’s happening. This is normal. Necessary goods are provided and therefore wanted and purchased. In its simplest terms, this is capitalism.

It requires intelligence to buy the right ingredients, mix them together, cook and prepare a myriad of bakery treats for customers to buy. This could be a frosting covered superhero cookie for a well-mannered five year-old that brings a smile to his face…not to mention one to the mother’s or grandmother’s delight. Plus, the baker is able to profit a little bit for the hard work of providing a smile-ensuring treat for her communal neighbor. All of this at a fair price. This is a good story. In fact, it’s a daily event at The Tremont Goodie Shop in a wonderful suburb of Columbus, Ohio. These kinds of stores and small businesses exist all over the place. This is capitalism.

This scenario applies to businesses everywhere, whether at a surf shop in southern California or a hardware store in Minnesota or a bait shop in Louisiana or a tutoring center in South Dakota. All of these are employed by our friends, neighbors and perfectly nice strangers we simply haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet. Shops, centers, restaurants, bakeries and stores define communities. Often, a distinguishing factor between areas that excel and those that struggle is the success of said businesses. We like capitalism and we need capitalism. It is absolutely no mystery as to why streets are nicely paved in affluent communities with flourishing businesses as opposed to the pot-hole filled avenues of areas with high unemployment and a suspect array of ‘shops.’

However, the enormous umbrella of capitalism that has sheltered, protected and enabled tens of millions upon millions of people has suffered gashes of epic proportions from a select few titans from above. In America, we now know the culprits…and yet they’re still atop their thrones.

The financial collapse of 2008, which was quietly stirring for years, eventually and immediately swung a punch to the gut of the American businessman and businesswoman. They saw their before protective umbrella receive tear after tear with rain pouring through like they’ve never seen in their lifetime. There had not been this type of economic flood in about seventy nine years.

Those who saw the storm approaching, and those that even did a surefire rain dance, seemed unfazed by this devastation. As the saying goes, “I got mine.” Except these three words are contrary to the guiding principles of capitalism. When the baker hands the grinning young boy his superhero cookie, the sentiment is a mutual, “thank you and have a nice day!”

Four years later and what’s changed? To most, nothing.

This is an excerpt from the Businessweek article, “Charities Still Love Wall Street Bankers” published on June 28, 2012:

Nonprofits often honor bankers because of their donations, says Naomi Levine, executive director of New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. “Does this make me happy? No, it doesn’t. I look at what some of the banks and other insurance companies have done to the American economy and I’m not comfortable with it,” she says. “You try to balance your criticism of some of the things that Wall Street has done with the need.”

Like most things in life, nuances and the full circle character wheel matters. One positive attribute does not automatically excuse and/or bury from sight and memory deplorable actions. Good character is not easily earned but is greatly appreciated and acknowledged. It’s desirable…for most people anyway.

To many, there are still sharp contrasts and questions being pondered about today’s titans of industry:

Friend or Foe?
Safe or Risky?
Are we a Valued Customer or a ‘Muppet?’
Solvency or Bankruptcy?
Full Disclosure or Hidden Fees?
Truth vs. Lies
Strict Math or Statistical Manipulation?
Friendly Neighbor or Cold-Hearted Suit?

Are they at all sympathetic to our everyday struggles and understanding of our hope of providing a slightly better future for ourselves and our loved ones?

No system or institution can survive in the absence of morality. Just the mere existence of these propositions is troubling.

How does this get fixed?

Greed and hidden falsehoods is what projects from Wall Street these days, yet it shouldn’t. Most who earn a living here are hard working men and women who go through the daily grind so they, like most of us, can support their family and help send their children to college. But these stories are not told. If you watch any CNBC show, the conversations are strictly about money and stock prices. Fair enough, but where are the stories of who these trades affect? The personal narratives and identities are almost, if not completely, absent from their nonstop reporting.

Keep in mind their news cycle is 24 hours long.

The additional fact that computers and complicated formulas play such a vital role on Wall Street is unnerving and it furthers the blurring of faces and personal compassion.

There is constant discussion of new and more effective regulations for those who have deceived the market and its participants. However, 1. Free markets work best with flexibility, 2. Regulations are good and necessary, but just not an excessive amount or arbitrary in nature and 3. If the characters are the same, no regulation will transform the system as desired.

To elaborate on number 3, think about football coach Jim Tressel. During his tenure at Ohio State, he was persistently pressured to call more exciting plays. Over this time frame, a wildly creative play (by his standards) here and there was thrown in and most times had great success. But Tressel was Tressel and he was never going to change his offensive philosophy even if and when success was clearly shown on the gridiron.

In fact, as can happen to those who remain at a powerful position for a long period of time, it was revealed more than a year and a half ago that Tressel made a few bad decisions. Significant sanctions, plus him being fired, occurred as a result. It was not Ohio State that failed, but rather one of its many leaders.

Just like the financial giants who led America’s economy down to its knees, neither Tressel nor those investment bankers ever sincerely apologized for their destructive actions. Of all the coaches who you would expect to do so, he didn’t. That silence ironically spoke volumes, as did that of the CEO’s, disclosing how they truly view themselves relative to us: above it all no matter what.

If the players in the system on Wall Street are not changed, then the actions will remain about the same. Only bringing in Urban Meyer and his spread offense made Ohio State a spread offense football team. Similarly, only by recruiting a different kind of financial wizard out of business school or veteran business man or woman to lead on Wall Street will transform the mindset of the workers and culture they inhabit.

Wall Street is not the enemy. Capitalism is not perfect, but it certainly is not evil. Like in any good story, the characters are pivotal. In recent years, the characters in the financial institutions have been bad and therefore have corrupted the very system that assists millions in making college payments, affording a home mortgage, buying food, a car, paying the electric and water bills and so on.

There’s the Bear and Bull Market. Perhaps it’s time to add a Bald Eagle Market: It soars high, but not at a dangerous level. When resting, it’s protective. While it makes daring swoops to eat, it always returns to a steady and beautiful flight.

When Jay Leno has a guest that appears in what he considers a great movie, that person and the audience will know. He is genuinely happy to boast about a film’s many wonderful attributes, including an actor’s insightful portrayal.

If pressed, would you rather pay to see a major motion picture featuring Tom Hanks or Lindsay Lohan? Both are actors, but one is going to tell a much better story.