At $500 million in box office revenue and counting, we sure love Disney’s new movie “Beauty and the Beast.” With more than 1 billion sold, we sure love Apple’s iPhone. The same goes for Netflix, Chevy pickups, wide-screen televisions and grocery store aisles stocked high with fresh fruit and vegetables.
But for some reason, we hate the one entity that brought all these things within reach of most Americans: Wall Street.
Our way of life would not be remotely possible without the interstitial role played by Wall Street. It’s the left ventricle of capitalism. Yet Wall Street has become shorthand for everything that is wrong with the American economic system.
And yes, Wall Street is partly to blame for its reputation. It constructed a black box around itself to keep what it does hidden from prying eyes. What happens there is not actually that complicated, but Wall Street wants you to think it is.
Wall Street also exacerbated the 2008 financial crisis and was not held accountable. Worse, at the same time that American taxpayers bailed out big banks to the tune of trillions, Wall Street’s bankers, traders and executives helped themselves to billions in bonuses.
As a result, one politician after another has lambasted Wall Street for every imaginable evil. Right after Wall Street CEOs helped themselves to those bonuses, President Barack Obama reminded some of them in a now-infamous April 2009 meeting that his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has made a career of attacking high finance, going so far as to block Antonio Weiss, Obama’s nominee for Treasury undersecretary, from confirmation by the Senate merely because he worked on Wall Street. (Of course, she made no mention of the $1.6 million advance she received for her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” a sum that would be inconceivable without Wall Street’s willingness to finance her publisher.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont based his entire presidential campaign on decrying Wall Street and the awful people who work there. And Hillary Clinton jumped all over Wall Street to secure the Democratic nomination — despite having taken some $10 million in speaking fees from financial firms after finishing her term as secretary of State.
Perhaps the biggest hypocrite of them all, President Donald Trump criticized Wall Street to no end during his presidential campaign, only to then surround himself with Wall Street bankers and lawyers after winning the election.
With so much sanctimony on the national stage, it’s easy to hate bankers. But if we want to actually fix what’s wrong with Wall Street, we will need to stop mindlessly villainizing it.
In the most basic terms: Wall Street provides capital at a fair price to people who want it, by borrowing it from people who have it and want to invest it. It’s a simple service, and without it, we might as well go back to the Middle Ages, when people never ventured far from their tiny villages and spent their days worrying about their next meal.
Wall Street put the internet at our collective fingertips. It’s the reason more than 160 million Americans have credit cards and access to an unsecured line of credit anytime they may want to use it. It democratized jet travel, which now allows average people to get halfway around the world in the time it used to take a fisherman to get his cod to market. Few people who have these things would be willing to give them up.
The problem with Wall Street is its incentive and compensation system, which encourages bankers, traders and executives to take big risks with other people’s money. It rewards greed and recklessness without imposing accountability.
This system was a main cause of the 2008 financial crisis. Wall Street bankers and traders were rewarded with huge bonuses for packaging shoddy mortgages that they knew, or should have known, would never be paid back into securities and selling them off as investments around the world.
They did so because that’s exactly what they got paid to do. We need a new incentive system on Wall Street, one that encourages risk-taking, innovation and creativity, while also holding the people who work there accountable where it hurts — in their wallets — when things go wrong, as they inevitably will again.
Trump and the Republicans in Congress seem determined to gut the financial regulations implemented after the financial crisis — the very rules designed to prevent another one from happening. In truth, the financial reform legislation is flawed. The length of the Dodd-Frank law alone, some 848 pages, is evidence of this, and so is the difficulty that small- and medium-sized businesses still have in getting access to capital. But this moment requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.
Some provisions of Dodd-Frank are worth preserving, including requirements that banks have more capital. It’s a good thing that many complicated derivatives — financial bets on how the price of copper will move or whether a GE bond will default — are now traded on exchanges, where their prices can be more easily discovered.
But other parts of the regulatory regime should be scrapped. For instance, it’s beyond ridiculous that one bank employee in five is tasked with monitoring what the other four do all day, and that big banks must endure the laborious and expensive annual process of creating “living wills” and withstanding “stress tests.” These are bureaucratic exercises with no practical usefulness.
If a bank fails because of poor risk management, so be it. Let’s toss the notion of “too big to fail” into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.
Although he has little political capital left after the healthcare debacle, Trump should move toward a grand bargain with Wall Street. In exchange for repealing regulations that gum up the works, Trump should demand that Wall Street change its compensation system to reward prudent risk-taking and accountability. A combination of smart regulation and smart incentives will insure that Wall Street can play its essential role while also penalizing bankers, traders and executives if they dare to blow things up again.
William D. Cohan, a former Wall Street investment banker, is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author most recently of “Why Wall Street Matters.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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