Insight: Why Wall Street still doesn't get it

Fri Nov 18, 2011 7:04am EST
 
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By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was a telling moment at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

John Paulson, the hedge-fund trader who famously made billions betting on the collapse of the housing market, was threatened by the demonstrators with a march on his Upper East Side home in New York last month. Paulson responded by putting out a press release that described his $28 billion, 120-person fund as an exemplar of the American Dream: "Instead of vilifying our most successful businesses, we should be supporting them and encouraging them to remain in New York City."

Other captains of finance like to portray themselves as humble entrepreneurs. One owner of a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund grumbled in the midst of the financial crisis that he has to worry not only about making trading decisions but also about "all the hassles the come with running a small business."

With U.S. cities moving this week to crack down on Occupy Wall Street encampments - including the one in New York's Zuccotti Park - the staying power of the movement is in question. Whatever its future, it's clear that so far, the Occupiers haven't changed many minds on Wall Street over blame for the country's hard times. The cognitive disconnect between the protesters and the captains of finance is alive and well.

David Mooney, chief executive officer of Alliant Credit Union in Chicago, one of the nation's larger credit unions, used to work at a one of Wall Street's top banks, JPMorgan Chase. There's a vast cultural gap between Wall Street and his new world, he says: Old friends from the Street, he says, now jokingly refer to him as a "socialist." A credit union is supposed to be run in the interests of all members, he says, while commercial bankers tend to see consumers as customers who can be "exploited" by layering on more fees.

Says Mooney: "I don't say this lightly, but the consumer is simply an income stream and exploiting that is the purpose of the banking organization."

In conversations with nearly two dozen current and former bankers, finance professionals and money managers across the United States, the prevailing sentiment is that the anger at Wall Street's elite is misguided and misdirected. Blame the politicians and policymakers in Washington, many of them say, for encouraging people to buy homes they couldn't afford and doing nothing to stop or discourage U.S. consumers from piling on more than $10 trillion in household debt.

"I think everyone gets what the anger is about... But you just can't say, 'Well I want all debts forgiven.' That is not happening," says one West Coast trader, who like most still working in the financial services industry, declined to be identified by name in this article.   Continued...