Wall Street will always be greedy and profit-minded. That is a given. But the extent of the rot is really alarming. The failure of all forms of regulation–internal, public, and market-based, such as bond-rating agencies–will leave a cloud over capital markets for some time.
The fearlessness by participants suggests that non-market considerations–friendships, loyalty, ethnic and religious ties, habit, absent moral compasses, and incompetence by regulators–have at least as much to do with where and how money is spent as ordinary considerations of profit and loss. Of course, this is not always bad, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in his research on the importance of trust in risky business transactions. But American business, particularly at the top level, has long been tempered by a broader notion of fair play: rejection of nepotism and bribery, standardized procedures, meritocracy, some respect for “good birth,” the habits of good education and conscience, and a strong culture of fiduciary duties by officers to shareholders and other stakeholders.
This culture has come undone on Wall Street in particular, where cleverness and deception have displaced wisdom and hard work as the hallmark values. The real value of investment instruments are increasingly hidden from outsiders through dishonest and opaque instruments, whether “barges” ten years ago or asset-backed-securities today. Consider the headlines: A $50B (!) ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff. A lawyer hocking $380M in fake promissory notes. The scale, brazenness, and long-persistence of these frauds suggests that something is deeply wrong on Wall Street that no regulator alone can fix. Something must happen to the culture, which likely depends on banning a great many people from any kind of dealings in complex financial matters, revising the famous bonus structure of Wall Street firms, a revolt by shareholders and commercial banks, and sending a great many people to jail for a very long time.
The banker of old was a staid, somewhat humorless, but universally respected symbol of prudence and rectitude. He made a good living, but his living depended on the survival of the institution with which he was affiliated. The Wall Street impresario of today is a 30 year old castle collector who went to Ivy League schools and learned how to do regression analysis and also that “God is dead.” He’ll switch jobs 3-4 times in a decade, and his entire compensation structure is directly proportional to the risks he takes with the money of others. He represents an alien value system that has taken root on Wall Street. It is un-American, untied to the broader moral traditions of western civilization, and we are witnessing its self-destruction. The return of that earlier ethic of sturdy, sober, WASP Americana–an ethic that all social climbers, whether immigrant or “low born,” were expected to follow–is part of the solution to what’s wrong with Wall Street, which for too long has taken the Michael Douglas film as a “how to.”