As support for the Occupy Wall Street protests grows globally, some of the ideas that appear to power the movement are getting some level of understanding from surprising quarters. This week Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said, “I understand some of the angst and the anger. This downturn has been too long, unemployment is too high, and people are hurting. We get that,” according to a report in the Financial Times.
The New York Times reports that Citibank’s CEO, Vikram S. Pandit pointed out that the protesters’ “sentiments were completely understandable. I would also corroborate that trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S., and that it’s Wall Street’s job to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust.” The protesters should hold Citi and others “accountable for practicing responsible finance and keep asking us about how we’re doing,” he added.
That Times article, however, opened by explaining that lip service about such understanding by bankers in public can mask opposing sentiments expressed privately by other bankers that the protesters represent “ragtag” or “fringe” groups along with a rejection of protestors’ implicit critique of large banks.
While the protestors’ complaints span many issues – a core critique is that large banks and financial services companies, centered mostly around Wall Street, created the financial crisis when they took on excessive risks, then relied on huge taxpayer bailouts to save their companies and the entire financial system when those risky bets flamed out. Fallout from the crisis, according to this view, led directly to a deep and long recession, accompanied by unusually high unemployment, which has become a leading feature of a severely stunted economic recovery.
Much of the debate over the past and future role of financial services following the crisis has been the topic of articles by Knowledge@Wharton, including whether steps taken by regulatory bodies to prevent a similar meltdown will be effective.
Below are some of the more noteworthy pieces:
In a two-part video interview, Simon Johnson, a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund and author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, argues that new U.S. legislation aimed to prevent a repeat of the recent financial crisis is not up to the job, and that the only effective cure for the problem of banks that are “Too Big To Fail” is to make them smaller. The Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act does little to prevent the biggest financial risk of our time — banks that are becoming “too big to save,” argues Johnson, either because potential losses could overwhelm government resources, or because the public will not approve another round of large bailouts. Either way, the world economy could crash again.
Johnson added, “Over time, as we go through the cycle, we’re going to have the same sort of risk taking. Jamie Diamon [CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase] says you have financial crises every three to seven years. Hank Paulson [former Treasury Secretary] says its four to eight years. [Former Treasury Secretary] Larry Summers says four to nine years. Doesn’t matter, these big guys agree and they’re right, that you do it again because the system of incentives and the structure of these organizations are essentially unchanged.”
View the video interview here.
Nouriel Roubini, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, agreed that “the problems of the financial system on Wall Street have not been resolved. People talk about Dodd-Frank, but have we really changed the system of compensation? Have we dealt with the corporate governance problem? Have we divided commercial banking and the more risky shadow banking and investment banking? No. So that remains.” Knowledge@Wharton reported his comments in Unheeded Lessons: What Did We Fail to Learn from the Financial Crisis? – which was based on a recent conference, at Wharton.
And a current Knowledge@Wharton article – “U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Cleaning up Wall Street and the Thin Line between Confidence and Arrogance” outlines the views of a tough prosecutor of white collar crime on Wall Street. Bharara has earned a reputation for taking aggressive stands against white collar criminals, including the successful insider-trading prosecution of Raj Rajaratnam, billionaire founder of the Galleon Group. Rajaratnam, who was convicted of insider trading in May, was sentenced last week to 11 years in prison. In the article, Bharara noted that many suspected criminals on Wall Street are extremely intelligent people who are paid handsomely to assess risk for hedge funds or other financial groups. He said convictions and harsh sentences are designed to “convince rational business people that the risk is not worth it.”
Bharara also said he noticed a phenomenon within organizations of employees trying to stay as close as possible to the line between legal and criminal behavior in an effort to make as much profit as possible. “If that’s the way you are thinking about your business or decision-making process, you are bound to run afoul of regulators or prosecutors,” Bharara said. “Inevitably, bad things happen.” He urged leaders to build a culture that encourages employees to “ring the alarm bells early” if others are engaging in unethical or illegal behavior. He called employees who tolerate bad behavior enablers. “A lot of this is hard,” Bharara conceded. “It is hard to turn in friends.”