Has Anything Changed on Wall Street?

Response to global financial crisis may sow seeds for another crash

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Wall Street execs are bullish that there's still blood in the water.

    The collapse of Lehman Brothers exactly one year ago Tuesday triggered a global financial panic that slashed thousands of points off the Dow, eliminated trillions of dollars in American wealth and ushered in the most massive government intervention into the economy since the New Deal.

    You’d think a thing like that would get Wall Street’s attention.

    But as 2009 rolls on, it’s almost as if nothing happened. Lavish bonuses are back, the financial industry is showing a renewed appetite for risk, and exotic new securities are being dreamed up by financial innovators – just like the ones that contributed to the collapse in the first place.

    Even some at AIG – the company that became the emblem of excess for its massive bonuses – act like nothing has changed. New CEO Robert Benmosche recently showed off his palatial estate on the Adriatic Sea in Croatia – the one with 12 bathrooms, Italian tiles, an 18th century French tapestry, and a well-stocked wine cellar. (“Every bathroom is like a piece of art,” he told Reuters. “Women go wild when they walk in here.”)

    Meanwhile in Washington, President Barack Obama proposed a series of financial industry reforms that are working their way through Congress – but slowly, as Obama has focused far more effort on a public push for health reform. So far at least, not a single new law has been put on the books to prevent another crisis.

    On Monday, Obama will make what’s being billed as a “major” economic address at Federal Hall in New York City. He’s expected to say the economy has improved, largely as a result of the forceful steps his administration took in the heat of the crisis. And he’ll urge Congress to pass his financial reform package, which he sent to the Hill in June.

    Yet as the president goes to Wall Street, some insiders fear the ingredients are all there for another crash just a few short years from now. Only next time, the banks that fail will be much bigger and more emboldened to take dangerous risks now that the government has decided they are too big to fail – an effect of the bank bailouts started under President George W. Bush and continued under Obama.

    That could be a recipe for an economic collapse that would strain the government’s ability to contain it. “It will be terrible,” said Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Banker of America, a trade association of smaller banks.

    “It’s greed, not humility, that drives Wall Street,” Fine said. “Memories are short, so they move on quickly from a crisis.”

    Even the White House is skeptical that Wall Street has learned its lesson. “I believe in trust, but verify – and regulate,” National Economic Council Director Larry Summers told reporters Friday.

    “I don’t think there’s any question that some people are going to remember what happened last year for a very long time,” he said. “But I think if we’ve learned anything from the history of financial crisis, you cannot rely on the scars of the past crisis to ensure against the practices that will lead to a new crisis.”

    Early this year, Obama promised that he would fix the problems that led to the economic collapse in the first place. At Georgetown University in April, he gave a sweeping speech quoting from the Bible’s description of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to describe how he was going to rebuild the economy on a new foundation.

    “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock,” Obama said then.

    Obama hasn’t talked much about the economic crisis of late – preferring instead to talk about tentative signs of recovery in hopes of convincing Americans that his stimulus plan and other initiatives contributed toward turning things around, a view many economists share. But some who believe Wall Street hasn’t learned its lesson worry that Obama has taken his eye off the ball – falling prey, in some ways, to the crisis-is-over mindset to focus on other agenda items that the president values more highly. 

    “It suggests a lack of willingness on the part of the administration to really tackle the problem,” said Jim Rickards, a financial consultant at Omnis, Inc., a financial and risk consulting firm.

    More broadly, part of what’s happening is the narcotic effect of a bull market on Wall Street. Since its March low point in the 6,500 range, the Dow has been on an astonishing run, closing Thursday more than 3,000 points higher.

    So although the national unemployment rate stands at a crippling 9.7 percent and tens of thousands of people in the finance industry lost their jobs last year, a boom market of sorts is back for those who remain on Wall Street.

    Another piece of the explanation is the enormous clout that the financial industry wields in Washington – a measure of its ability to curb serious reforms. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, for example, finds that the financial industry, along with the insurance and real estate sectors, has already given more than $50 million in campaign contributions so far this year, sixty percent to Democrats and 40 percent to out-of-power Republicans. The industry has also spent more than $222 million lobbying in Washington, where it fields an army of more than 2,300 lobbyists.

    “They’re still obviously trying to influence the government in a major way,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics.. “That hasn’t stopped.”

    “What’s interesting is how emboldened the financial industry lobbyists are considering how bad off we were six months ago,” said Rickards. “It’s kind of amazing.”

    In his financial reform package, Obama proposed creating a new consumer protection agency to stamp out abusive lending practices, consolidating power at the Federal Reserve to allow the independent agency to serve as a “systemic risk regulator” on the watch for another crash, and a slew of smaller proposals, including regulating derivatives and requiring hedge funds to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    But Congress hasn’t yet rallied around the entire package, and even some of the agency heads in Obama’s administration have sparred publicly over whether this is the best solution.

    For their part, financial services lobbyists say their industry has made huge and lasting changes in the way it does business, despite the criticism that it hasn’t done enough. Lending standards have tightened considerably, capital holdings are up and companies are factoring long-term performance into pay decisions.

    “Wall Street is more risk adverse and more focused on the long term,” said Scott Talbott, a lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable. “There is a recognition that the fortunes of the industry and consumers are inextricably linked.”

    A senior administration official says that Wall Street has made big strides. “People are being conservative compared to the heady days of 2007,” the official said. “A bunch of CEOs went down, Lehman, Countrywide, IndyMac and others collapsed, thousands of people lost their jobs. It’s hard to argue that people didn’t suffer.”

    Still, there are plenty of indicators that the old ways are making a comeback.

    -- Big bonuses – which provoked so much political anger at the beginning of 2009 – are back. Citigroup, for example, revealed plans to pay a single star energy trader more than $100 million this year. Goldman Sachs allocated more than $11 billion for bonuses in the first half of the year – though CEO Lloyd Blankfein warned his employees to be discreet with their money. 

    -- Risk is back. Goldman posted $3.4 billion on profits in the second quarter after paying back the $10 billion it was forced to take in government aid last year. Analysts said that one of the reasons for Goldman’s robust results was that it embraced trading risks that others shied away from. This week, John Mack retired as Morgan Stanley’s chief executive amid criticism -- that his firm’s appetite for risk was too low.

    -- Even the creation of exotic new securities – a key factor blamed for the subprime mortgage collapse – is back. The New York Times revealed Sept. 5 that Wall Street firms are working on proposals to package life insurance policies into tradable securities – reminiscent of the mortgage-backed securities at heart of the financial collapse.

    -- And a year later, the SEC is still viewed as not up to the task of reining in the sprawling industry.

    Staff morale has plummeted in the wake of stunning revelations about the agency’s failure to catch $50 billion Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff. Although there have been changes in leadership at the SEC since the Madoff scheme was uncovered at the end of 2008, it’s not clear that the revolving-door culture that helped make possible Madoff’s brazen fraud has been broken.

    That culture of coziness with industry will not vanish any time soon, says one SEC veteran. “I don’t think it’s going to change overnight, but I do think the new leadership is taking steps in the right direction,” said Ross Albert, a former SEC lawyer who is now a partner at the law firm Morris, Manning & Martin in Atlanta.

    And in describing the SEC, Albert might just as well be talking about transforming Wall Street as a whole: “Think of it as trying to turn around a battleship.”