Thursday, October 06, 2011

Do the Bankers Secretly Agree with the Protesters?

"They have a point." the banker said to me, under his breath, when I asked him what he thought of the protests.

Yesterday, I went back to Wall Street. I wanted to see what the Occupy Wall Street movement was all about. Does it have any teeth, any cohesion? Do the masses have a message? So far, what I'd gleaned from every media report I'd read and watched was that the protesters were dogged in their determination, but that they didn't seem to have a clue what it was they were determined about. So, I set out to see for myself.

I worked as a Wall Street banker for about ten years. I loved it, I hated it, but mostly I took my paychecks and ignored for a long time what I really wanted to do with my life. And so I can tell you one thing about this Occupy Wall Street movement - the government would be doing Wall Street bankers a massive favor by enacting regulation.

Yes, I said regulation would be a favor to the bankers. In fact, I said 'massive favor'. Why? Because in all my years on Wall Street and off Wall Street, I have not met one single banker, not one, who did not harbor a dream to do something else with his or her life. Sure, they get a kick out of what they do. How could they not? They're getting paid a lot of money to play mental sport in an adrenaline-induced environment. Every single day is a challenge; every single day is a battle to be 'winning', to outsmart the opponent.

But that's just the point - these minds, these Wall Street minds, they are brilliant. Just look at the creation of complex derivatives and options pricing models, the debut of black box strategies and macro hedge funds. Every day, all day, bankers are putting to use the very best of this country's mental gunpowder to increase alpha. Which is to say, some of the very best intellect is being wasted on devising ways to make more money.

There's the salesman who wants to work in non-profit, the analyst who wants to teach, the trader who has an uncanny gift for golf, the middle office manager who wants to study fashion design, the director who wants to open his own restaurant, the global sales manager with a stunningly beautiful operatic voice and a gift for dissecting Japanese politics. And what are they doing? They're working in Wall Street banks, making money. Simply having a dream doesn't mean actually living it.

But what is it that the protesters and the government have to do with all this?

Well, Wall Street is actually on their side. Only secretly, and certainly not entirely. The demands to "Eat bankers", "Forgive all debt", and "Sack Goldman" are not constructive, and are rightly viewed with dismissive scorn. But what about calls for accountability, for performance-based pay packages, and for an end to tax loopholes that hedge fund managers agree are excessive even as they take advantage of them? Tap into that, protesters, and you're onto something. You're onto something that your opponent wants too.

A few years ago, I made the difficult decision to leave Wall Street. I didn't do so without doubting myself. But I had a dream, and I wanted to follow it to Mongolia. So that's what I did. But I'd be lying to you if I told you I never looked back. Of course I looked back. After all, it was a pile of money I was leaving behind. And that is precisely the point.

No comments: