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November 18, 2011 in Opinion, Poison, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: 1%, angry, bankers, blood, democracy, elite, event, Financial, Financiers, future, investment, meltdown, metaphor, opinion, OWS, rich, Wall Street | by Wayne | 8 comments
I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university. Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events. In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.
The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up). The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion: the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so. Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.
The room erupted in angry muttering. The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker. In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality. He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye! He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.
Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them. It is like the blood. The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines. When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor. When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).
The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them. Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me). I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.
In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed. Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.
So, what do we do about this cancer?
I don’t like regulations. I feel that America has too many already. People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer! He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.
In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening. Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms. I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week. The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve. Newer smaller predators take their place. This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.
But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.
Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy. Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests. And last of all, to you protesters out there: I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress. Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point. I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free. But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe. Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.