I've been covering Wall Street now for nearly 20 years, and it's been a pretty good run. I've broken some big stories and written three books about the "Street," and I'm looking to write another. I've made some friends along the way -- people like Teddy Forstmann, the great investor who called the junk-bond crisis and had the insight to steer clear of several others, and I've made some enemies, namely the traders and bankers who work at many of the big firms who would have preferred I kept silent about their problems during last year's financial crisis rather than blab about them on CNBC.
The story about Wall Street is a big one -- and I'm afraid to say, it's going to get bigger in 2010 and beyond. If you want to know why the federal government allows all those community banks to fail, but bails out Citigroup, Bank of America, etc., with unlimited funding, it's because these institutions have grown so large, and become so important and intertwined in the global financial system, that letting them fail would be catastrophic. In other words, it's cheaper to guarantee Citigroup's survival (and that of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, JP Morgan) with hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money as the government did last year, than watch the global banking system implode.
Now you may think I just can't wait to cover this story in 2010. Of course, the journalist in me says, "bring it on": another book and columns to write, big stories to cover. But the American citizen in me makes me wish Wall Street wasn't such a big story, that people like Vikram Pandit of Citigroup and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (yes, the guy who thinks trading bonds is "God's Work") just weren't such a big part of American life that the country's economy rises and falls on their bad bets.
I've come to this conclusion after reading two articles. One is a thoughtful but at bottom unrealistic piece written by several HuffPost contributors, including Arianna Huffington. It proposes that Americans remove their money from the large money-center banks at the center of the reckless risk taking that led to last year's meltdown and bailouts, and move their deposits into community banks, the good guys of finance that didn't take the risk because they weren't Too Big To Fail. The other is a less thoughtful post written by an anonymous blogger also on this site that defends Goldman Sachs and questions some of my reporting, including one piece from The Daily Beast that suggests Goldman's all-too-obvious image problems have begun to impact its investment banking business.
What I like about Arianna's piece is that it attempts to hold the bad guys responsible. Its point is pretty simple: The likes of Citigroup and Bank of America don't deserve our money, so let's hit them hard and reward those who deserve our support, namely the community banks, who, despite many failures, didn't engage in massive risk taking as the so-called large "money center" banks did over the past decade. The problem with the piece is twofold: First, community banks weren't blameless in terms of risk taking and thus aiding and abetted the real estate bubble, which is the root cause of our economic problems. That's why so many of them have failed and will continue to do so. Also, by making smaller community banks more important we might simply transfer the policy and status of Too Big To Fail to a different set of institutions. Armed with government support and subsidy from the Too Big To Fail precedent, what would stop community banks from taking excessive risk just as Citi has done?
There are almost too many ways to attack the posting from the anonymous blogger (who goes by the name "Dear John Thain"), titled "2010 Will be A Challenging Year for Goldman Sachs," (this guy obviously has a flair for understatement) so I will make the following points. Because he's anonymous, we don't know if he's a Goldman executive (one way Goldman is now looking to attack its critics is by blogging positively about the firm, I am told) an investor with holdings of Goldman Sachs stock (a substantial conflict of interest if this is true), or just some guy with too much time on his hands. In any event, one line caught my eye: He takes issue with my assertion that Goldman benefits from a subsidy from the government because of its status now as a bank; he says it's really a "financial holding company" as opposed to a "bank holding company" but fails to point out that there's really no difference. In the aftermath of the financial meltdown and bailout, Goldman is now primarily regulated by the Fed (as opposed to the Securities and Exchange Commission), the banking system's chief regulator, and receives along with that all the benefits of the classification, including being treated in the market as Too Big To Fail, and thus being able to borrow cheaply.
As I pointed out in my book The Sellout, there's much to admire about Goldman and its history in risk taking compared with the other big firms; this was, of course, the only firm to question its own irrational exuberance and short the subprime real estate market back in late 2006 (a trade in which a firm makes money if prices decline) whiles it competitors were betting bigger on the bubble. But that hedge only delayed the inevitable -- Goldman, like the rest of the financial business (except maybe JP Morgan), bet big and wrong, so wrong that by the fall of 2009 it, along with most of its competitors, was falling into insolvency.
All of which brings me to the bigger point of this piece: We as journalists, as commentators, and policy makers spend way too much time arguing over the fine points of Goldman's status as a bank holding company or a financial holding company. Lloyd Blankfein is pilloried for saying he does God's Work when he trades stocks or bonds, when in a more perfect world, what he says or what he does just shouldn't mean that much to the guy who owns an auto repair shop in Queens or the family farmer in Iowa.
That's why I kind of like Arianna's idea (despite its drawbacks) of empowering community banks as opposed to the money center banks that are way too important and powerful and whose leaders just shouldn't wield that type of influence because at bottom they're just not smart enough -- nor, perhaps, is anyone. Dear John Thain's nom de plume is a reference, of course, to the former CEO of Merrill Lynch John Thain, who by all accounts didn't think twice about spending more than $1 million decorating his office during the financial crisis, including tens of thousands on a high-end commode.
To be sure, bankers have always wielded enormous power in our society -- JP Morgan was a real person, after all. But somehow the importance of people like John Thain (whose spending spree also included a $1,400 parchment paper waste basket) and Lloyd Blankfein has grown beyond anyone's comprehension, even their own. When former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld was rebuffing offers to buy his firm before its free fall into bankruptcy last year, I don't think he truly envisioned the power of his inaction: That the entire financial system would shut down as a consequence of holding out for more money. One of the great lessons of the financial crisis is that this power was bestowed on the wrong people -- the people who helped foment the housing bubble (along with the government) by packaging all those risky mortgages into allegedly safe bonds and then took so much risk that they destroyed the financial system and created the Great Recession and with it 10 percent unemployment.
It would be nice if in the not so distant future the Dick Fulds and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world become less important, even if I lose a book deal in the process.