Must Read: The End of Wall Street

Excerpted from Portfolio.com, “The End of Wall Street”, Lewis, Nov. 14, 2008

The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. Michael Lewis, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.

Fallen bull statue in Wall Street

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later,The whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility.

At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. There was no scandal or reversal, I assumed, that could sink the system.

* * * * *

Meridith Whitney was an obscure analyst of financial firms for Oppenheimer Securities who, on October 31, 2007, ceased to be obscure. On that day, she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust.  Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash.  Her message was clear. If you want to know what these Wall Street firms are really worth, take a hard look at the crappy assets they bought with huge sums of ­borrowed money, and imagine what they’d fetch in a fire sale. The vast assemblages of highly paid people inside the firms were essentially worth nothing.

Now, obviously, Meredith Whitney didn’t sink Wall Street. She just expressed most clearly and loudly a view that was, in retrospect, far more seditious to the financial order than, say, Eliot Spitzer’s campaign against Wall Street corruption. If mere scandal could have destroyed the big Wall Street investment banks, they’d have vanished long ago. This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt. She was saying they were stupid. These people whose job it was to allocate capital apparently didn’t even know how to manage their own.

* * * * *

Hooked ?

For an “inside baseball” narrative of the sub-prime mortgage backed security mess — the best I’ve seen —
read the full article :
http://www.portfolio.com/news-markets/national-news/portfolio/2008/11/11/The-End-of-Wall-Streets-Boom

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