When I’m all grown up…

This is written in the spirit of me trying to figure out my feelings out loud, and soliticiting the advice, guidance, and response of the Brandeis community. The following is written in a genuine “stream of thought” manner, and please read it in the spirit of personal and academic searching, not a rant, screed, or attack. I’d very much appreciate everyone’s viewpoint and response on this one – sahar

Via Matthew Yglesias, who, by the way, is as genuine in person as he is brilliant online, I found a really interesting article dealing with the financial crisis, written by the perspective of a former insider who left the industry in disgust around the mini-crisis of the late 1980’s/early 90’s.

There’s a lot to chew on in there. An admonition to stay far away from the financial services industry. An explanation of the mess that is neither opaque nor patronizing. He places blame on the perverse incentives placed on Wall Street when firms became publicly traded rather than partnerships.

I want to focus on his interactions with college students, however, since that’s more of my area of expertise.

I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale, but if you got a few drinks in me and then asked what effect I thought my book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to figure out what to do with their lives will read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up and abandon their passions to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at, say, Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Morgan Stanley, and set out to sea.Somehow that message failed to come across. Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.

Do you think Brandeis students would approach this book (which the author wrote in disgust about 1980’s era Wall Street) in the same way? I hope not. Yet, I’ve met Brandeis Alums in the financial world. I have many friends who, through both word and deed, quite clearly articulate their desire to work there. Hell, some of my family members have exotic finance-related jobs that I don’t really understand.

There’s a definite impulse not to judge people by their choice of profession. There was a whole movement in American history that said “don’t define me by my job”, and in general, who am I to cast aspersions on a line of work that really doesn’t seem inherently evil. After all the Jews have gone through, demonizing bankers seems in exceedingly bad taste.

Yet, Lewis (the author) who has a better understanding of what those jobs actually entail, has many choice words to convey.

Eisman was appalled … He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. “That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice,” he says. “They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.”

It doesn’t seem right to want to join an industry that had ratings agencies cook the books, banks encourage people to make loans they knew weren’t going to be repaid, investment managers obfusticate their balance sheet. It doesn’t seem right to yearn to be one of a cadre that took massive rewards and shifted all the risk to their shareholders. Then again, the “protagonists” of the article were in the finance industry as well; they were of the few that bet against the crowd. And incompetence, not morality, seems to be the theme of the piece:

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.

Does that put things in a more positive or negative light?

In any case, I’m perturbed by the idea of Brandeis students trying to become hedge fund managers and the like. I’ve had some (very) limited contact with those sorts of people. I didn’t like them very much. Then again, I met some Brandeis alumni who were also hedge fund managers and so forth, and they were very different, perfectly nice people.

I’ll end with this:

Over the years, I’d heard bits and pieces about Gutfreund. I knew that after he’d been forced to resign from Salomon Brothers he’d fallen on harder times. I heard later that a few years ago he’d sat on a panel about Wall Street at Columbia Business School. When his turn came to speak, he advised students to find something more meaningful to do with their lives. As he began to describe his career, he broke down and wept.

Brandeis students should save the world. We can do so much more, we are capable of transcending the mere pursuit of capital gains. Let Ohio State University students chase the golden calf. We have within us the greatness of Moses.


2 thoughts on “When I’m all grown up…”

  1. I hope the last blurb there is a joke. I think the idea of college exceptionalism is one used by people in good schools to justify their investment (in money and time).

  2. Michael Lewis is pretty much amazing. Everyone should probably read Liar’s Poker; it’s fantastic, hilarious, and slightly horrifying. It seems the culture of investment banking hasn’t changed one bit.

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