Wall St. vs. Main St... It's On!

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President Obama delivered a much anticipated address to the financial industry today, and his argument to the financial bigwigs is simple: You should be helping us reform this industry rather than fight it.

“Until this progress is felt not just on Wall Street but Main Street we cannot be satisfied,” the president said (and thank you for the shout-out, sir). “Until the millions of our neighbors who are looking for work can find jobs, and wages are growing at a meaningful pace, we may be able to claim a recovery - but we will not have recovered.”

But this sentiment hasn’t exactly been embraced by the financial community.

An opinion piece on our sister site TheStreet.com argues that the president was playing up the Wall Street/Main Street divide to earn political points while ignoring the recent benefits Wall Street was providing for its much poorer cousin Main Street.

“What about the value to MainStreet from all the money flowing into 401Ks and IRAs courtesy of a bank-led bull run in the markets?  I'm sure Obama understands the nuances, but they aren't politically expedient. It's far more effective in Washington to have clear villains.”

Well, here's my opinion.

Sorry to burst your bubble, Wall Street, but the stock market recovery doesn’t exactly have Main Street America jumping for joy. Hooray! The Dow is topping 11,000! The banking sector is reporting huge gains! I’m sure the Americans who have 401(k)s are pleased that their portfolios are starting to make a comeback, and if you happen to own stock in Citibank, you’re probably psyched too, especially if you bought it at $2.75.


But guess what, Wall Street? None of that means much to the millions of Americans who are unemployed or under-employed, to the others whose houses are in foreclosure or underwater, to the ones whose mortgages are about to reset at a much higher rate, or even the ones who are in unions that invested in high-risk mortgage-backed securities.

Listen, Wall Street, we believe that Main Street America is a big proponent of America’s system of free enterprise. People on Main Street (and MainStreet) want to be rich, just like you.  But let’s get real here. It seems that in the last 20 or 30 years years, the financial industry has increasingly concerned itself with cleverly moving money around in ways that create enourmous amounts of wealth for relatively few people, rather than figuring out how to build meaningful value by creating stuff that’s actually worth something.

Isn’t that the whole reason that this meltdown happened? A wholly unregulated derivatives market allowed savvy but unscrupulous investors to make sure-thing bets, while thousands of unwitting investors (pawns really) lost their shirts and left taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars to prop up the financial institutions stupid enough to play games they didn’t understand. The recent SEC lawsuit against Goldman Sachs illustrates this very plainly, regardless of what you think of the merits of the case.

And now, if you take him at his word, President Obama wants to limit Wall Street’s ability to do this all over again. What’s all the fuss about, Wall Street? As he laid out in his speech, he wants to do four things.

First, he wants to create “a way to protect the financial system and the broader economy and American taxpayers in the event that a large financial firm begins to fail [allowing us to] respond in a way that doesn’t force taxpayers to pick up the tab or.”


Sounds reasonable, but how could we create a pool of money big enough to cover that kind of thing? Do we tax the financial firms and create a pool? Like the FDIC. I imagine the firms aren’t huge fans of this idea.

Second, he advocated brining “new transparency to many financial markets…many practices were so opaque, so confusing, so complex that the people inside the firms didn’t understand them,  much less those who were charged with overseeing them.  They weren’t fully aware of the massive bets that were being placed.” He went on to quote Warren Buffett, who called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

The real problem here isn’t the guys who didn’t know what was going on. It isn’t even the regulators who didn’t know what was going on (though that’s a problem too, obviously). The real problem is that none of the worst actions of the whole meltdown were illegal. That’s why the SEC is suing Goldman, and not Paulson, the guys who really cleaned up. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little transparency.

Third, Obama proposes to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which he says is “absolutely necessary because this financial crisis wasn’t just the result of decisions made in the executive suites on Wall Street; it was also the result of decisions made around kitchen tables across America, by folks who took on mortgages and credit cards and auto loans.  And while it’s true that many Americans took on financial obligations that they knew or should have known they could not have afforded, millions of others were, frankly, duped.  They were misled by deceptive terms and conditions, buried deep in the fine print.”

That’s true, though we remain skeptical that a new layer of buraucracy will help to prevent this kind of practice. Tough laws with tougher punishments might not be a bad idea, though.


Fourth and finally, the President talked about giving new powers to shareholders, particularly when it comes to how big shots at companies are paid. “[Shareholders] will get what we call a say on pay, a voice with respect to the salaries and bonuses awarded to top executives.  And the SEC will have the authority to give shareholders more say in corporate elections, so that investors and pension holders have a stronger role in determining who manages the company in which they’ve placed their savings.”

Sounds nice, but I fear this would turn into an absolute mess. It would utterly politicize shareholder meetings and, rather than finding ways to be accountable, company heads would form political alliances with the largest shareholders, creating a whole new conflict of interest.

Imperfect though they may be, none of these suggestions would likely result in the complete destruction of Wall Street or our system of free enterprise. So, really, why is Wall Street resistant to the reforms? What’s so horrible about trying to make sure that dishonest financiers can’t fleece honest American investors and taxpayers again?

Notice, I didn’t write ‘greedy finaciers,’ because despite what Wall Street types might have us believe – and this is just my opinion -  this isn’t just about populism, it’s about protection. See, Main Street (and MainStreet) understands that there’s no such thing as a financier who isn’t greedy. Gordon Gekko was right about the whole “greed is good” thing. Main Street’s problem is with cheats, and it seems like these days Wall Street is full of them, and they’re all making eight-figure salaries …  sometimes nine.

It’s the cheating, not the greed, we need to eliminate. Invest to your heart’s content. Enjoy your obscenely large bonuses. Just don’t build a business that is based on lies and then ask us to foot the bill when the house of cards comes tumbling down. Because Main Street is done with that.

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