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The Squid and the Elephant

I see that Kevin Drum and Felix Salmon have also been reading the Times this morning. They question Smith’s motives, pointing out that he only joined the firm in 2000, so he never experienced the “good old days” he pines for, and that the piece lacks “any sense of mea culpa, any sense that he was at all part of the problem.” Good points! I’ll take the opportunity of their comments to make a few more points of my own.

What changed since the mid-2000s is very simple: there isn’t as much money to go around.

Let’s think about the timeline of Smith’s career. He started right as the internet bubble had burst. Equity derivatives in the late-1990s, at least in the U.S., revolved around the dynamics of that bubble – getting tech companies to sell put options on their own stock (a way of betting that their stock would continue to go up – a very common trade before the bubble burst), hedging large blocks of founder shares in tech companies that had just gone public, etc. That business slowed down quite a bit from 2000 to 2002, but before very long, Wall Street found a new money machine. The biggest one in Wall Street history.

And the thing about Wall Street is: when there’s a lot of money being made, everybody gets paid. You don’t want all the high yield bond traders disgruntled because there wasn’t much going on in high yield in a given year. So you pay them something – not as much as in a good year, but something that makes them feel valued.

Well, since the financial crisis, there hasn’t been as much money going around. Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of money. But not quite as much. And it’s harder to “earn.” And the people who “earned” that money want to keep it.

Salmon refers to Smith’s “final ill-gotten bonus check” but do we know what that check was? It wouldn’t be completely shocking to me if – relative to what Smith was “used” to getting, and thought he “earned” – it was very low. Indeed, if he were working for one of the money-center banks, it might well have been zero.

All of this is not to shed any tears for Greg Smith, but to explain what the world might look like to him, and why he might write that op-ed. If we take him at his word, for much of his career, doing his job in what, from his perspective, was a relatively ethical fashion meant that he got paid very well indeed. And he thought that he was getting paid for that work. But he wasn’t, not really. He was getting paid, in good part, for being a Goldman employee. The life-blood of the firm, what made the firm enough money to pay him, was business that on a fundamental level is difficult to justify. Some firms and some individuals were more ethical than others; when I worked in the business, I tried to acquit myself well. But the whole thing was rotten. And if Greg Smith was getting paid for leaving money on the table, it’s because there was so much money sloshing around the deck that nobody worried about it. Heck, they might even have believed that he was helping retain valuable clients that way.

That game ended with the financial crisis. Wall Street is way, way too big. It has to shrink. The first way it is going to shrink is by ruthlessly culling the herd, doubling down on winner-take-all economics. That’s what Greg Smith is observing: the only ones who are still getting paid are the ones who are still reeling it in.

I don’t think that’s a sustainable answer to Wall Street’s predicament, because there just aren’t that many elephants. And the de-financialization of the American economy hasn’t even really begun.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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