Now he works part-time in D.C. for the Treasury Department, as a mortgage-banking specialist. “It sounds corny, but it’s my chance to right a lot of wrongs and help them clean up the mess that I helped to create,” he says. “I like the people I work with a lot. They’re really not so bad.” He hasn’t looked at a paycheck for a zillion years—what’s it going to say? A year’s salary now is equivalent to what he made in two weeks last year. Recently, the government gave him a bonus. He didn’t even notice until his boss asked him if he saw it, and he double-checked his bank statements. “It was really nice of them,” he says. “They didn’t have to do that.”
He shakes his head. “It’s so weird,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole life going around the system. Now I’m part of it.”
This is nuts—working for the government? The enemy of free markets everywhere? Could anyone have imagined a worse outcome for a Jerseyite Master of the Universe? The natural order of things has been upended. The meek have indeed inherited the Earth. For Wall Street predators, the top of the food chain, this has been the hardest thing to swallow.
Before Bear and Lehman went down, and UBS announced major cutbacks, and Citi looked like it was going to nail a lot of people—before every single bank, except for highly focused boutiques concentrating on M&A, had started to fail—it seemed that to work at one was to be at a pinnacle, looking down. These are people who thought that they were the smartest guys in the city, and the world, smarter than government drones, naturally, and smarter than the guys they went to college with, because they used their impressive IQs for the only wised-up purpose: making money. Everyone else seemed to be missing the point. A lot of them, especially the traders, come from the sticks, from Kentucky or other heartland places, young people who had risen to the top through no other reason than their talent and ambition. Pure products of the meritocracy. Then they were molded by the Street. The first two friends they make in New York are the guy on the right and on the left in orientation. Their office has a cafeteria, gym, and dry-cleaners. The boss takes him to Joe’s dive bar, and he loves it, and then he takes him to Marquee, and he can’t believe it, and then he meets clients, who love him because he’s a young guy who will talk to girls for them at the club. Suddenly, all his friends are traders, and his clients come to his wedding, and he’s wrapped into Morgan Stanley six different ways.
From the beginning of their careers, there was nothing but money. “In 2006, during my first year out of Harvard, with course work in theoretical physics, literature classes, and nothing at all market-related, my total compensation was $140,000,” says Hadan Esperidiao, a former Goldman analyst. That’s a $60,000 salary and an $80,000 bonus—plus the $7,500 they gave him for showing up to a summer internship the year before, and the $10,000 signing bonus. (Unlike others interviewed for this article, Esperidiao does not plan to pursue a career in banking; those who remain employed or wish to be hired in the future withheld their names, as required by firms’ nondisclosure agreements and sector etiquette.) “Goldman would tell us all the time that we were the most intelligent people in the world,” he says. “You’re not drinking the Kool-Aid—they’re hooking it up in needles and injecting it. I stood in front of a minimum of six computer monitors for fourteen hours a day, looking at brokerage exchanges for complex instruments like credit default swaps—which I like to call ‘Cold Dog Shit’—so that we could get the computers saying these trades made sense, and then charge the client for how long it took us to figure it out. We kept hearing from higher-ups that we had it right this time and it was never going to end. It felt like the market was telling us we were the greatest minds on Earth. Within three years, I was going to be making $500,000 a year.” He laughs bitterly. “How could anybody work any other job?”
A tenet of life on the Street was that this natural order contained benefits for everyone. Making money is a virtue. Someone needs to shoulder the burden of wealth. Someone needs to have three kids at Horace Mann, a five-bedroom house in Water Mill, and a few SLKs. “No one wants to bail out Wall Street, but the river flows down from the mountain,” says an ex-Bear trader. “Not only are we going to see the i-banks cut a large percentage of jobs, but then the boss will say, ‘Guys, no more Town Cars—how about you walk or pay for a cab instead?’ And then your driver can’t pay his mortgage. If you want to have a job downstream, you’ve got to address upstream first.”