Not all is grim. Morgan Stanley, for one, is making a concerted effort to build an asset-management business, where it takes clients’ monies and manages them in-house. That’s nowhere near as lucrative as selling proprietary mortgage bonds, or other exotic products, but asset management tends to have a longer half-life because individual money is “sticky,” not “hot”—it stays in one place.
Then there is Goldman Sachs. Goldman, from the days that I worked there in the eighties, always had a phrase, “long-term greedy,” that it used to discourage those brokers who wanted to make a trade that made a quick buck for the salespeople but wasn’t in the best interest of the client. “Give them the dollars, you take the pennies, and they will be with you for life,” my old boss used to say. That approach is why the firm never fell into the Bear trap, and why it’s been able to buy back 11 percent of its equity in the past four years, rather than issue billions of dollars in value-diluting stock.
I am an inherent optimist about Wall Street. Every time I’ve seen one business go down, there was always a replacement business right behind it. The Street was always like a four-engine plane: It could handle one, even two engines going down, and keep flying. Now, though, it feels like all the engines—investment banking, bonds, equities, and mergers and acquisitions—have shut down at once. Try as I might to see where new business can come from, I don’t see it coming anytime soon. That’s bad news for the banks and their shareholders. It’s bad news for the 200,000 or so people who work on the Street and the estimated 850,000 who buy and sell securities nationwide. And it’s bad news for the New York co-op owners, real-estate brokers, and others who benefit from Wall Street largesse.
God knows why, but people often call me to see if I can help place them or their brother or daughter or nephew at a Wall Street firm. There was a time when I would happily say yes; sometimes my help even worked. Not anymore. These days, I don’t even bother. The era of the big Wall Street payday is over. When people call me looking for a job, I tell them to try a law firm.