On Wall Street, the misery index is as high as it’s been since brokers were on window ledges back in 1929. But sentiments like that, accompanied by a full orchestra of the world’s tiniest violins, are only part of the conversation in Wall Street offices and trading desks. Along with the complaint is something that might be called soul-searching—which is, in itself, a surprising development. Since the crash, and especially since the occupation of Zuccotti Park last September (which does appear to have rattled a lot of nerves), there has been a growing recognition on Wall Street that the system that had provided those million-dollar bonuses was built on a highly unstable foundation. Disagreeable as it may be, goes this thinking, bankers have to go back to first principles, assess their value in the economy, and take their part in its rebuilding. No one on Wall Street liked to be scapegoated either by the Obama administration or by the Occupiers. But many acknowledge that the bubble-bust-bubble seesaw of the past decades isn’t the natural order of capitalism—and that the compensation arrangements just may have been a bit out of whack. “There’s no other industry where you could get paid so much for doing so little,” a former Lehman trader said. Paul Volcker, whose eponymous rule is at the core of the changes, echoes an idea that more bankers than you’d think would agree with. “Finance became a self-justification,” he told me recently. “They made a lot of money trading with each other with doubtful public benefit.”
The questions of how to fix Wall Street–style capitalism—from taxes to regulation—are being intensely argued and will undergird much of the economic debate during this presidential election. And many on Wall Street are still making the argument that the consequences of hobbling Wall Street could be severe. “These are sweeping secular changes taking place that won’t just impact the guys who won’t get their bonuses this year,” Bove told me. “We’ve made a decision as a nation to shrink the growth of the financial system under the theory that it won’t impact the growth of the nation’s economy.”
And yet, the complaining has settled to a low murmur. Even as bonuses have withered, Wall Street as a political issue is gaining force. Bankers are aware that populism has a foothold, even in the Republican Party, and that these forces are liable to accelerate the process already taking place. “There’s a real sense the world is changing,” says a private-equity executive with deep ties to the GOP. “People are becoming aware there’s real anger out there. It’s not just some kids camping out in some park. The Romney attacks caught everyone by surprise. We have prepared for this to come from the Democrats in the fall, but not now. You could run an entire campaign if you’re Barack Obama with ads using nothing but Republicans saying things about finance that you’d never hear two months ago. It’s an amazing thing.”
A few hours before Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon sat in a cream-colored chair in his 48th-floor office, talking about the changed reality on Wall Street. “Certain products are gone forever,” Dimon told me. “Fancy derivatives are mostly gone. Prop trading is gone. There’s less leverage everywhere. Mortgages are back to old-fashioned conservative mortgages—which is a good thing.”
Reducing risk may be a good thing for the economy, but it has been dismal for the banks. All across Wall Street, financial institutions are suffering their worst results in years. JPMorgan reported last month that fourth-quarter profits were down by $1.1 billion. Goldman Sachs reported profits fell by 56 percent, Bank of America saw its profits drop by 38 percent, and Morgan Stanley reported a 26 percent drop.
As we talked, Dimon tried to put the best face on the results. Compared to some of his peers, he has deftly navigated the new landscape, holding JPMorgan’s stock price level. With 260,000 employees and thousands of Chase branches, Dimon’s company, unlike that of his rivals at Goldman, has a real, physical business to fall back on. “Companies big and small will still need underwriting, credit, capital management, and advice. McKinsey did a report that showed that the credit needs of multinationals are going to double in the next ten years,” he said. “The net worth of the world is going to double in the next decade. Institutional funding will double in the next ten years. We’re a store, you can buy bonds, FX, advice—we provide great products at a great price. That store is not going to go away. If you’re a big, smart investor and we can give you the best price and the best service, you’ll still be coming here, just like Wal-Mart and Costco.”