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Obama Is From Mars, Wall Street Is From Venus

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For Blankfein, Dimon, and other Wall Street bigwigs, the episode was worrying on two levels. “First, the White House decides in this blatant way to politicize the issue,” explains a financial-industry lobbyist. “Second, they overshoot the target and the thing gets away from them. It made people realize there’s no adult in charge. If Bob Rubin or Hank Paulson were Treasury secretary, they would have walked into the Oval Office and said, ‘Mr. President, I know you’d like to do this, I know your political advisers want you do this, but I’m sorry, you can’t do this.’ ”

Eleven days later, Obama summoned the heads of the thirteen biggest banks to the meeting at the White House where he positioned himself between them and the pitchforks. The bankers told Obama they wanted to be out from under TARP as soon as possible so that there would be no encumbrances regarding compensation. Obama laid out conditions for exiting the program: passing the stress tests, raising fresh funds to bolster their balance sheets, and showing restraint on bonuses. When the bankers replied that limits on bonuses and pay would hinder their ability to compete for talent, Obama said curtly, “Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen. The public isn’t buying that.”

Blankfein and Dimon, say people close to them, didn’t enjoy the tone or substance of that meeting or others. Though Blankfein kept mum about his irritation, Dimon opened fire with a stream of potshots at the administration and its policies. At a conference in New York in June, he read aloud a fake missive to Geithner: “Dear Timmy, we are happy to be able to pay back the $25 billion you lent us. We hope you enjoyed the experience as much as we did.”

As summer turned to fall, Goldman, JPMorgan, and the rest began furiously lobbying against the White House’s financial-reform bill as it moved through the House, and in particular against Obama’s proposal for a new consumer-protection agency. (In the first three quarters of the year, the industry spent $344 million on its efforts to soften the legislation.) Dimon, despite his frequent invitations to the White House, began complaining about a lack of access. “If you don’t want us to lobby, give us a seat at the table” became his mantra, punctuated with complaints about the paucity of people inside the administration with a Wall Street background. In September, he and Blankfein were conspicuous no-shows when Obama delivered a major speech on financial reform at Federal Hall—an absence interpreted by the industry and the White House as a signal of their growing displeasure.

Considering the lengths to which the administration had just gone to rescue Wall Street from collapse, all this behavior might strike a (rational) person as ungrateful and even churlish. One explanation for it revolves around the industry’s endemic twin defects: short-termitis and amnesia. “Wall Street is focused on the next five minutes or the last five minutes,” says Roger Altman, a deputy Treasury secretary under Clinton and now chairman of the boutique investment bank Evercore Partners. “At the end of Obama’s speech at Federal Hall, he said that this community must remember the debt it owes to the taxpayers. But I’m not sure most of Wall Street does remember.”

Another, not inconsistent, theory is that the money changers aren’t merely forgetful but mildly deluded. “They’ve created a narrative where irrational actions by a few people plus the nature of government intervention forced them to do things inconsistent with their free-market philosophy and regular way of handling their business,” offers a Democratic financier. “So, yes, they took the TARP money, but only because they had to. None of them are sitting there saying to themselves, ‘You know, I was responsible for this crisis. Therefore, I’m really grateful to the government that it stepped in.’ This is not the narrative they have in their heads.”

But one of the city’s most successful hedge-fund hotshots offers a different surmise: “The majority of Wall Street thinks, ‘Hey, you lent us money. We did a trade. We paid you back. When you had me down, you could have crushed me, you could have done whatever you wanted. You didn’t do it! So stop your bitching and stop telling me I owe you, because I already paid you everything! The fact that I’m making money now is because I’m smarter than you!’ I think that’s where you’ve got this massive disconnect. In simple human terms, the government is saying, ‘I saved your life, and all you did was thank me once. You should be calling me every day: Thank you. Thank you.’ The guy who saved the life expects more. And the guy whose life is saved says, ‘I already thanked you!’ ”


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