Susan Antilla is a financial columnist for Bloomberg News and author of Tales From the Boom-Boom Room: The Landmark Legal Battles That Exposed Wall Street's Shocking Culture of Sexual Harassment.
As the post-bubble financial cleanup plods along, it's looking like more than just the economy has gone on tilt.
The New York governor who resigned in disgrace for bedding with a high-ticket prostitute is visiting Harvard to talk about ethics. The CEO of Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) is babbling, ''I love it'' when asked what he thinks of having a troop of 15 to 20 regulators camping out at his firm. The CEO of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) is telling us he does ''God's work,'' and then taking it back, and then telling us that gee-whiz he's sorry about the big mess Wall Street made.
Are you as confused as I am?
We all knew things had gotten pretty nutty once it became clear that the president we elected to kick the bums out had decided instead to invite the bums from the financial industry in. The president's chief economic advisor is a former hedge fund guy, his former auto czar was a big-shot money manager, and his deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs is a former Citigroup (NYSE: C ) executive. Did we run out of no-conflict professors and plain-vanilla corporate types to work in government?
The wackiness on Wall Street and in Washington has, unsurprisingly, infected the nation's regulators. On Nov. 19, the Securities and Exchange Commission -- which is supposed to at least pretend not to be BFFs with the securities industry -- said it had hired an executive from a foundation funded by Wall Street's lobbying powerhouse, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), to run its investor education efforts.
Kathleen Floyd, who will be an SEC deputy director, had previously overseen SIFMA's Stock Market Game, a ''get 'em while they're young'' effort that has eight- to 18-year-olds -- 740,000 of them in the 2007-2008 school year -- managing hypothetical portfolios of $100,000. It's all supposed to be helping kids understand math and get smarter about money, but why do I have this nagging feeling that the real motivation is to prime legions of clients for the next generation of stockbrokers?
Morgan Stanley, Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) Merrill Lynch, and Wells Fargo's (NYSE: WFC ) Wachovia are among sponsors. While Stock Market Game's web page tells lots about how to teach kids to pick stocks, it features nothing that I could find about instructing them on how to steer clear of shady brokers or bogus products.
Who's looking out for investors?
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a self-regulator charged with the task of policing the same member firms that finance it, has begun to use some of its war chest to lobby Congress to expand its regulatory reach. FINRA's most recent lobbying disclosure statements show that it's added ''harmonization of regulation of broker-dealers and investment advisors'' to issues that previously had included things like investor protection and education. You can read that to mean that FINRA, which doesn't yet regulate financial advisors, would like to.
Let's make sure I have this right: FINRA, a cop on the beat that is overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, collects money from brokerage firms and uses some of it to lobby to get dibs on regulating investment advisers -- all for the greater good of the investing public, of course.
In the meantime, FINRA is very much the friend of the member firms that support it. (Have you read the mandatory arbitration agreement in the contract you have with your broker lately? FINRA runs the no-lawsuits-allowed Wall Street arbitration system.) Instead of questioning the wisdom of having the industry police itself in the first place, the Oz-like world of U.S. financial regulation is likely to give Wall Street's favorite regulator power over more financial pros, giving the public the mistaken idea that someone is actually watching out for them.
An update on the very weird things going on in finance these days wouldn't be complete, of course, without a few words about the firm dubbed by Rolling Stone as a ''great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,'' a depiction that had to be a real comedown for great vampire squids everywhere.
Goldman Sachs, the giant squid in question, is looking like the most off-balance of all among examples of post-bubble oddities of late. On Nov. 17, after CEO Lloyd Blankfein made the now-famous (though perhaps in jest) ''God's work" comment, Goldman took a deep bow and announced a $500 million charitable program to help small businesses.
This was not, we were assured, some shallow attempt to curry favor with politicians or the public, even amid a public relations fiasco that has Exxon-Valdez looking like grounds for a parking ticket. Goldman told The New York Times it had been working on the project for almost a year, so let's not jump to any conclusions here, shall we? But even if the slimy squid-broker had this in the works since last fall, only recently did it seek the reputational safe haven of Warren Buffett. The Times reached Buffett and learned that he'd been approached in the ''last month or so'' to lend his name. That certainly weakens the it's-all-been-in-the-works-for-a-year argument.
Bankers and their reputations
I guess when people are under a lot of stress, they're destined to do and say some really strange things. Utterly traumatized, some even go into denial about the reality staring them in the face. For years, for example, Ronald Reagan free-marketeers parroted the Milton Friedman notion that you didn't need to do a lot of regulating of financial firms; they'd police one another, and they had a natural motivation not to self-destruct.
Post-meltdown, you'd figure that anyone who matters would have woken up and smelled the coffee on that one, but Neil Barofsky, the Special Treasury Department Inspector General who oversees TARP, disabused us of that when he spoke at a Bloomberg event in Washington on Nov. 12. ''When I first took office [last December], I can't tell you how many times I'd be having a sit-down and warning about potential fraud in the program and I would hear a response basically saying, 'Oh, they're bankers, and they wouldn't put their reputations at risk by committing fraud,''' he said.
Is it something in the water, or are these guys just hoping they'll tire us out so they can get back to business as usual?