"Lose money for my firm and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless."
-- Warren Buffett, testifying to Congress in 1991 during the Salomon scandal.

It's a good thing that Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B), is still based in Omaha. If he were heading up a major Wall Street entity, he'd likely be an unhappy camper. After years of pummeling, Wall Street's reputation has reached new lows. But if you don't have much faith in Wall Street, that's OK -- you can do its job yourself.

According to a Harris survey of Americans last month, a whopping 45% of Americans have "hardly any confidence at all" in Wall Street. That puts it at the bottom of the Harris list, just below Congress and law firms. (Topping the list are the military, small business, and major educational institutions.) Only 8% of Americans have "a great deal of confidence" in Wall Street, down from 30% in 1999 and 2000.

I can see why Americans were so bullish on Wall Street in 1999; it was making many of us rich. That year Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) was up 42%, while eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) rose 30% -- and Nokia (NYSE: NOK) shares more than tripled!

The big guys aren't on your side
These days, the story is different. Until we forget the financial panic of 2008 during some future bull market, we're chastened. We need to remember that Wall Street is riddled with conflicts of interest. Just like companies in other industries, financial services firms are torn between serving their customers and keeping their shareholders happy.

Consider the credit card reform bill of 2009. It will force credit card companies such as Capitol One Financial (NYSE: COF), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), and Citigroup (NYSE: C) to serve consumers better by banning several previously profitable practices. The industry's new no-nos include increasing interest rates retroactively, charging hidden over-limit fees, and imposing unfair subprime fees. With these reforms expected to cost the industry tens of billions of dollars, you might not be surprised to learn that the companies are looking to make up that shortfall with new annual fees, fees for paper statements, and other charges.

Take charge of your money
Fortunately, you'll be just fine, as long as you don't trust Wall Street to put your interests before its own. Learn how you're being set up to fail. Discover what to look for in stocks. And if you don't trust your Wall Street broker to call the shots on your behalf, consider making your own buy-and-sell decisions. You care most about your financial future, just like many people on Wall Street care most about their own. Though Wall Street's reputation may be in the tank, you can burnish your own record of financial savviness -- and possibly save your retirement in the process.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and eBay. Berkshire and Nokia are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Amazon.com, Berkshire, and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.