July 26 (Bloomberg) -- Differences of opinion are the essence of politics; differences in factual analysis are usually less sharp. Yet one of the most interesting divides in public discourse now concerns not a policy dispute, but different perceptions of a “factual” question: How has the administration treated the financial sector: Wall Street, the banks and their executives?
This divide was on display last week, when Politico reporter Mike Allen recounted a private meeting of Wall Street executives in which many “said they were severely disappointed in the president,” and accused him of waging class warfare against them. “They said they didn’t understand what they had done to deserve that,” adding that “a president shouldn’t attack his constituents -- he’s not the president of some people, he’s president of all the people.”
And yet, just two days before, Paul Krugman’s New York Times column contained a scathing critique of the administration’s economic policies, alleging that it had gone soft on the financial sector. “Five words sum up the central principle of United States financial policy: go easy on the bankers,” the Nobel-winning economist wrote.
The divide was also on display when the president decided not to nominate the front-runner Elizabeth Warren -- despised by the financial industry -- to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, picking instead the bureau’s current director of enforcement, Rich Cordray. (Disclosure: Both Warren and Cordray are longtime friends of mine.)
Stick in Eye
Some progressives saw the decision to pass on Warren as the latest administration cave to the bankers; industry types saw the selection of the strongly pro-consumer Cordray as another stick in the eye.
That the bankers and their critics should disagree on the proper direction for U.S. economic policy is no surprise. But how do we account for the stark difference in their perceptions of the administration’s attitude toward the financial sector? Why do some believe that the president has brutalized Wall Street, while others think he has babied it? Three factors contribute to this difference in perception.
The first is the inevitable instability that comes when a temporary, atypical political alliance dissolves, and parties seek a new way of interacting. For 100 years before Bill Clinton became president, relations between Democrats and Wall Street were frosty.
‘Cross of Gold’
William Jennings Bryan undertook a national crusade that defined the Democratic Party around a monetary policy directly opposed to “the bankers.” Franklin Roosevelt -- even when he was seeking better relations with the business sector generally -- never wavered in his harsh criticism of the “high-finance-minded,” that “handful of men,” who “took their toll from the greater part of all other business and industry.”
So the past 15 years of camaraderie between Democrats and Wall Street -- which started with close ties to key personnel in the Clinton administration, and blossomed during boom times for the stock market under that president -- isn’t the norm, but an anomaly. The aberrant period was extended by the mishandling of the financial crisis by the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, in 2008 and by Wall Street’s sense of shared educational background and cultural outlook with the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, and his advisers.
But these factors were ephemeral. Sooner or later, relations were going to return toward the historical norm, and that’s what we’re seeing now. The disparate perspectives on the administration’s posture toward the financial industry these past two years, then, are a product of the confusion that comes when an odd coupling starts to uncouple -- leaving the parties themselves, and everyone watching them, confused about where the relationship stands.
Second, the difference reflects the tension between notions of collective accountability and individual responsibility in our country, given the blend of communitarian and individualist streaks in our national character. From the collective perspective -- in the eyes of many policy makers and observers - - the public sector bailed out Wall Street through TARP and other programs. As a result, this line of thinking goes, the financial industry should have a posture of gratitude for the help, and a repentant mindset for having gotten us in this mess in the first place. In this view, the industry’s return to large compensation packages, reluctance to invest in or lend to Main Street businesses, and sense of irritation at criticism seems outrageous.
But from the industry’s perspective, an individualistic analysis dominates: “If I didn’t, personally, do anything wrong, why is everyone mad at me? Why should I forgo personal gain, or accept personal blame, for the actions of others?”
The natural divide between communitarian and individualistic perspectives, always present in our country, is exacerbated because policy makers tend to belong to the class of people with a communitarian mindset, and Wall Street tends to attract individualistic types.
Finally, there is the difference in the sort of economic recovery that the political/pundit class (mostly upper-middle class), and the financial class have personally experienced in the past two years. Of course, investment bankers on Wall Street are wealthier than policy makers and pundits in Washington, but the difference isn’t just in how much they own, it’s in what they own. Generally, the richer someone is, the more that wealth is likely to be concentrated in equities; but for most upper-middle-class people, their major asset is their residence.
Tale of Assets
For most of the past 20 years, these two asset classes performed similarly; but in the past two years, the two tracks have diverged sharply, with underappreciated political consequences.
To illustrate this point, imagine an investment banker who invested $1 million in the stock market on Election Day 2004, and an upper-middle-class policy maker who, on the same day, put $100,000 as a down payment on a $700,000 home. If the investment banker’s gains tracked the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the homeowner’s tracked the Case-Shiller Index, then in mid-2007, before the first signs of trouble, the investment banker would have been up $350,000 on his portfolio, and the policy maker would have about $200,000 in equity in his home; both have done well. Likewise, at the depth of the crash, on Inauguration Day 2009, both the investment banker and the upper-middle-class homeowner would have seen all their gains wiped out, and the value of their holdings lower than when they started. The crash caused both groups to lose all their gains over a five-year period, and both had their nest eggs cracked. Bottom line: Up until early 2009, the two groups rode the curve up together, and rode it back down together.
Lost Nest Egg
But now look at what has happened since early 2009. The investment banker’s portfolio is back, not just to where it was in 2004, but almost to its 2007 peak: He now has all of his original $1 million restored, plus more than $200,000 in gains. To him, the recession of 2007-2008 is in the past, and continued anger about it seems absurd. But what about the policy maker? His house remains underwater, his nest egg totally wiped out, and he is left with no equity to pay for a child’s college education or his retirement. Is it any wonder that upper-middle-class homeowners (a class to which many pundits, journalists and political leaders belong) are enraged at the financial class? Although the latter group has come out of the past decade very much ahead, the former group has come out very much behind.
So has the president castigated the bankers or coddled them? As cliched as it sounds, it depends in part on your perspective. The relationship is unquestionably more distant than it was under the last Democratic administration or during the 2008 campaign -- a return in the direction of the historical norm. The divide over accountability isn’t going away, and will color both sides’ sense of the relationship for years to come. And as long as the well-being of the financial class grows increasingly independent of the well-being of the upper middle class -- let alone of those less well off in our country -- the divide will only widen.
(Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Recovery Act, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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