Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- I’m starting to get worried that Wall Street and its supporters are losing their touch.
The initial signs that the free marketeers were off their game didn’t have me all that alarmed. There was the collection of senior people in finance who, in a New York Times article, largely dismissed the Occupy Wall Street protesters as slackers with too much time on their hands, though there wasn’t much shock value there. It would take some deep thinking for a captain of finance to make the connection between a dearth of jobs and a surfeit of time for demonstrating.
Then there were the noisy cheerleaders of capitalism who busied themselves with trash-talking the protesters just as poll results started to show that much of the public was sympathetic to the views of the movement.
“Occupiers are arrogant, spoiled white kids who think they should be able to take public space from all of us for THEIR freedom of speech,” went one comment on a Twitter account that calls itself ‘DefendWallSt.”
“I wonder what smells worse, the hippies at OccupyWallStreet in LibertyPark OR the Staten Island Dump!” read another tweet from Provide Security, a New Jersey operation engaged in information-technology security, executive protection and -- if they play their cards right -- perhaps a whole new business in aromatherapy solutions for urban landfills. The site of the New York protests, Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza Park), seemed to smell just fine the day I stopped by last month.
The existence of enthusiastic financiers who are sometimes tone-deaf about the little guy is hardly the stuff of Earth-shattering column fodder. What’s surprising to me is that Wall Street seems to have lost its mojo. It was a married couple on Long Island, not some cagey investment bank, who first filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to lay claim to the slogan “Occupy Wall Street” for use on things like T-shirts and bumper stickers. Nobody at an investment bank thought to lock up that slogan -- and throw away the key -- with a filing of their own?
And there’s mutiny out there with the public yanking money out of accounts to make a statement about the avarice of too-big-to-fail banks. Perhaps panicky that unhappy customers had figured out they might be better treated by consumer-friendly credit unions, even Bank of America Corp. abandoned plans to charge a monthly nuisance fee on debit-card transactions. This, of course, isn’t the way capitalism is supposed to work in an era of “socialism for the banks,” and “free markets for the little people.”
What’s happened to finance’s killer instinct? When the public takes money out of one product, Wall Street is supposed to be waiting with another. If this isn’t an opportunity to come up with the post-meltdown version of auction-rate securities, I don’t know what is. But I haven’t even spotted a slick new mutual fund that promises to make money by investing in populist rage.
The weakened state of Wall Street is even on display in its dealings with big customers. In cities from coast to coast, municipal leaders are starting to say that if a bank wants to get their business, it had better start hustling to modify mortgages and consider the lending needs of the community.
It’s possible that Wall Street’s leaders assume that the problem will go away as cold weather sets in, and neighbors and businesses complain about the disruption caused by protesters. Then again, it’s possible that financial companies are right on top of all this with sneaky new products and payoffs to politicians and I’m just too clueless to have figured it out.
Wall Street ‘Explode’
Beverly Gage, the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded,” told me in a telephone interview that Occupy Wall Street shares traits with previous movements that wound up having legs. The Yale University history professor, whose book chronicled the Sept. 16, 1920, bombing near the New York Stock Exchange, says the nasty talk about smelly hippies and plotting socialists is standard fare. “If there is one thing that’s absolutely true about any movement targeting Wall Street it’s that there are accusations that there’s something un-American about it,” she said.
Gage says she doubts that protesters in cities such as New York will be deterred as winter approaches. The important marker in a movement is that demonstrators successfully “insist certain questions be part of the conversation.” Already, the Occupy Wall Street movement has heated up the national conversation about income inequality.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s boosters keep making things worse for themselves. After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee e-mailed supporters to ask them to sign a petition supporting Occupy Wall Street, angry financial-services executives made it clear to Democrats that they “can’t have it both ways,” according to an article by Politico.com. Translation: Democrats had better not expect donations if they side with the 1 percent-bashers. Of course, it’s just that sort of checkbook politics that the protesters are railing about, so the bullying only served to make the movement look smart.
You’ve got to wonder why the big banks don’t see the light and do what they do best: co-opt the protesters, just like they did the Democrats.
It is, after all, getting chilly in the Northeast, opening vast opportunities for the financial world to score points. The New York Stock Exchange, just blocks from Zuccotti Park, could welcome the Occupiers for tours of the nice, warm trading floor as bitter weather sets in. Who knows what good might result if the banks got to know the protesters a little better, and vice versa? Banks are flush with cash after getting bailed out by the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The protesters have an ever-greater need for donations of warm gear and covers to keep dry. There’s a “My TARP is your tarp” synergy to it. If the ball got rolling, it would only be a matter of time before some of those unemployed protesters were sporting Paul Stuart jackets and interviewing for internships with stock-exchange members.
Sadly, I don’t think the NYSE is considering my strategy. On Oct. 24, it refused to let activist film maker Michael Moore even stand on the sidewalk outside the exchange for an interview with a reporter from CNBC. In a separate move, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. yanked its sponsorship of a fund-raising dinner scheduled for last night for a New York City credit union after it learned that one of the evening’s honorees would be Occupy Wall Street.
The securities industry gets together for its annual conference in New York on Nov. 7, but the Wall Street protest heard around the world “is not on the agenda,” according to Liz Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
I suppose you could argue that the ire of the 99 percenters doesn’t matter all that much to Wall Street as long as firms can keep hold of their platinum-level customers. There are still rich people whose lives were untouched by the economic crisis, and how could they not be repulsed by the noisy, stinking hippies who are disturbing the peace? Or not.
When I visited New York’s Zuccotti Park, I noticed a nicely dressed couple in their 80s who had stopped to take a few photos of the demonstrators. Harvey and Roberta Teitelbaum, from Chicago, told me they were visiting for a long weekend of sightseeing and Broadway shows.
“What do you think of these people?” I asked, bracing to hear a rant about, well, noisy, stinking hippies disturbing the peace. “I believe in what they’re doing because banks and big companies have ripped off the country,” Harvey Teitelbaum told me. “Let’s change this country.”
I hate to tell you, Wall Street, but the Teitelbaums looked like they shopped at the same stores your best customers frequent. What will happen if your most-coveted clients start to think the kids huddled under blue tarps are on to something?
(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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