Has the SEC changed the culture of Wall Street?

By Felix Salmon
April 22, 2010
Michael Lewis addresses the fixed-income group at Goldman Sachs:

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Michael Lewis addresses the fixed-income group at Goldman Sachs:

The masses will be curious to know, for instance, how you became blinded to the very simple difference between right and wrong. The more moralistic among them will ask the question mainly to fuel their own outrage; the more tactical will ask the question because they sense that the financial system doesn’t function unless you have the incentive to think in these terms — and you clearly do not.

He concludes:

There was a time when a Wall Street bond trader could work with a short seller to create a bond to fail, trick and bribe the ratings companies into blessing the bond, then sell the bond to a slow-witted German without having to worry if anyone would ever know, or care, what he’d just done.

That just changed.

This, it would seem, is the power of the SEC: by filing its complaint in public rather than seeking to settle in private, it might have significantly changed the culture of Wall Street in a way that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and Paul Volcker and of course Barack Obama have been trying and failing to do ever since they took office.

Certainly the SEC seems to have changed the attitude of Michael Lewis towards these instruments: there was no hint of “tricks and bribes” in his book on this subject. I wonder whether he’ll add some kind of afterword for the paperback edition.


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More like Lewis couldn’t pass up scoring some easy brownie points.

And what’s with the “slow-witted German” bit? Putting aside my observation that the average German IQ is among the highest in the world, I guess they still qualify as socially-acceptable targets. Imagine talking about a vulture fund trying to take a “slow-witted African” to the cleaners.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

It is a welcome change for the SEC, who usually acts like a private civil litigant only interested in collecting the biggest check it can. The SEC should be trying to achieve greater transparency and accountability in markets, not just lining the government’s pockets.

Posted by AdamJ23 | Report as abusive

Your concision of Lewis’ lines is a little unfair to him. He wrote:

“Just as there was a time when people could smoke on airplanes, or drive drunk without guilt, there was a time when a Wall Street bond trader could work with a short seller to create a bond to fail…. That just changed.”

His target (as always) is the mentalite of wall street denizens. Like any good moralist Lewis wants to revive shame & guilt in the hope that “a change is gonna come” akin to the kind that transformed our old erroneous views of smoking, drunk driving & much else. He wants to hasten this change. I’m with him.

(And “slow-witted Germans” have much less mockery to fear from Michael Lewis than they do from, say, the writers of “The Simpsons.”)

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

Sounds a tad optimistic. Call me cynical but this “incident” is unlikely to put a dent in the “way”of the Street permanently. Did anyone see Yves Smith’s post on GS senior executives’ reaction to the complaint – hilarious!

Posted by Judyjl | Report as abusive

sorry, forgot one point: what is with theslow-witted German part? after deutsche’s less than “honourable” role in the CDS debacle, would have thought the Germans would be regarded as more a part of the family- think godfather.

Posted by Judyjl | Report as abusive

Obama is in bed with the bankers, he just can’t admit it. He needs to hike the tax rate on Wall Street bonuses to, say, 60% to prove otherwise

Posted by STORYBURNcom_0 | Report as abusive

ML is an opportunist like many thesedays. however, that is exactly what the big IBs do – they did and do put together CDOs and ABS and simply funky smelling corporates and peddle them to the slowest witted disks there are – and a whole bunh of German Landesbanken that tried the sexy IB business were among the slowest witted desks around, along with some selected and notoriously slow Japanese banks and USA municipalities – the fact is there is a buy side and a sell side, and when you sell total garbage, you have to look for the dumbest marks to sell them to.

unlike in stocks you can’t just sell these debt issues to retail.

Posted by klh | Report as abusive

See Agnes’s article, our problems have just started.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

And according to CNN the SEC has become a porn shop, what a way to start a weekend.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Who is this Michael Lewis and what’s with the snooty tone? ‘Masses’, indeed. Who elected him? It is always amusing, even instructive, to see the self-righteous in action. And who would be naive enough to think that the SEC could change an entire culture of profit-seeking by issuing a simple civil fraud complaint? And one that looks increasingly unlikely to stand up in court. Felix Salmon perhaps?

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

I believe the “slow witted germans” is a quote from Greg Lippman of…. Deutsche Bank.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Crikey. Try as one might to give them a spot of fresh culture, all they ever do is moan. Don’t tell me the usual establishment bicycle-seat sniffers ‘ave lost their German sense of humor again…

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

“The masses”??? He may as well refer to them as the hoi polloi, or the Great Unwashed. I’ve never met a slow-witted German, but Michael Lewis strikes me as a pompous ass regardless of nationality.

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

Working for Deutsche Bank doesn’t make one German. Lippman(n) is typically a Jewish name.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

Wall Street has metastasized into a cancer on capitalism. Once it actually fostered growth of productive companies that contributed to the growth of industry and nurtured the middle class. It now is a cancer that does nothing but gut once productive corporations through leveraged buyouts, fraudulently advises employees on ESOP and creates self destructive derivatives that the trading arm shorts while the investment arm violates its fiduciary responsibility by advising its clients to invest in the same instruments ALL THE WHILE being backed by the good credit of the US Gov’t.

Posted by csodak | Report as abusive

Everyone forgets capitalism is about rewarding the greedy. It should not come as a surprise this sometimes produces crooks. Democracy is based upon such people existing and testing the limits. Through time and memorial there has always been a lag before a Democratic movement puts those Crooks away. Many a time, the crooks are long gone before the broom comes in. Its the capitalist way.

We are in the process of seeing some Crooks put away but DO NOT BE FOOLED. Crooks will continue to exist. You just won’t notice until the next crisis.

Wall Street/Finance is and always will be the home of crooks because that’s where the money is and ALWAYS WILL BE.

The people only have themselves to blame for the crooks. Every crook out there knows they just have to wait things out before the public loses interest in this.

If people were really serious they would be talking about dismantling Wall Street rather than reforming it.

Posted by tommy6 | Report as abusive