Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Am Ashamed of Wall Street

I have loved investing since I read my first Wall Street Journal. I remember my excitement in my early years when the Forbes magazine would arrive. I would read it cover to cover almost before taking a breadth. As I have been in the business, I have dearly loved working with clients and trying to fit an investment plan to meet their investment needs. At times, over the years, I have found that dealing with one crisis or another seemed to call for more courage than I believed I possessed. Gradually I came to understand that the tough spots, in actuality, were how a person gained mental toughness and acquired an ability to go in the opposite direction of the herd, which I have also found is almost always the wisest path to follow. Last week I was taking a long drive with my 26-year old son, and as we drove, we were talking about the subprime crisis and its impact on the economy. It was mostly a conversation about how I thought the economy could handle such a blow and what he thought of what I thought. Then he said something very interesting, "Dad, how could something like this happen?" I responded, "Son, I am ashamed to say that I don't know." I went on to talk about greed and fear and risk and reward, but after a while I grew silent. He said, "Is something bothering you?" I said, "Yes it is, son. I am ashamed of Wall Street." He said, "But dad aren't you a part of Wall Street? For one of the the few times in my life, I found my self saying something that before that moment I don't think I knew. "No, son," I answered, "it has always been my goal -- that our firm could count, so to speak, on Wall Street. But this subprime debacle has left me with a feeling that I have not been able to describe until this moment. I am no part of Wall Street. I am ashamed off Wall Street. I am ashamed of the greed that is epidemic there. I am sick of what I will call Wall Street white lies, where they tell you half the truth, but not the other half. But mostly, I am ashamed of how little regard Wall Street has for the average investor in this country. They truly act like all the money in the world is theirs. I am ashamed of Wall Street and the crazy risks it is now clear they have taken. I am ashamed of the kind of men and women whose exalted sense of their own importance could make them think that slicing and dicing bad loans, at the end of the day, would make them something other than bad loans. Son, that is hubris, that is foolishness, and now we must all pay for their stupidity. Son, you know I believe more in capitalism than almost anyone I know, and to me Wall Street has always stood for free markets and capitalism. But with this subprime mess, it is clear that they are not capitalists at all. They are alchemists. They believe if you rub lead and pig iron together long enough you get gold. No son, I am not Wall Street, thank goodness they never invited me in." If there is any good news in my diatribe, it is that Wall Street types are not what makes the economy of the US great. That is done by corporations large and small who care about their customers and give their shareholders a fair shake. My calling out Wall Street for being something other than what I, and most other people, thought they were does not diminish investors' economic or stock prospects an iota. Indeed, the the egregious greed and foolishness exhibited by Wall Street in recent years can serve us all better by making us realize that all of the noise that they are making about this "can't miss" idea or that one is just noise, or maybe ever better, as sure sign to go the the other direction. I had been planning to write this letter for a week, but didn't know if it was my place, or if this was the right time. I decided to write it after I received an email and a subsequent telephone call from a trusted friend and client, who echoed almost exactly what I had been feeling. I have included his email here it here with his permission. Greg. I'm am rapidly loosing respect for the "geniuses" on Wall Street. Oh hell! I lost it a long time ago. Where have their minds been.? What were they thinking? Don't any of them have an ounce of respect for the economy of the (God help him) average investor? The more I read of this "Subprime mess'" the more it sickens me. Doesn't anybody out there believe that there are consequences to everything we do.? (One of he first lessons I learned in Med School.)Fear and Greed.Fear and Greed! I read of twisted Machiavellian financial dealings and arrangements which I cannot even begin to understand. These men are supposed to be educated and responsible. If they are not all fools they are acting like they are. Even Bernanke does"t seem to be helping. And Washington? Oh boy! If Physicians acted like this we'd all be dead.