Back from the Brink

The problem with Wall Street greed 5 years after the crash

Heesun Wee
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 Oliver Stone film, "Wall Street."
Source: Twentieth Century Fox

Amid the pious thinking about lessons learned after the great financial crisis five years ago, it's worth returning to the fork in the road, when Wall Street's fortunes began to separate from Main Street's prospects.

Beginning in the 1980s, investment banks got into the business of trading for their own accounts. "The ethical problems came when proprietary trading began to overshadow customer services," Michael Santoro, professor of business ethics at Rutgers University, wrote in his book, "Wall Street Values."

Greedy Wall Street behavior—as captured by Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street"—benefited the rest of us, to a certain extent. "When you're serving clients, greed can work," Santoro said. "If your profit is based on the prosperity of the client, what's good for your client is good for society."

But in the new financial world order, Wall Street greed is about just that—Wall Street's interests. "The problem on Wall Street today is greed is no longer working for everyone else because the interest of Wall Street is separated from the interest of the rest of society," Santoro said.

Some ethics experts and Wall Street watchers argue that the seeds of another catastrophic meltdown or massive taxpayer-funded bailout don't lie in bank capital requirements or regulations. It's about ethics. Values.

"At great cost, we learned that greed, unless tempered by good values, does not 'work' from a social perspective," according to Santoro.

(Read more: Timeline of the financial crisis, back from the brink)

September 15, 2008, the day the 150-year-old Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.
Keith Lew | Flickr Vision | Getty Images

Where are the 'perp' walks?

Plus, it's hard to believe Wall Street has reformed, when five years after Lehman's bankruptcy filing on Sept. 15, 2008, we still have no major "perp walk." Not a single senior executive from any Wall Street bank has faced from the crisis. The absence of such prosecution has fueled feelings of unfairness.

Just asked Sherron Watkins.

She's the former Enron whistleblower who warned that the energy trader might implode in an accounting scandal. She's now a public speaker. "As I speak across the globe and reveal the two dozen felons from Enron with 12 doing prison time, the number one question is, 'Why no indictments, prosecution of the Wall Street scandals?' " Watkins said. "There is a palatable sense of injustice."

Most Americans, meanwhile, are struggling. And it's this Main Street-Wall Street disconnect that's fueled disillusionment among pockets of Americans. There's diminished hope that the next generation will have it better, said Harvey Rosenblum, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Separate research from the Fraser Institute shows U.S. economic freedom plummeting.

Talk of ethics and economic freedom sounds like academic fluff. But as any economist will tell you, individual perceptions about the economy, perceived opportunity and whether you can get a fair shake do influence consumer consumption and economic output.

Many eyes, meanwhile, are on the Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission. "Wall Street is a high crime area and has been on a crime spree for years," said Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, a nonprofit devoted to promoting public interest in the financial markets. "That has been enabled by the double standard of justice where Wall Street's too-big-to-fail banks and executives have been too-big-to-jail or even prosecute," Kelleher said in a statement.

(Read more: Dislike of Wall Street hasn't faded with crisis)

What the crisis and aftermath is costing Americans

While bank profits have recovered nicely since the crisis, most Americans are wading through a feeble recovery. In recent analysis on the costs and consequences of the 2007-09 financial meltdown, the Dallas Fed estimates an American household would have earned $50,000 to $120,000 if it weren't for the crisis, followed by the Great Recession—the worst U.S. decline since the 1930s.

(Read more: Crisis cost up to $14 trillion, Dallas Fed says)

The crisis has also dented Americans' hope in the future. For the first time since the Conference Board began surveying consumers in 1967, more respondents expect income to drop, the Dallas Fed's Rosenblum notes.

Wall Street, meanwhile, has gotten rich. Prior to the 1990s, financial firms profits averaged about 1.2 percent of GDP, notes author Roger Lowenstein in his book "The End of Wall Street." By 2005, those profits tripled to 3.3 percent.

But wealth figures and data only tell part of the story. Our belief in the U.S. capitalist, economic machine has declined. America's ranking on an economic freedom index plunged to 18th place after having ranked third for decades, according to a 2012 report from the Fraser Institute and other co-publishers. The index measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries foster economic freedom. America now has a lower economic freedom rating than it did during the 1970s.

(Read more: 5 years after Lehman collapse, is your bank safe?)

$5 Billion Fine A 'Drop in the Bucket': Expert
$5 Billion Fine A 'Drop in the Bucket': Expert

Where are the prosecutions?

The decline in economic freedom comes as the government has failed to hold key risk takers accountable, some experts say. "The government has been inept in understanding the underlying facts, and bringing in effective cases and prosecutions," said Santoro.

For example, the Abacus deal and Fabrice Tourre—the former Goldman Sachs trader, found liable of misleading investors—weren't particularly unique. "Not only was it not unusual for Goldman Sachs, but it was not unusual for the financial industry at the time," Santoro said.

William Black, an expert in white collar crime, antitrust and economics, has also called attention to the government's inability to convict wrongdoers related to the housing bubble.

Black, associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has noted the government's failure to act, when the FBI had been warned of an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud in 2004—four years before the Lehman's implosion and the ensuing meltdown. He has testified before the House and Senate on the failure to prosecute. "I could reprise the same testimony and just change the date" to today, he said.

U.S. prosecutors earlier last month filed criminal charges against two ex-JPMorgan traders for allegedly falsifying records to cover up trading losses. (Another former JPMorgan trader known as the "London Whale" was not prosecuted, as he made a non-prosecution deal with the DOJ, sources told CNBC's Kate Kelly.)

The SEC's website does cite161 entities and individuals, charged for misconduct that arose from the crisis. But as Kelleher of the nonprofit Better Markets noted, "While the Feds are making a big splash by arresting the 'London Whale' minnows, there will be no justice until the whales in the executive office are charged." Kelleher previously worked at the international law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and attended Harvard Law School.

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The moral hazard

When the dust settles on the financial crisis and its perfect storm of causes—regulatory failures, excessive compensation, risky behavior and bad judgment—it may boil down to a crisis in ethics.

And if individual consumers ultimately can't trust institutions and the economic system, the potential ripple effects are eerie. Said Steven Currall, an ethics expert and dean at the University of California Davis Graduate School of Management, "This must exert a chilling effect on people's willingness to invest in equities." And beyond. Ironically, some consumers are returning to adjustable rate mortgages as rates rise.

Ultimately it may not be enough to have a rule of law. "We also need a culture and ethics of fair dealing and honesty," said Santoro of Rutgers. "When that breaks down, it's not good for the financial markets and it's not good for the economy," he said. "The link has been broken between Wall Street profits and prosperity on Main Street."

By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee