By historical standards, this is not Wall Street’s worst bout of infamy, though it might come pretty close. Last week, President Obama branded Wall Street bankers “shameful” for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses, even though the average bonus, $112,000, was down by 36.7 percent from the prior year.
That criticism isn’t quite the buggy whippings that Franklin Delano Roosevelt routinely gave “unscrupulous money changers.” And the recent rallies in front of the New York Stock Exchange — with chants of “You bought it, you broke it” — are downright peaceful compared to the 1920 bombing of J.P. Morgan’s offices, which killed more than 30 people.
Still, if your business card bears the name of an investment bank — or did before you were laid off — odds are good you’ve endured some very awkward moments of late. Stephen Chen, a former vice president in equity research at Bear Stearns, heard a lot of sarcastic comments when he went home to the Bronx for Christmas, where his family of 36 gather each year. When the story of another bank closing was broadcast on a TV, a cousin muttered, “Good riddance.”
“A lot of my family are small-businessmen who own restaurants and Laundromats,” Mr. Chen said. “They just see Wall Street as overpaid and they don’t have a very clear idea of what it does. I try to explain that there’s this intimate connection between Main Street and Wall Street, that banks were created to provide liquidity for small businesses, so they can expand.” His relatives listen, but seem unconvinced, Mr. Chen said. “It’s kind of tiring having the same conversation over and over again.”
The irony is that despite public perceptions, the outcry over Wall Street greed is happening just as the firms are getting stingy. At JPMorgan, Ms. Chau said, management clamped down on office supplies to the point where employees now need to ask a secretary for the key to the supply room for pens.
At the San Francisco branch of Goldman Sachs, the days of free soy milk and Diet Cokes are over, and one day, the water cooler was wheeled right out of the office. “Word went around pretty quickly,” says Mr. Pleitez. “Bring your own water.”
And for all the talk about taxpayer-financed bonuses, a lot of junior and midlevel executives have been told that they shouldn’t expect anything but their salaries this year. In a business where your bonus is often five times your base pay, that’s devastating news. And we’re talking about a line of work in which virtually all satisfaction is paycheck-dependent.
“Fact is that this is a terrible way to make a living — except for the money,” Ken Miller, a former vice chairman at Credit Suisse First Boston and now a private investor, said. “The lifestyle is terrible — the hours, the sucking up. These guys must feel like they’re the victims of a capricious god.”
That’s especially galling to the many in investment banks who had nothing to do with the mortgage end of their company’s business. Maria Anguiano, who works in Barclays’ municipal finance department, has yet to hear if she is getting a bonus this year, but she thinks she deserves one, given the millions her department earned.
“If you just take your base home, the question becomes, why not just work at a nonprofit from 8 to 4 instead of a bank where you’re expected to work weekends and every night till 10 or 11?” she said.
Ms. Anguiano isn’t the only one asking that question. As money and prestige drain out of Wall Street, and as layoffs mount, other careers are starting to seem more appealing. Mr. Chen has helped start a retail company, GreenSoul Shoes, that sells sandals made by Cambodian villagers out of discarded rubber tires. He calls it a for-profit business with a social mission. Ms. Chau, a friend, is going to be joining him soon.
To some longtimers in the industry, this reordering of priorities is overdue. Robert J. Birnbaum, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange, sees an upside to Wall Street’s diminished reputation.
“It’s taken a hit, but so what?” he said. “We don’t need all the bright people going to Wall Street, chasing money. There’s a lot of things bright people can do. Like find a cure for cancer.”