Wall Street & Trading

I just finished Karen Ho’s “Liquidated:  An Ethnography of Wall Street”.  It tied together various experiences I had daytrading from 1998-2002 and 2006-2007 and the recruitment sessions that big banks and consulting companies would have for Georgetown Master’s students.

Some things the book helped to confirm:

1) Time differentials.  Wall Street works very often 100-120 hours a week.  This doubles the minimum hours worked by corporate America.  So that affects time scales; Wall Street is constantly trying to create profit through liquidity and exchange and deals.  Corporate America works on a much slower timeline, to create products or services.  It is a more human scale.  Wall Street works not for salary but for bonuses, which are created through quantity and size of deals.  It doesn’t get compensated for long-term corporate success.

2) A large number of students from Ivy League Plus schools chase the money into finance.  They get paid a fortune if they can cut it.  But the net loss is to society — these brilliant minds do not seem to be employing their money back into philanthropic pursuits, ambitious programs, or bettering the world.  The money is put into unsustainable, wasteful lifestyles which the east coast thrives off of. (read the Washington Post’s article about Rhodes Scholars herding into finance)

3) CEOs and executives care about “shareholder value” and the stock price, but these things are no longer linked to the internal health or long-term success of a firm.  It is corporate raiding.

4) Wall Street is transferring wealth away from those who create it, by facilitating “deals” which leak commissions to the banks.  How many deals have you seen executed by public companies lately which actually make any sense?  Remember AOL and Time Warner?  That was the pinnacle.

5) Wall Street wasn’t destroyed in 2007 — it did what it always does; quickly it reinvented itself, laid people off, and adapted.  No other sector is able to reconstitute itself so quickly. It does this by pursuing talent at any cost.  It recruits the best, unattached minds in the nation from the top universities, and promotes a cult of personality of “smartness” — you will be among the best people if you go to work on Wall Street.  I saw the degree to which Wall Street pursues talent; one of my classmates at Georgetown had a standing job offer even throughout the 2007-2008 financial crisis!

6) Downsizing is good to Wall Street. If a company lays off workers, this means the company is reducing its overhead.  Wall Street does not care about Main Street.  It pulls from the elite, and the job does not care about how Main Street is doing or whether workers are suffering.  Wall Street enjoys higher unemployment as long as productivity increases and costs are reduced — and as Professor Ho points out, this job insecurity mirrors what Wall Street is constantly under the threat of.

7) Even within Wall Street, there is segregation. Cost center people, like support staff, take different elevators within buildings than the people who make the profits for the banks.

8) Investing in the stock market is a sucker’s game.  Owning stock in a company is not worthwhile, because common stock is so diluted that it doesn’t constitute any sort of ownership in the firm (and Professor Ho points out it never did).  The stock market is its own entity and should be treated as a quick trading vehicle:  volatility and liquidity are the only things that matter.

9) Neo-liberal economic theory permeates Wall Street, but it is unsustainable for most people.  While Wall Street is made up of the best and brightest who easily transition from job to job, Main Street would not be able to withstand this “creative destruction”.

This is a sobering book, but also a fascinating move for anthropology:  I think most people associate anthropology with studying small, backwards, tribal groups.  But this studies incredibly modern, adaptive Wall Street tribes.

As a citizen I’m deeply concerned about how easily the finance sector controls what happens in this country, and even President Obama has succumbed to a lot of the banks’ demands.  What’s worst is that finance is intellectual magic to create new ideas and derivatives and “products” while the actual economic base of development in the US has taken a back seat.  How long can that last, with our greatest minds essentially creating nothing but instability, instead of new technologies, theories, and breakthroughs?

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Filed under Books, Economics, Education, Stock Market

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