Window on Wall Street: The declining worth of a good name
Comment of the Day

April 28 2011

Commentary by David Fuller

Window on Wall Street: The declining worth of a good name

I first saw this interesting, albeit depressing article by Stephen Davidoff in the International Herald Tribune. Here is a middle section:
Why does reputation no longer matter? The reason is unfortunate and partly attributable to why we got into the financial crisis: People simply do not matter as much on Wall Street as they used to, and instead size and technology carry the day.

Wall Street today is not the Wall Street of 1907, when J.P. Morgan himself single-handedly used his reputation and wallet to stem a running financial panic.

Back then and until the 1980s, as Bill Wilhelm and Alan Morrison document in their excellent book ``Investment Banking: Institutions, Politics, and Law,'' Wall Street was made up of traditional partnerships. These were small groups of investment bankers who represented companies in offering and selling securities and occasionally acquisitions.

These bankers put their individual reputations on the line, because there were so few of them. Morgan Stanley in 1970, for example, had only 31 partners and fewer than 1,000 employees.

But this began to change in the 1980s.

Trading markets became much more sophisticated, and trading and brokerage became the investment banks' primary business. It turned into a technology game. The better the technology, the better the trading and brokerage operation. Individuals became less important.

The growth of more complex capital markets and a global economy also created much larger financial institutions.

Morgan Stanley now has more than 62,000 employees. These banks could use their assets and position to compete in the market for finance and trading.

Again, individuals were less important as size dominated. A client now trades or does business with a bank based on its positions or ability to make a market or loan. The executive at the bank executing the transaction is unimportant.

These trends have become omnipresent in corporate America generally as it too has exponentially grown. And
when these companies failed or otherwise committed wrong, this allowed reputation to be ignored.

David Fuller's view I accept that technology has somewhat depersonalised the financial industry but it is a step too far to blame technology for human failings. After all, technology only does what programmers tell it to do.

Similarly, I do not agree that the size of financial institutions is a major problem, although I accept that large firms can provide a cloak of anonymity for unscrupulous individuals.

The real problem, in my opinion, concerns ethical standards. While these have never been high within the financial sector, I suspect they have seldom been lower. The consequences of human failings are probably greater today because the financial industry became proportionally larger over the last decade or more.

High ethical standards are not just a moral issue; they make commercial sense.

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