It takes discipline to say, “let’s take care of the customer, and think of the long term” when you’re talking about normal amounts of money. When the amounts of money become as staggering as they were in the mid-2000s, the game – at best – becomes “how can we convince ourselves that we’re taking care of the customer.” Because what if the only way to take care of the customer is to get out of the game? Which was certainly the case with sub-prime-mortgage-backed-CDOs by the mid-2000s. How do you turn off the machine that is responsible for the lion’s share of your firm’s profits? And if you don’t, then what exactly do you mean when you say you’re taking care of your customers?
The financial crisis should have led to a dramatic, wrenching shrinkage in the size of Wall Street. The businesses that were at the center of the crisis – mostly derivatives and structured products businesses – should have shrunk to tiny fractions of their former size, both in response to greater regulation and in response to customer’s shunning the products. But finance as it had come to be practiced had become not only too big to fail, but possibly too big to shrink, in any meaningful way, and our political response was not merely to fend off collapse – that was necessary – but to nurse the industry back to something resembling its former health – which not only wasn’t necessary, but was actively dangerous to our political and economic future.
If you talk to people on Wall Street now, they talk about the job market still being tough, particularly for new entrants, but they have no idea what tough would really mean. The industry is still enormously too big, enormously too profitable. We can’t fix the culture of a firm like Goldman so long as it’s still doing the same kind of business. Long term, the only way to fix Wall Street is to finally break it.