May 4, 2009
When I took an editing job at Bloomberg News in March 2000, my arrival coincided with the bursting of the Internet bubble. As once-hot IPOs tanked and the Nasdaq crashed. I would joke to other editors that what the U.S. economy needed was "to build a better bubble."
Then, to my amazement that was pretty much what happened, except that the bubble moved from the peripheral world of dot.com startups to a cornerstone of the economy, the real-estate sector. Low interest rates, exotic financial instruments and speculation pumped up the economy again, with Wall Street operatives enriching themselves as never before.
Now, as the housing bubble has burst and taken with it trillions of dollars in wealth, President Barack Obama may be right that the future U.S. economy cannot be built on another bubble, that America must get back to manufacturing products that people need.
However, that goal is endangered not only by Republicans, who seem determined to sink whatever Obama proposes, but by the fact that speculative bubbles are what make possible the obscene levels of compensation--and Wall Street is not about to give up on the golden payday.
Without bubbles, Wall Street bankers and their many cohorts could make solid salaries--as they have historically--but not bonuses in the millions of dollars a year. So, there is a powerful incentive for Wall Street to push for a continuation of the bubble economy. Perhaps the new slogan could be, "One more bubble!"
The corrupting influence of the bubble economy also is not confined to Wall Street. While it's true that Wall Street bigwigs have sipped at this giant champagne glass of riches the most, some wealth has trickled down--not to the average Americans, of course, but to other insiders from the worlds of politics and media.
In that way, former President Bill Clinton could leave office in 2001--having overseen the expansion of "free trade" agreements and banking deregulation--and then make millions of dollars from speaking to corporate and leadership groups, plus millions more for serving as a front man for billionaire investor Ronald Burkle and other super-rich financiers.
Wall Street analysts for CNBC and other news outlets also can duck in and out of the banking and hedge fund worlds, a la Jim Cramer, sometimes leveraging their on-air advice to the benefit of their investments or their clients. CNBC often behaves more like a booster of Wall Street interests (and a defender of lucrative compensation) than a public watchdog.
This insider world of the big bonuses, fat salaries and hot stock tips has other corrosive effects, as financial regulators and political advisers are tempted by the princely sums that might become available to them if they play their cards the right way.
Much like Pentagon bureaucrats who sign off on unnecessary weapons systems waiting for retirement day and a seat on the corporate board of a grateful military contractor, government overseers of the financial industry have similar--and arguably greater--temptations.
In recent weeks, for instance, the public has learned that key figures in devising Obama's strategy for combating the financial crisis have been offered--or have received--enticements from this grand world of big money.
Chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers, who as Clinton's Treasury Secretary helped implement key deregulation of the banks, made $5.2 million in 2008 for a one-day-a-week job at the D.E. Shaw hedge fund, while also pulling in $2.7 million in speaking fees from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street titans.
Even more shocking to some observers, Summers strayed from his fulltime job as president of Harvard University to do moonlighting from 2004 to 2006 as a consultant for another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisers.
The case of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is a bit different, since he has spent his career in government-related agencies as a "public servant," including Clinton's Treasury Department, the International Monetary Fund, and the New York Federal Reserve.