You can't fully know Wall Street until you behold it in its purest distillation. This is the gift of Morning Money.
Written by a man who calls himself Morning Money Ben, né Ben White, the newsletter targets a Washington, D.C., and New York audience. It began under the Politico banner as an offshoot of Mike Allen's popular political tip sheet, Playbook, and offered a useful compendium of events, news and assorted nuggets relevant to a Wall Streeter with an interest in the affairs of Washington. It has since gone native, and now specializes in Wall Street proselytizing, often in language that would make even the least self-aware trader blush.
"Ben spends a lot of time on Wall Street," Buzzfeed's Ben Smith said about White on "Morning Joe" recently. "It rubs off a little."
True to Wall Street form, the opinions in Morning Money are offered with rock-ribbed confidence, and any dissenting view is waved away as not just wrong, but as pure stupidity, the product of a feeble mind unable to grasp the complexity of men's work: dark pools or flash trading or credit default swaps.
Morning Money Ben, to be clear, is not the problem. He is merely a symptom of a very disturbed culture, one that finds itself at the top of society's food chain, yet feels constantly under siege; one that holds itself up as the essence of meritocracy, its wealth the only evidence needed of its greatness, yet is almost universally derided. Squaring these nettlesome inconsistencies -- call it comforting the afflicted -- is the daily charge of Morning Money Ben.
The newsletter's stock in trade is a confident blind quote from a random somebody associated with Wall Street. HuffPost turned up one of its own: "The early days of Morning Money were useful, they summed up the day ahead nicely. Now I delete as soon as I get it," said somebody. "It's become a pathetic place where wannabe Washington big shots get their bosses to buy advertising so they can actually get quoted by Politico. I mean who gives a shit what Richard Hunt thinks?"
Don't know who Richard Hunt is? Don't worry about it.
If Hunt is a newsletter hero, the goat of recent days has been Michael Lewis, whose book Flash Boys savages high-frequency trading for effectively engaging in mass front-running, wherein someone make trades based on advance knowledge of someone else's pending transaction. "The market is rigged," Lewis said on "60 Minutes." Morning Money sprang into action, starting with the declaration "Is the stock market rigged? (No)" in one email's subject line, with the characteristic flat-out rejection of an alternative view.
White went on:
REALITY CHECK - Some high-frequency traders may front-run ordinary investors and skim off pennies (or fractions of pennies) per order that taken in aggregate can make them tens of millions of dollars. Such alleged schemes are the subject of ongoing investigations and the focus on new market initiatives (such as the IEX trading platform profiled by Lewis). But to extrapolate from that to the entire equity market being "rigged" is a pretty big stretch. In fact, it just isn't the case.
He quotes a "TWEET OF THE NIGHT" -- @mmoaks14: "Saying 'it's complicated' doesn't sell books," which neatly encapsulates Wall Street reasoning: What we're doing may appear immoral or even illegal, but complexity, so move along, kid.
When the New York Attorney General's Office sent subpoenas to high-frequency trading firms, one could find the news at Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and even Politico's own Playbook. Just about the only place you couldn't find it was Morning Money, which instead managed to make room for two paragraphs of Joe Scarborough's attack on Paul Krugman.
Getting served, to be sure, is no way to start a day.
Wall Street is no fan of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and neither is Morning Money. White sometimes acts as a re-write man when the media is too harsh on the banks, recasting news in a light more pleasing to downtown. A recent item:
NYT's Michael M. Grynbaum and Dalia Sussman in one of the weirdest ledes you will read: "Nearly half of New Yorkers approve of Mayor Bill de Blasio's job performance so far in City Hall, and his high-profile effort to provide free prekindergarten has attracted wide support, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times, NY1 and Siena College."
How one might also write that lede: "Just three months into his mayoralty, less than half of New Yorkers approve of Bill de Blasio's job performance while majorities also fault his focus on economic inequality and efforts on affordable housing."
The very idea that inequality is something to be concerned about arises frequently as a bugaboo. On Tuesday, White returned to one of his favorite Democratic congressmen, Rep. Jim Himes, who represents Hedgefundistan (also known as Fairfield County, Conn.), giving him space in his lead item to bash Democrats for focusing on equality. Himes also appeared in a recent piece, co-written by White, titled "The Rich Strike Back," which blasted -- wait for it -- Bill de Blasio.
In January, White penned a piece titled "How Washington beat Wall Street," in which he claimed the nation's capital "went to war against big Wall Street banks" and "won in a blowout." You see, Americans -- with their 14 percent approval of Wall Street -- just don't get it, he suggests, letting Wall Street play the role of Br'er Rabbit in this tale.
Dennis Kelleher, the CEO of the pro-reform group Better Markets and one of the main sources for that story, was so mystified by White's premise that he wrote a response blasting the "fairy tale" that could only fly in the "warped, distorted, Alice-in-Wonderland world of Wall Street."
When Tim Geithner broke his pledge not to jump to the financial sector, White brushed aside critics of the former Treasury secretary. "Maybe he should have joined the priesthood?" he asked.
When not patting himself on the back ("Apologies for the self-congratulation," he'll write) or defending Wall Street, White's giving space to anonymous Wall Street critters to bash reform efforts, or Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. (The senators, it turns out, just don't understand how complicated things are.)
When Warren took command of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- after White had floated a number of bank stooges as more suitable leaders -- Morning Money reported that Warren asked that her office be painted. It had a weird "this is what happens when you let girls in the tree fort" feel to it, and after HuffPost noted as much, Geithner promised Warren the leaks would stop, and they did, Warren says in her new book.
White lamented on Twitter:
I guess you have to credit Geithner w/ shutting down leaks to me about Warren. But I don't have to like it. http://t.co/6HcJxfOHnZ
— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) April 17, 2014
The remainder of the tip sheet is free promotion for the industry. "THINK YOU KNOW THE FINANCIAL SECTOR? - Take this new qui[z] for the American Action Forum to find out: http://bit.ly/1mV0xAf." You'll ace the "quiz" if you pick the answers most favorable to Wall Street.
Or White goes after high-powered Wall Street opponents. Take the 2011 war over swipe fees, when Wall Street faced off against merchants. In a classic item, White wrote that an unnamed senator referred "high-pressured calls" from said merchants to the Senate Ethics Committee "for further investigation."
As Bloomberg later reported, and as a source close to this scam confirmed to HuffPost, no referral was ever made to the Ethics Committee. The whole thing was made up and planted with Morning Money by bank lobbyists, who had the good sense to know he'd run it. (White stood by it to Bloomberg, for whatever that's worth.)
Morning Money helps Wall Street start its day not in the world in which it actually lives, but on a big rock candy mountain where flash trading is just fine, no subpoenas are on the way, Warren and de Blasio are reviled and uninformed, inequality is no big deal (and maybe even a good thing), Michael Lewis is a hack, and passage through the revolving door from government to Wall Street is nothing more than one's just reward.
When HuffPost reached out to White on Monday, he objected to our thesis. Indeed, at times over the years he has highlighted pro-reform efforts, but you can judge his overall approach for yourself by jumping into the Morning Money archives at random. First and foremost, though, White wants a scoop, and like a good journalist, he scooped this very piece on Twitter, pre-butting Monday afternoon the suggestion he had a pro-bank bias as "insane."
Someone said to me that leading MM today with straight news item on two senators writing GAO about TBTF study was evidence of bias. Insane.
To some people if you don't approach subjects with a particular ideological bent you must therefore be biased. Not so.
And clearly I demonstrate my pro-bank bias with regular lead items on pronouncements from Sherrod Brown, Eliz Warren et al. OK rant over
@IvanTheK well it will soon all be explained in a liberal blog near you! Get excited!
To us, White said: "I stand behind all my reporting and analysis. Morning Money seeks to give voice to all sides of the ongoing debates regarding the size and scope of the nation's largest banks. These voices include reform advocates, members of Congress of all viewpoints, and industry executives and their lobbyists. My only bias is toward bringing fresh news and analysis on these subjects to readers of the column."
Tuesday morning, Morning Money Ben set about proving his lack of bias with an unusual, seven-paragraph celebration of Warren, her new book and even her dog.
ELIZABETH WARREN'S HOPEFUL BOOK - M.M. is deep into Sen. Elizabeth Warren's enjoyable memoir "A Fighting Chance," which chronicles her rise from humble beginnings in Oklahoma, through law school, various teaching jobs, her consumer advocacy and book writing, creation of the CFPB and winning Massachusetts Senate campaign. By now most of the anecdotes -- including her knocking an M.M. item on her Treasury office getting painted -- are fairly well known. She rips pols like former House Financial Services Chair Spencer Bachus for carrying water for big banks and more gently needles members of her own party including Tim Geithner for being less than thrilled with her TARP oversight and aggressive approach to disciplining Wall Street.
But as David Weigel recently noted in Slate, Warren's book is hardly a strident screed filled with page after page of scolding attacks on anyone who ever worked with, talked to or even glanced at a banker (though there is some of that). Instead, the book - which was originally to be titled "Rigged" and officially comes out today - takes a much more hopeful tone about how Warren believes the corrosive influence of money on financial regulation can be beaten. And she is consistently frank about her own limits as a DC political operator and Senate candidate. It's obviously the kind of book that will stoke further speculation on Warren's plans for a possible 2016 presidential campaign that the senator herself says she will absolutely not undertake.
There is also lots of awesome stuff about Warren's beloved golden retriever Otis, a trusted companion through her rise in Washington and on the campaign trail before his passing just before the election. Here's Warren after suffering through brutal debate prep that left her uncertain that she would ever be ready. "In the end, Otis was my best coach. On the day of the first debate, I turned off my phone and shut down my computer. Otis climbed up next to me and put his head in my lap. I studied, and he snored. After a few hours, I was as ready as I'd ever be."
Our work here is done.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story used the improper form of the French "née" in reference to Morning Money Ben's given name of Ben White. Because White is male, the masculine form of the word is appropriate, hence we have eliminated the extra e, after consulting with Arthur Goldhammer, translator of the breakout best seller by French economist Thomas Piketty, "Capital in the 21st Century." Goldhammer noted that the convention is so routinely misused in English, however -- a close male adviser or advisee would properly be a confidant, not a confidante -- that one could arguably decline to correct on the theory of common usage. But out of respect for the French language, we hereby remedy and regret the error.