I was on Wall Street for business recently. It's always good to get to where the action is and talk with peers in the financial media industry, even if the environment is a little depressing for investors these days.
But in all honesty, the most depressing thing of all from my trip was a sad 90-second glimpse into what is left of Occupy Wall Street as I was between meetings.
Essentially, it was a few sad scrawls of pictures and phrases outside Trinity Church on tattered posterboard -- passages vaguely biblical but mostly forgettable -- and several people milling about listlessly.
Except for the one young man mumbling profane oversimplifications about the global economic crisis, punctuated by a period when he would yell "WAKE UP!" as loud as he could.
So sad... And not for the reason that many of you may think, considering I am theoretically "the enemy" here.
For the record, I am a strong supporter of the inherent rights of assembly and free speech in general and a strong supporter of bank critics in specific. In fact, there are many of us not just in financial media but who work in capital markets who think that reform is overdue and that some perpetrators of the financial crisis should be in jail by now.
And that's why it's depressing to walk by Trinity Church. Because though the movement is dead, the cause of banking reform and regulation has never been more relevant.
The bailout money allowed "too big to fail" banks to only get bigger, and government relief measures like HAMP were utter failures in helping homeowners with ugly mortgages or underwater properties. These folks still need relief, and in fact there are tens of billions set aside for them if the logistics could ever be worked out to access it.
The Dodd-Frank financial reforms fell short of needed regulation, and what we need is a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall and tougher enforcement -- not because that would ever magically prevent another downturn, but because the separation of retail and investment banking will prevent the depth of a future crisis from being as severe. The palpable fear from the dark days of the financial crisis has waned, and focus on federal spending and unemployment has overshadowed the need for new bank regulations.
Financial institutions also continue to prove their ability to act responsibly. I'm not talking JPMorgan Chase and its "London Whale" here, I'm talking about scandals from the LIBOR rate-fixing mess to HSBC laundering drug money to Standard Chartered not just dealing with the corrupt regime in Iran but thumbing their nose and saying, "You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we're not going to deal with Iranians." There is utter disregard for the rule of law and complete opacity here, and that cannot stand.
I could go on, but hopefully you know what the score is. If not, just Google "banking scandal" and I'm sure there are some kinky new stories to depress and outrage you.
So why is it that Occupy Wall Street is such a sad caricature of itself these days if the need is just as pressing? It's not for a lack of material. And it certainly shouldn't be for a lack of motivation -- there's an election coming up in just a few months.
That's why it's so disappointing.
America needs a populist uprising against the big banks now more than ever. Many think big banks should be broken up, and some of the harshest critics think banks should be wholly nationalized. While I think state-run banking is a bit too far, perhaps throwing around the idea of nationalization would scare the swagger out of fat cats like Jamie Dimon and show them we aren't messing around.
Instead we get a crazy kid wandering outside yelling "WAKE UP!" to nobody in particular. It only makes the fading OWS movement look sillier and more desperate than its critics have portrayed it as.
So think twice about the target of that phrase, Occupy Wall Street protesters. Maybe it's you who need to wake up.
And here's how.
In October, I wrote an article headlined "9 Ways 'Occupy Wall Street' Completely Misses the Point." Those nine elements have throttled off this movement, and turning them on their head would kick start a new chapter in OWS. Those nine items were:
- No leadership
- A mishmash of ideas
- No policy mission
- Hindsight, not insight
- Oversimplified villains
- Oversimplified victims
- Anti-capitalism hyperbole
- Little blame placed on Congress
- Division, not unity
The first part of that list can be resolved through simple organizational logistics. Having a clear leader with a clear vision for the future and realistic policy goals would have at the very least kept this group around and active.
The latter part of the list would have helped keep Occupy Wall Street on top of the current mess and prevent them from being ignored or labeled as a fringe group. Focusing on the nuanced problem of investment banking and credit derivatives as it related to the $4 billion trading loss at JPM, for instance, would have made the group look relevant, financially savvy and on top of things. Talking practically about the importance of banks and business investment to bring the America back into growth mode would help dull criticism that all OWS wants is a socialist command-and-control economy. This is politics 101: play to what's in the news and use it to make your point in a serious and timely way.
Rather than think critically about the issues and think practically about solutions, Occupy Wall Street proved naysayers right by showing it was little more than a pity party. There was a lot of bile vented over the collapse, but nothing constructive accomplished. If anything is to be salvaged from the OWS wreckage, the group (if it can be called that) needs to do a 180 in a hurry.
You may think these are crocodile tears, but I am honestly disappointed the movement collapsed. Because done right in the run-up to the election, Occupy Wall Street could have been a mobilizing force for positive change instead of little more than a sad Wikipedia page that hasn't been updated since March.
Everyone across America would benefit from real and practical banking reform, even some of us on Wall Street. After all, investors have disappeared because they have zero trust. Some stability and transparency would be a welcome thing even for those in the industry.
Wake up, Occupy Wall Street. And do so fast, or else it will be too late - not just for you, but for your chance to truly make an impact on our dumpster fire of a financial industry.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of "The Frugal Investor's Guide to Finding Great Stocks." Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.