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Protesters Are Occupying Wall Street, But Not Yet Changing It

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Earlier this month, at the ocean-side Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, the people who nearly blew up the global financial system got together for a party.

The event was called ABS East, with ABS standing for asset-backed securities, the investments built of mortgages, car loans and credit card debts that formed the building blocks for the disastrous, speculative bets that delivered the financial crisis of 2008. As the event's website made clear, the agenda in Miami Beach was all about resurrecting this lucrative trade: "Reshaping the Structured Products Industry Together."

The list of sponsors amounted to a rogue's gallery of the institutions that trashed the economy and looted taxpayer coffers while enriching themselves: Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Standard & Poor's. At well-lubricated evening parties, lawyers and due diligence firms schmoozed traders and investors, jockeying for a piece of the spoils.

The distance between this scene in Miami Beach and the protests that have emerged in dozens of cities as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement must be measured in light years. According to one person who attended ABS East, the chief executive officer of a mid-size East Coast business lender, the subject of the protests hardly came up at the trade show, a reflection of the fact that Wall Street rarely loses sight of its mission -- making gobs of money -- regardless of whatever else might be happening on the planet.

Over the last couple of years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has sued major banks, arguing that they essentially cheated their customers. Investors have sued lenders, asserting that banks sold them toxic securities dressed up as solid assets. Now, people wielding signs are saying unflattering things about bankers. If anyone was feeling bad about this in Miami Beach, they kept it to themselves or drowned their demons in Wall Street-furnished liquor.

"If they didn't respond to complaints from customers saying they got ripped off and lawsuits from investors, you think they give a damn about some beatniks peeing in a park?" asked the chief executive, who spoke on condition he not be named for fear of damaging his business or attracting peeing protesters to his own lawn. "There's no connection between the 1,000 people I hung with in South Beach for three days and the external world. Other than the occasional sentiment that the Occupy Wall Street guys are a pain in the ass, no one was thinking about them. I actually found it kind of shocking."

Occupy Wall Street has clearly secured itself and its list of grievances a spot in the national conversation. But can it alter the ways of high finance in the nation's financial center? Can it evolve from a nuisance and curiosity into a meaningful impetus for reform? On that score, signs are not in evidence -- at least not according to the people supposedly in need of said reform.

At major Wall Street banks, questions about whether protests are having an impact on daily activities bring polite return phone calls from corporate spokespeople, who deem the subject off-limits for on-record conversations. Those who earn their living on Wall Street and are willing to talk generally say nothing has changed, while deriding the protesters as misguided and ineffectual.

"All they've done at this point is rerouted some people's commutes," said John Tabacco, chief executive of LocateStock.com, an electronic trading platform used by short-sellers, whose office sits within two blocks of the protesters in Zuccotti Park. "They have not done anything that has fostered change."

An executive at a major Wall Street investment bank, who spoke on condition he not be named, said the demonstrations have prompted no communications strategy talks inside his institution, let alone a reexamination of business practices.

As he portrayed it, the protesters are running behind events, not leading them: Federal regulators are already dickering over new rules for Wall Street. The real action is in Washington, he said, taking heart in the apparent reality that, in the realm of public opinion, "Congress is held in much lower esteem than banks."

Still, this executive said the demonstrations are being watched carefully in his shop, viewed as a manifestation of genuine sentiment. "People feel really pretty desperate, and that's entirely understandable," he said. "They think big business and politicians have rigged a system unfairly against them."

Tabacco, the chief executive of LocateStock, pronounces himself broadly sympathetic to the demonstrators in their critique of the bailouts lavished on major Wall Street banks during the worst of the financial crisis three years ago.

He vents disgust at the Obama administration, which he said has perpetuated the problem of many lenders remaining so big that their failure would constitute risk for the broader financial system, creating an imperative for their rescue -- an imperative that lenders use as a government insurance policy, enabling them to maintain business as usual. But he also vents disgust at the protesters who, he said, have picked the wrong venue.

"They're protesting against the wrong people," Tabacco said. "They are standing in the middle of lower Manhattan and busting the chops of working people, and not doing anything good. What they should do is protest the government continuing to allow Too Big To Fail and engaging in corporate welfare. Why are you protesting the banks, who are basically the recipients of corporate welfare? Why aren't they protesting the administration that allows those policies to continue? The longer they stand in the park and aim the wrong message at the wrong enemy, the longer people here think it will just dwindle."

In Miami Beach, the festivities unfolded amid dire worries that the securitization business has itself dwindled, taken down by the fact that would-be buyers for asset-backed securities no longer have faith in the product. And why should they? Wall Street is like a restaurant whose kitchen has been directly implicated in a record-breaking food poisoning outbreak; one in which the health authorities themselves proved either missing in action or paid off to look the other way. Those days of people lining up in the foyer for tables are over.

At the Fontainebleau, worries centered on how investment bankers vastly outnumbered investors -- all product, and no customer -- a dynamic of greater immediate import than protesters.

"If people don't trust Wall Street," said the chief executive of the business lender, "then nobody plays."