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Yvette Kantrow

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Goodbye to All That, Wall Street Edition

Posted: 02/17/2012 8:02 pm

But some of the damage is permanent. For too many people, the charade about liking to work on Wall Street is over. Interest in the Street at Harvard Business School, for example, has been declining since 1987. ... "A whole lot of people just know it's the end of an era. Maybe it's cosmic," says a banker at Smith Barney. -- "Down and Out on $350,000 a Year," New York magazine, Feb. 13, 1995

They're an endangered species now, Arthur and his colleagues -- the komodo dragons of Wall Street. The assumptions of a career like his -- become an investment banker, work ridiculously hard (and play hard, too), make a lot of money for others and a respectable pile for yourself -- have been thrown out the window. In their place is nothing. No rules. No guarantees. No security. -- "Down and Out on Wall Street," New York magazine, March 17, 2003

Banks have always had occasional bad years, but the sense on Wall Street is that this bad year is different. Over the past several weeks, I have had wide-ranging conversations with more than two dozen senior Wall Street executives, traders, bankers, hedge-fund managers, and private-equity investors. And what emerged is a picture of an industry afflicted by a crisis it would not be flip to call existential. -- "The End of Wall Street as They Knew It," New York magazine, Feb. 13, 2012

Here we go again. Every few years, when the economic cycle turns, the media serves up stories bemoaning the death-of-Wall-Street-as-we-know-it.

To qualify as a true example of the genre, these carefully crafted, anecdote-heavy pieces must contain tales of laid-off or bonus-deprived bankers or traders struggling to maintain lavish lifestyles and questioning why anyone with a brain would ever choose to work on Wall Street again.

Occasionally, these articles contain an image or factoid that remains lodged in the popular culture long after the cycle has turned, like the angry Goldman, Sachs & Co. banker in New York magazine's 1995 story who sent his briefcase home to Connecticut in a limo at the firm's expense. But at their most basic level, these stories are stuffed mostly with recession-era clichés and dire predictions of how Wall Street will never be the same again. Never. Ever.

The latest example came in New York magazine, which, given its readership's proximity to and economic dependence on Wall Street, seems to have an affinity for this stuff. "The Emasculation of Wall Street" screamed its Feb. 13 cover, which also sported a photograph of a suited man with his hands placed protectively over his private parts. Subtle, it ain't, and taken with Bloomberg Businessweek's recent cover photo of two airplanes copulating, one is left to wonder if these magazines are being art directed by 15-year-old boys. But I digress.

This end-of-Wall-Street story is keenly aware that the same prediction has been made, and proved wrong, before. But it's adamant that this time it's different, thanks to a confluence of factors including, but not limited to, Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule, the rising tide of populism as exemplified by Occupy Wall Street and the vilification of private equity, and a sense that for the first time, Wall Street is partaking in what the mag calls "soul-searching."

It intones: "[T]here has been a growing recognition on Wall Street that the system that had provided those million-dollar bonuses was built on a highly unstable foundation. Disagreeable as it may be, goes this thinking, bankers have to go back to first principles, assess their value in the economy, and take their part in its rebuilding." In other words, they have to kiss big bonuses goodbye forever.

But is it really forever? To be sure, Wall Street has changed dramatically since 2003 -- the last time New York magazine proclaimed the joint dead. Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are gone, and Merrill Lynch & Co. has been devoured by a beleaguered commercial bank. But that only happened after an unprecedented boom during which, contrary to earlier predictions of doom, bonuses, employment and excess on Wall Street soared, even for alleged Komodo dragons.

What such stories miss is the fact that Wall Street is a profoundly cyclical place that has a way of changing just as journalists try to pin it down. A mid-'90s bust in the bond market gives way to a tech boom followed eventually by a real estate bubble. Capitalism and the markets remain intact. And for every burned-out case, there are two eager recruits from business school hungry for the next big thing. Don't declare it dead yet.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of 'The Deal' magazine.

 

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