March 1 (Bloomberg) — It isn’t every day that a reporter gets to sit in on a high-stakes policy meeting in New York’s financial district, but that’s exactly what I did on a balmy evening in late February at 60 Wall Street, the U.S. headquarters of Deutsche Bank AG.
No, the bank didn’t lose its institutional marbles and give me clearance to scribble notes while its cognoscenti mapped out corporate strategy. The confab I dropped in on was taking place under potted palm trees in the bank’s ground-floor public atrium, and the participants were 13 members of Occupy the SEC, a spinoff group of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I can’t help but conclude that their plans for petitions, marches, op-eds and sit-down meetings with banking regulators will be inflicting Wall Street with a long, nasty attack of agita.
Occupy Wall Street and its working groups, including Occupy the SEC, were supposed to be dead, in case you missed the obituaries. Now the protesters are messing with detractors’ heads with the emergence of a media-savvy collection of legal, banking and activist members who come off as sane and authoritative. This is not the way the Occupy bashers’ “welfare-bum hippies” propaganda script was supposed to play out.
On Feb. 13, seven writers who described themselves as “concerned citizens, activists and financial professionals” filed a 325-page comment letter to financial regulators, outlining their concerns about loopholes in the “Let’s Try to Avoid the Next Financial Crisis” proposal known as the Volcker rule.
It was among the longest and most detailed of 16,000 letters sent to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency during the public-comment period.
We may call it a “public” comment period, but in the real world it is deep-pocketed business interests, not Mom and Pop, who usually have the juice to persuade officials to amend financial regulations. It’s no surprise that Wall Street has been working furiously to dilute the rule’s restrictions on how banks trade and what investments they can own, and the industry has a heap of comment letters on the Volcker rule to show for it.
This time, though, there is a noisy voice plugging for the little guy, and it carries weight that these rabble-rousers understand the banking industry from the inside.
Or, as Occupy the SEC member Alexis Goldstein — who has worked at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank — explained the group’s line-by-line analysis of the Volcker Rule to me: “We’d say ‘OK, I’m a bank, so how am I gonna get around this rule?’”
Even veteran activists who advocate regularly for the public were wowed. “They understood the nonsense in the proposed rule,” said Bartlett Naylor, financial policy counsel at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Public Citizen, which also wrote a Volcker comment letter, was “humbled” by the Occupy effort, Naylor said.
Along with Goldstein, 31, who quit her job as a business analyst in Deutsche Bank’s technology department in 2010, the founding members of Occupy the SEC include Akshat Tewary, a former Kaye Scholer LLP lawyer who today specializes in immigration law; Caitlin Kline, a former credit derivatives trader; and a mysterious guy who calls himself “George Bailey” and claims to have spent 30 years working at compliance and accounting jobs at financial firms.
Bailey was a no-show at the Feb. 21 meeting I attended, but the other six authors of the letter were seated around three silver cafe tables strewn with half-eaten deli dinners and a jumbo bag of Reese’s Pieces. Seven other Occupy the SEC participants were there, too, including a New York University professor, Michael Ralph, who had come to the meeting because he had been impressed by Goldstein’s performance in a recent interview on MSNBC.
The group, which Goldstein calls “the finance dorks of Occupy Wall Street,” divvied up the tasks related to a regulatory comment letter they will be sending to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, then made their way down a typed agenda list to this item: “March on Sifma.”
“What is Sifma?” a new member asked, referring to the abbreviation for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a financial-industry trade group. Tewary, who was running the meeting, put it in language that a newcomer could understand: “If we are the rebels,” said Tewary, “they are Darth Vader.”
Sifma has predicted something close to financial Armageddon — I guess they mean the sequel — if the Volcker rule, as written, becomes law. And the trade group seems to be going out of its way to ignore the protesters, which says a lot about how official Wall Street feels about the Occupy movement: When the action in New York’s Zuccotti Park was headline news in November, Sifma held its annual conference in midtown Manhattan and devoted not a single item on its program to the public outcry against its members. Asked last week if Sifma would like to comment on Occupy the SEC or its letter about the Volcker rule, spokeswoman Katrina Cavalli declined.
That stance doesn’t surprise public-relations pros who say that engaging with anyone in the Occupy movement would recognize it as legitimate, which is the last thing Wall Street wants. “Financial institutions, as well as other big businesses, have been quite successful in recent years in solving their regulatory problems without engaging in an open dialogue with the public,” says Alexander V. Laskin, an assistant professor of public relations at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “Instead of public relations, they rely on private relations,” such as lobbying, he says.
Keeping the public out of the dialogue may get harder for Wall Street as Occupy the SEC steps up its game. At their recent meeting, members volunteered to set up in-person meetings with financial regulators (they have already had a one-hour conference call with 11 SEC officials); launch a Facebook page; post a petition on change.org to support their Volcker letter; and figure out the logistics of a protest march in Washington. The June 6 anniversary of the SEC’s founding is a possible date for the march.
They have left voicemail messages with luminaries including Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman after whom the rule is named, and Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary “Inside Job,” hoping to get them acquainted with Occupy the SEC’s work. The members exploit every opportunity to schmooze: One wound up chatting with Eliot Spitzer (yes, that Eliot Spitzer) recently after noticing the former New York governor biding his time waiting to be called in a Manhattan jury pool. On March 20, the group has appointments to meet with SEC and FDIC officials.
Once Occupy the SEC’s Volcker rule lobbying is done in May, members will pick a topic for what they call “the next big step.”
The group has brains, energy and flattering media coverage. But of all the things Occupy the SEC has going for it, its biggest edge may come from something that isn’t of its own doing: the financial industry’s cluelessness about the level of public disgust with its flouting of rules and kingly pay. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., told Fox News on Jan. 24 that the bashing of all bankers as bad guys is “a form of discrimination that should be stopped.” New York magazine interviewed a Wall Street executive in its Jan. 16 issue who bellyached that Main Street doesn’t understand Wall Street’s problems: “Even getting cut from $1 million to $500,000, they still think you’re earning too much,” the banker said.
And then there is T. Timothy Ryan, Jr., CEO of Sifma, who in an interview with Bloomberg Radio on Feb. 15 was asked this question: Might the economy be better off if trading and commercial banking were separated, “given what banks did to the country during the bubble?” Ryan’s answer came dripping with condescension: “Your comments are, I would say, relatively over-the-top as to what happened here,” he told Bloomberg’s Michael McKee. Proprietary trading didn’t cause the 2008 crisis, Ryan said. “Actually, most of the problems were created by consumer loans, which were retail residential mortgages.”
If only we could do something about those out-of-control residential borrowers who are imperiling the world economy.
Wall Street could get lucky. A prolonged bull market is always a trigger for faded memories and public complacency. The best thing that could happen for the bankers who today are under attack would be a revival of ailing investment portfolios strong enough to inspire the public to start ringing their real-estate brokers again.
Short of that, people like Ryan and Dimon should pay attention to this: “We want to get the message out that anyone can do what we did,” says Goldstein, who wants ordinary Americans to be comfortable playing a part in rule-making. The more success Goldstein and her pals have in getting the word out on this democracy thing, the more Wall Street ought to worry about the finance dorks who munch on peanut-butter cups in the 60 Wall Street atrium.
(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)