A trip in the Wayback Machine

I needed to find a financial services-related speech for a potential new client.  Problem is, although I’ve written a ton about financial services, most of it hasn’t been in speech form.  So I had to step into the Wayback Machine and I emerged in the year 1991.

Now, 20 years ago I was…well, 20 years younger, and 20 years less experienced as a speechwriter.  So I wasn’t exactly sure how well the writing would hold up.  But from the very first paragraph, it made me smile:

Many more books have been written about the financial industry in the last five years than are worth any serious person’s attention. While some of them may give you a sense of the industry, most are little better than supermarket tabloids. The most widely read book around [our firm] is Liar’s Poker. The plot is relatively simple: The boys from Animal House trade their togas for suits and go to work on Wall Street. It’s a sometimes funny book, with amusing caricatures. But The New York Times has it on the wrong best-seller list: the book is more fiction than fact.

That voice you hear, that’s unmistakably my client’s voice.  Gruff, opinionated, no patience for fools.  And of course he had been one of those “amusing caricatures” in Liar’s Poker.  We knew everyone in the room had read the book, so we dealt with the issue first thing.

Then, a few paragraphs later, some words that would work just as well in a speech dated 2011:

Many people entered the securities industry in the last decade expecting to be made millionaires before their skin cleared up. One commentator noted a few years ago that “one of the best ways to make money is to be standing around when large sums of cash are changing hands.” But most of the people whose skills consisted of merely “standing around” are now standing around in minimum-security prisons. The people who thrive at [our firm] – and elsewhere in the industry – are innovators, people who seek to participate meaningfully in the international flow of capital and investment.

Yes, I know it’s fashionable these days to trash the financial services industry.  And yes, there have been excesses – no doubt.  But without some intermediary to funnel capital from those who have it to those who need it, the business world couldn’t exist.

Anyway, I enjoyed the speech.  I hope my potential client does, too.

“Bank of Evil”?

The New York Times tells us that Wall Street is hiring again.  But don’t break out the party hats and $2,000 bottles of Champagne just yet.  Wall Street has a reputation problem: Most firms will ignore it, but the smart firms will acknowledge and address it.

Yes I know, I know – Wall Street has a reputation problem every five or six years.  This is probably the third such cycle I’ve lived through since I started working in financial services in the late ’80s.  Back then, the punchline was a survey on trustworthiness.  The good news, Wall Streeters were not the least trusted group in the nation; the bad news, they placed lower than the KKK.

How far has anti-Wall Street sentiment penetrated the public discourse in the current cycle?  I had occasion to sit through the animated feature Despicable Me this weekend (save yourselves – don’t do it) during which the evil genius, seeking to finance his dastardly plan, visits the bank to secure a loan.  Not surprisingly, the sign over the door read:

“Bank of Evil”

More surprising was the all-too-legible subhead:

“Formerly Known As Lehman Brothers”

Does it really matter what the movie-going public thinks?  Unlike consumer products companies, Wall Street firms believe they don’t need to curry favor widely.  After all, their business model doesn’t depend on millions of people buying a few dollars’ worth of products; it depends on a few people (investment managers) buying millions of dollars’ worth of products.

But there’s another constituency eyeing Wall Street: the government.  Elected officials – and the regulatory agencies they control – are extremely sensitive to popular sentiment.  As the country gears up for the political fisticuffs of a midterm election, you can expect to see financial services executives on the hot seat.

The best way to handle this onslaught of negative publicity?  Don’t fight it, roll with it.  If there was wrongdoing – or perceived wrongdoing – admit it.  That’s what I advised Bankers Trust CEO Charlie Sanford to do when some of his derivatives traders were in the spotlight, and The New York Times approved.  Then find something positive your firm does and talk it up.

Making money isn’t intrinsically evil. Without financial services firms, the world’s economy would grind to a screeching halt.  Someone needs to tell this story, honestly and compellingly.