Wall St's image needs years to rebound

NEW YORK Thu Nov 19, 2009 5:33pm EST

Joe Perella, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Perella Weinberg Partners, speaks at the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York, November 16, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Joe Perella, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Perella Weinberg Partners, speaks at the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York, November 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street's image, battered by the financial crisis, may take years to recover as its executives themselves are the first to acknowledge.

Executives from a range of financial companies -- both on and off Wall Street -- told the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York that the recent economic crisis has shaken outsiders' faith in the industry.

It has also damaged high-profile executives' reputations and spoiled what little goodwill others had for the industry, they said.

Repairing the damage will take time, executives said, and may be impossible in some cases.

"We had a saying that it takes years to build a reputation and you can lose it overnight," said Joe Perella, CEO of Perella Weinberg Partners and a long-time Street veteran. "And it's hard to repair it overnight after what's happened."

FAILURES

Critics -- from Main Street to the halls of Congress -- said the industry is out of touch and ignored significant risks in the pursuit of profit, placing the global economy at risk.

The broader financial sector's failures, critics said, are widespread.

Mortgage companies implemented too-loose lending standards, bolstered by Wall Street's demand for mortgage-backed securities to bundle and sell across the globe.

Even ratings agencies often failed to identify the risks being created by a handful of industry professionals.

The crisis created the largest bank failure in U.S. history and six of the ten largest bank failures since 1934, as well as the largest recession since the Great Depression.

Merrill Lynch & Co did an eleventh hour deal with Bank of America (BAC.N) at the depth of the crisis, in part to avoid a possible collapse.

CRITICISM DESERVED

Industry executives said the ongoing furor is at least somewhat justified.

"The criticism is definitely deserved," said Lee Fensterstock, CEO of Broadpoint Gleacher Securities Group Inc BPSG.O, a New York-based boutique investment bank. "I don't know what these guys were thinking about."

Others remain unbowed.

John Thain, who became Merrill Lynch CEO in December 2007, said he had few regrets about his leadership of the firm in the crisis and could have turned his company around, given enough time.

"The real question if I had known in advance how much asset prices were going to decline over the course of that year, the real answer is I probably wouldn't have taken the job, because it wouldn't have allowed me the time to fix the problem assets on the balance sheet," he said.

TAKING ADVANTAGE

Still, some financial firms have managed to escape getting tarred by the same brush and are taking advantage.

Discount brokerage TD Ameritrade Holding Corp (AMTD.O) reported a record in new customer accounts and assets it manages in 2008, despite the crisis.

Chief Executive Fred Tomczyk said customers' who were burned by Wall Street firms played a large role in last year's growth for the Omaha, Nebraska-based firm, and its outsider status is a tool in the company's marketing to potential clients.

"There's a lot of advantages to being a non-Wall Street firm right now," he said. TD Ameritrade's biggest shareholder is Canadian bank Toronto Dominion (TD.TO).