Reuters Summit-Occupy Wall St leader keeps heat on politicians

Mon Nov 26, 2012 7:00am EST

(For other news from Reuters Global Investment Outlook Summit, click here)

By Matthew Goldstein

NEW YORK Nov 26 (Reuters) - Cathy O'Neil, the organizer of the Occupy Wall Street alternative bank group, likes to call herself a "math nerd," who is looking to do something meaningful with her academic training.

The former Barnard College math professor and former quantitative hedge fund analyst is the guiding force behind a group that is trying to keep OWS a relevant movement now that last year's protests in lower Manhattan over income inequality are something of a distant memory.

It is one reason the 40-year-old mother of three young boys got involved with OWS, around the time the protest movement was just gathering steam in August 2011.

"We want to make public comments and we want to continue to be heard," said O'Neil in an interview with Reuters TV for the Reuters Global Investment 2013 Outlook Summit. "That is our thing."

For about a year now, O'Neil and two dozen other people - many of them former Wall Street types like herself - gather every Sunday in a Columbia University classroom to talk about how to keep the pressure on elected officials in Washington, D.C., to make the financial system more accountable and transparent.

Quite often, the OWS bank group's members disagree among themselves about how to regulate the financial system. At one Sunday meeting earlier this year, the group got into a heated yet wonky debate over how money is created and whether bank lending should require implicit approval of Congress.

But the group has found enough common ground to help write recommendations to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commision on how to protect money market fund investors and submit legal briefs on pending regulatory actions against Wall Street banks. The group also is in the process of putting together brochures that explain how the banking system works in plain English for average citizens.

Now the OWS bank group is gearing up to lobby elected officials to refrain from making cuts in Social Security and Medicare simply in response from Wall Street pressure to reduce the federal deficit.

O'Neil says she is concerned that Obama might pick Erskine Bowles as Treasury Secretary, saying the co-author of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan is too committed to cuts that could hurt average people.

"There are a lot of magical numbers that are going on around Social Security and Medicare that says we can't afford it so we have to cut it," said O'Neil. "But we want to see the numbers. That is what the 99 percent want."

The 99 percent, of course, is reference to the OWS rallying cry that too much of the financial benefits in the United States go to the top 1 percent of income earners.

Then again, O'Neil knows the 1 percent well, having worked for two years at D.E Shaw & Co., a $27 billion hedge fund and investment firm that specializes in using mathematical formulas and computer programs to do its trading. O'Neil was at the hedge fund during the same time as Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and former economic advisor to President Obama, who earned about $5 million in compensation.

O'Neil left the hedge fund, in part, because she was disillusioned with finance. More recently, she left a data science job with an online commerce company and is looking to write a book that will demystify math and finance.

In her quest to make something meaningful of her Ph.D in math, she taught this summer at a math camp at Hampshire College in Massachusetts for high school students. It was the same math camp that O'Neil went to as a teenager, when she described herself as a "chubby math nerd with coke-bottle glasses."

O'Neil said one reason she went back to math camp as a counselor was to inspire young students interested in math to do more than simply teach, work on Wall Street or go into data science - all of which she has done.

"I would love there to be a fourth alternative," said O'Neill, "where they can engage in the world and do something they can be proud of. That's not necessarily easy to find."

To see the Reuters TV interview with O'Neil, click here: link.reuters.com/qyz24t

Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits (Reporting By Matthew Goldstein; Edited by Jennifer Ablan and Tim Dobbyn)

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Comments (2)
EthicsIntl wrote:
Cathy O’Neil right now is probably the best person on this planet, and would vote for her as US President without hesitation.

Reading the daily world news it has become obvious by now that not a single financial institution and politician has not been involved in criminal financial activities.

Our financial systems, its crony regulations, corrupt politicians & PAC’s need to be flushed down the toilet and we should have people like Cathy O’Neil head a single new government agency to establish a legitimate financial system.

Let’s all of us who have had enough give her our full support.

Nov 26, 2012 9:49am EST  --  Report as abuse
TheUSofA wrote:
OWS has been calling for accountability from all parties in charge, that includes leaders in industries, lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats.

We have yet to see any fundamental changes to the financial system after the devastating financial crises that we’ve witnessed and are still feeling the effects of. Settlements which add up to petty cash dipping and slaps on the wrists without admission of guilt doesn’t change behavior.

Our country is looking more like plutocracy every day. The tiny few have accumulated absurd levels of wealth, power and influence. I speak, you speak, we all speak corporate now.

“For about a year now, O’Neil and two dozen other people – many of them former Wall Street types like herself – gather every Sunday in a Columbia University classroom to talk about how to keep the pressure on elected officials in Washington, D.C., to make the financial system more accountable and transparent.”

Nov 26, 2012 3:05pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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