NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street’s fat cats are in the public’s doghouse, and it could be a long time — if ever — before the eye-popping paychecks and glamour of the last two decades return.
Americans have long tolerated Wall Street’s big bonuses, bigger egos and outsized influence because the firms and their executives at least made lots of money. Now, those days are over.
Huge losses, a multitrillion-dollar government bailout and those never-ending bonuses have turned the legendary “masters of the universe” into villains.
“The image of the all-powerful Wall Street banker as master of the universe will take 50 years to recover, if ever,” said Bryan Burrough, co-author of “Barbarians at the Gate,” a definitive account of the 1988 buyout of RJR Nabisco.
“No longer are these people seen as soldiers of American capitalism striding out into the battlefield with their mansions in Greenwich and $10 million bonuses.”
Wall Street has always lured the nation’s brightest with the prospects of fabulous wealth, more than making up for the long hours at the office and the intense pressures of the job. But now, a system that let bankers keep half their firm’s revenue every year, regardless of the long-term results, is endangered.
No less a figure than the new president of the United States said it was “shameful” for bankers to collect $20 billion in bonuses in 2008, a year taxpayers were forced to provide trillions of dollars to prop up an industry that mismanaged its way to a mountain of credit losses.
President Barack Obama and other officials want to cap compensation at government-backed banks at $500,000 a year — a fortune to most Americans but chump change in Wall Street’s heyday.
“The masters of the universe are now plaintive puppy dogs who don’t understand why their feed bowl has been moved,” said George Ball, chairman of brokerage Sanders Morris Harris and former head of E.F. Hutton and Prudential Securities. “For a long time going forward, the business will be very different.”
Vilified, and with the prospect of fabulous riches fading fast, bankers around the world are having second thoughts about their profession.
“What you’ll see is an irreversible trend away from banking,” a veteran dealmaker at a big European bank confided.
A first-year employee at the same firm said he may change career paths. “I’m not sure I’ll go back to banking after business school. A lot of me thinks I won’t.”
While investment banking will always attract people drawn to the fast pace and thrill of the deal, those embarking on a career in finance will have to lower their expectations.
Samuel Hayes, a Harvard Business School professor who has taught investment bankers the ropes since 1970, said there was no denying the industry’s reputation had been tarnished.
“There are a number of people who are disillusioned with banking,” Hayes said. “(The crisis) has given the industry an enormous black eye and it’s going to take a long time to recover from this.”
Certainly, some aspects of Wall Street are already gone. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley abandoned their broker-dealer model and became commercial banks last fall when panicky investors knocked out Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
Merrill Lynch, in danger of collapsing before being rescued by Bank of America, now imperils its new parent.
Bank shares have sunk to their lowest since the early 1990s as investors nervously wait to see if the government will nationalize Citigroup and Bank of America.
In times past, bankers like John Pierpont Morgan in the early 1900s and Felix Rohatyn in the 1970s were called on to solve the nation’s financial crises.
Now, many say, the bankers are the problem.
“The evidence is overwhelming: This was a series of conscious decisions about what kind of firms they wanted to be, decisions made without consideration for their ramifications,” said William Cohan, a former investment banker who has written “House of Cards,” a soon-to-be published book about the credit crisis.
Earlier this month, chief executives from eight of the most powerful U.S. banks were forced to leave their private jets on the ground and take public transportation to Washington where they were grilled for seven hours on TV by angry lawmakers.
“Here’s the problem: People really hate you,” Congressman Barney Frank told executives at the House of Representatives Finance Committee hearing.
This is not the first time the public’s anger has been directed toward Wall Street.
During the Great Depression of the ‘30s and the collapse of the 1980s buyout craze, bankers were often painted as bad guys.
And Wall Streeters have long played leading roles in the popular imagination in the form of anti-heroes like Sherman McCoy (“Bonfire of the Vanities”), Gordon (“Greed Is Good”) Gekko (“Wall Street”) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.
Yet they pale in comparison with the real-life characters who helped to destroy confidence in the markets.
Though he was not responsible for the mess that Merrill Lynch found itself in, CEO John Thain in late 2007 spent $1.2 million to furnish his office.
A year later he became an embodiment of the industry as he accelerated nearly $4 billion of bonuses before his brokerage was acquired by Bank of America.
“They’ve become villains,” said Charles Geisst, author of “100 Years of Wall Street” and a finance professor at Manhattan College. “Once we looked up to the Vanderbilts and the Morgans. Now, rather than admire bankers, people want to shoot them.”
Additional reporting by Michael Flaherty in Hong Kong; editing by John Wallace