November 26, 2012 / 12:10 PM / 5 years ago

Occupy Wall Street leader keeps heat on politicians

NEW YORK (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 Commission 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:

Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits

Reporting By Matthew Goldstein; Edited by Jennifer Ablan and Tim Dobbyn

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