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Friday, February 15, 2013

The City and The Street

Michael Lewis writes in the NY Review of Books.

Early 1990s, hanging out in Manhattan with some friends in the derivatives business, one of them an Oxbridge guy who had been at graduate school at Harvard: when I used the then new term "financial engineering" in conversation he burst out laughing. "Is that what they're going to call it?" he asked, incredulous. "It's just bollocks."

See also The illusion of skill.
NYBooks: ... If you had to pick a city on earth where the American investment banker did not belong, London would have been on any shortlist. In London, circa 1980, the American investment banker had going against him not just widespread commercial lassitude but the locals’ near-constant state of irony. Wherever it traveled, American high finance required an irony-free zone, in which otherwise intelligent people might take seriously inherently absurd events: young people with no experience in finance being paid fortunes to give financial advice, bankers who had never run a business orchestrating takeovers of entire industries, and so on. It was hard to see how the English, with their instinct to not take anything very seriously, could make possible such a space.

Yet they did. And a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.

The introduction into British life of American ideas of finance, and success, may seem trivial alongside everything else that was happening in Great Britain at the time (Mrs. Thatcher, globalization, the growing weariness with things not working properly, an actually useful collapse of antimarket snobbery), but I don’t think it was. The new American way of financial life arrived in England and created a new set of assumptions and expectations for British elites—who, as it turned out, were dying to get their hands on a new set of assumptions and expectations. The British situation was more dramatic than the American one, because the difference between what you could make on Wall Street versus doing something useful in America, great though it was, was still a lot less than the difference between what you could make for yourself in the City of London versus doing something useful in Great Britain.

In neither place were the windfall gains to the people in finance widely understood for what they were: the upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect of Wall Street’s arrival in London, combined with the other things that were going on, was to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich. The magic of the scheme was that various forms of financial manipulation appeared to the manipulators, and even to the wider public, as a form of achievement. All these kids from Oxford and Cambridge who flooded into Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs weren’t just handed huge piles of money. They were handed new identities: the winners of this new marketplace. They still lived in England but, because of the magnitude of their success, they were now detached from it. ...

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