It’s a wonderful life on Wall Street, yet here is a holiday wish list to make it even better.
1. The financial sector rids itself of anyone with even the faintest reason to believe that he or she is unusually clever.
All those who have scored highly on standardized tests, or been invited to join Mensa, or finished in the top quartile of any graduating class will be banned. Most of our recent financial calamities — collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps on subprime mortgage bonds, trading algorithms that prey on ordinary investors, the gaming of rating companies’ models, the rigging of the Greek government’s books so the country might disguise its true indebtedness — required a great deal of ingenuity. Lesser minds would have been incapable of causing so much damage.
Of course, it’s not easy to prevent clever people from working in finance, or from doing anything else they want to do. Perhaps now more than ever, clever people are habituated to being paid to ignore the spirit of any rule — which is one reason they have become such a problem on Wall Street.
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Upon seeing a new rule they do not think, “What social purpose does this serve, and how can I help it to do the job?” They think, “How can I game it?” If it pays to disguise their intellects, clever people will do it better than anyone else. Without further regulation, our entire society would soon be operating in the spirit of the Philadelphia 76ers: Kids tanking the SAT, parents choosing high schools that guarantee failure, intellectual prodigies scheming to gain entry to Chico State. No single rule, by itself, is capable of protecting the rest of us from their intellects. We'll need more rules.
2. No person under the age of 35 will be allowed to work on Wall Street.
Upon leaving school, young people, no matter how persuasively dimwitted, will be required to earn their living in the so-called real economy. Any job will do: fracker, street performer, chief of marketing for a medical marijuana dispensary. If and when Americans turn 35, and still wish to work in finance, they will carry with them memories of ordinary market forces, and perhaps be grateful to our society for having created an industry that is not subjected to them. At the very least, they will know that some huge number of people — their former fellow street performers, say — will be seriously pissed off at them if they do risky things on Wall Street to undermine the real economy. No one wants a bunch of pissed-off street performers coming after them. To that end . . .
3. Women will henceforth make all Wall Street trading decisions.
Men are more prone to financial risk-taking, and overconfidence, and so will be banned from even secondary roles on Wall Street trading desks — though they will be permitted to do whatever damage they would like in their private investment accounts. Trading is a bit like pornography: Women may like it, but they don’t like it nearly as much as men, and they certainly don’t like it in ways that create difficulties for society. Put them in charge of all financial decision-making and the decisions will be more boring, but more sociable. Of course, this raises a practical question: How will our society find enough women older than 35, with no special intellectual ability, to fill all of Wall Street’s trading jobs? Well . . .
4. Wall Street will take the resources it once hurled at Harvard and Yale universities, to recruit their students, and invest in America’s leading retirement communities, to recruit their swelling population of elderly women, most of whom are currently wasting valuable trading hours.
I think that we can all agree that a human being is never too old to trade. Many of these ladies would no doubt love a chance to engage in a bit of risk management. Wheel ‘em in! After all, there was a time, not very long ago, when very old men were allowed to linger in their Wall Street jobs until carried out, feet first. These old guys were useful; they improved the moral tone of the place. If nothing else, they reminded the young people around them of their own mortality. Which brings me to . . .
5. No firm shall be immortal — or rather, no firm shall be too big to fail.
No firm shall even be faintly suspected of being too big to fail, as the suspicion creates the reality. Of course, we here run the risk of destroying the spirit of Wall Street, and we don’t wish to do that. Wall Street wouldn’t be Wall Street without special privileges — without some special exemption from the rules. But the nature of that exemption must change: The too-big-to-fail Wall Street bank will be replaced by the Wall Street bank that is too old to fail. Firms whose employees exceed a certain average age will be allowed to get themselves in trouble as often as they like, and be bailed out each time by the government. Think of it as a new form of Social Security: the older you are, no matter how addled you might become, the more indiscriminately others will lend you money. Government policy will no longer encourage reckless speculation by the young, at the expense of the old. It will instead promote a bubble — a veritable feeding frenzy — in the market for senior citizens.
6. Strive to make the rest of society feel as if finance is something everyone can and should understand, by making it easily understandable.
The new crowd running Wall Street — a pleasant and sociable mix of old ladies and academically challenged middle- age men — will probably resist any addition of complexity to the financial system. Of what use is a predatory algorithm to a sane and happy 85-year-old woman? Still, it’s better here to err on the side of caution. To put an end to the use of complexity to obfuscate, buffalo and deceive the public, any new financial idea — a new security, a new stock-market order type, a new market regulation — must be explained on a single sheet of paper, in clear language, understandable by whoever at the time happens to be the most prominent Kardashian. I don’t imagine that this will put an end to financial innovation. But it will help. To further protect us from new ideas . . .
7. All new American financial inventions, before they are inflicted on the American economy, will first be tested upon foreigners.
What is needed is a society, roughly similar to our own, with some taste for risk-taking, in whose economic health we are not deeply invested. The French would be ideal for this job. But if the French won’t try our new stuff before we do, we can always bribe the Greeks to do it.
8. Channel America’s testosterone into financial regulation.
Our new financial system will probably be so well behaved that it will not require further regulation. It will be slower and more deliberate. It will be more focused on the longer term and its reputation with the public — as older people tend to be. It will probably even serve the economy, rather than be served by it. But as a final safeguard the Securities and Exchange Commission will need to be dismantled, and rebuilt as a for-profit enterprise. So that it might be at once feared and loathed, the regulator will be named “Goldman Sachs.” Goldman Sachs will be paid by the government a finders’ fee, for every little old lady it discovers in the act of a financial crime. Goldman Sachs will be allowed to pay as much as it wants to its employees — the alpha males who happen to get caught forging birth certificates and attempting to get jobs on Wall Street before they turn 35.
Of course, in the beginning, when told they must become financial regulators, these ambitious young people will scream and holler, perhaps even weep. But they will figure out how to make their situation work for them; they always do. Before long we may find that our regulators are even better paid than people who work on Wall Street. Who knows — by the time they turn 35, and become eligible for Wall Street jobs, they may have decided there is no higher calling than to maintain order and fairness on Wall Street.
Michael Lewis is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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