Why Wall Street Always Blows It

The magnitude of the current bust seems almost unfathomable—and it was unfathomable, to even the most sophisticated financial professionals, until the moment the bubble popped. How could this happen? And what's to stop it from happening again? A former Wall Street insider explains how the financial industry got it so badly wrong, why it always will—and why all of us are to blame.

Which brings us to the last major contributor to booms and busts: self-interest.

When people look back on bubbles, many conclude that the participants must have gone stark raving mad. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

In my example from the housing boom, for instance, each participant’s job was not to predict what the housing market would do but to accomplish a more concrete aim. The buyer wanted to buy a house; the real-estate agent wanted to earn a commission; the mortgage broker wanted to sell a loan; Wall Street wanted to buy loans so it could package and resell them as “mortgage-backed securities”; Alan Greenspan wanted to keep American prosperity alive; members of Congress wanted to get reelected. None of these participants, it is important to note, was paid to predict the likely future movements of the housing market. In every case (except, perhaps, the buyer’s), that was, at best, a minor concern.

This does not make the participants villains or morons. It does, however, illustrate another critical component of boom-time decision-making: the difference between investment risk and career or business risk.

Professional fund managers are paid to manage money for their clients. Most managers succeed or fail based not on how much money they make or lose but on how much they make or lose relative to the market and other fund managers.

If the market goes up 20 percent and your Fidelity fund goes up only 10 percent, for example, you probably won’t call Fidelity and say, “Thank you.” Instead, you’ll probably call and say, “What am I paying you people for, anyway?” (Or at least that’s what a lot of investors do.) And if this performance continues for a while, you might eventually fire Fidelity and hire a new fund manager.

On the other hand, if your Fidelity fund declines in value but the market drops even more, you’ll probably stick with the fund for a while (“Hey, at least I didn’t lose as much as all those suckers in index funds”). That is, until the market drops so much that you can’t take it anymore and you sell everything, which is what a lot of people did in October, when the Dow plunged below 9,000.

In the money-management business, therefore, investment risk is the risk that your bets will cost your clients money. Career or business risk, meanwhile, is the risk that your bets will cost you or your firm money or clients.

The tension between investment risk and business risk often leads fund managers to make decisions that, to outsiders, seem bizarre. From the fund managers’ perspective, however, they’re perfectly rational.

In the late 1990s, while I was trying to figure out whether it was different this time, some of the most legendary fund managers in the industry were struggling. Since 1995, any fund managers who had been bearish had not been viewed as “wise” or “prudent”; they had been viewed as “wrong.” And because being wrong meant underperforming, many had been shown the door.

It doesn’t take very many of these firings to wake other financial professionals up to the fact that being bearish and wrong is at least as risky as being bullish and wrong. The ultimate judge of who is “right” and “wrong” on Wall Street, moreover, is the market, which posts its verdict day after day, month after month, year after year. So over time, in a long bull market, most of the bears get weeded out, through either attrition or capitulation.

By mid-1999, with mountains of money being made in tech stocks, fund owners were more impatient than ever: their friends were getting rich in Cisco, so their fund manager had better own Cisco—or he or she was an idiot. And if the fund manager thought Cisco was overvalued and was eventually going to crash? Well, in those years, fund managers usually approached this type of problem in of one of three ways: they refused to play; they played and tried to win; or they split the difference.

In the first camp was an iconic hedge-fund manager named Julian Robertson. For almost two decades, Robertson’s Tiger Management had racked up annual gains of about 30 percent by, as he put it, buying the best stocks and shorting the worst. (One of the worst, in Robertson’s opinion, was Amazon, and he used to summon me to his office and demand to know why everyone else kept buying it.)

By 1998, Robertson was short Amazon and other tech stocks, and by 2000, after the NASDAQ had jumped an astounding 86 percent the previous year, Robertson’s business and reputation had been mauled. Thanks to poor performance and investor withdrawals, Tiger’s assets under management had collapsed from about $20billion to about $6billion, and the firm’s revenues had collapsed as well. Robertson refused to change his stance, however, and in the spring of 2000, he threw in the towel: he closed Tiger’s doors and began returning what was left of his investors’ money.

Across town, meanwhile, at Soros Fund Management, a similar struggle was taking place, with another titanic fund manager’s reputation on the line. In 1998, the firm had gotten crushed as a result of its bets against technology stocks (among other reasons). Midway through 1999, however, the manager of Soros’s Quantum Fund, Stanley Druckenmiller, reversed that position and went long on technology. Why? Because unlike Robertson, Druckenmiller viewed it as his job to make money no matter what the market was doing, not to insist that the market was wrong.

At first, the bet worked: the reversal saved 1999 and got 2000 off to a good start. But by the end of April, Quantum was down a shocking 22 percent for the year, and Druckenmiller had resigned: “We thought it was the eighth inning, and it was the ninth.”

Robertson and Druckenmiller stuck to their guns and played the extremes (and lost). Another fund manager, a man I’ll call the Pragmatist, split the difference.

The Pragmatist had owned tech stocks for most of the 1990s, and their spectacular performance had made his fund famous and his firm rich. By mid-1999, however, the Pragmatist had seen a bust in the making and begun selling tech, so his fund had started to underperform. Just one quarter later, his boss, tired of watching assets flow out the door, suggested that the Pragmatist reconsider his position on tech. A quarter after that, his boss made it simpler for him: buy tech, or you’re fired.

The Pragmatist thought about quitting. But he knew what would happen if he did: his boss would hire a 25-year-old gunslinger who would immediately load up the fund with tech stocks. The Pragmatist also thought about refusing to follow the order. But that would mean he would be fired for cause (no severance or bonus), and his boss would hire the same 25-year-old gunslinger.

In the end, the Pragmatist compromised. He bought enough tech stocks to pacify his boss but not enough to entirely wipe out his fund holders if the tech bubble popped. A few months later, when the market crashed and the fund got hammered, he took his bonus and left the firm.

This tension between investment risk and career or business risk comes into play in other areas of Wall Street too. It was at the center of the decisions made in the past few years by half a dozen seemingly brilliant CEOs whose firms no longer exist.

Why did Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, and the rest of an ever-growing Wall Street hall of shame take so much risk that they ended up blowing their firms to kingdom come? Because in a bull market, when you borrow and bet $30 for every $1 you have in capital, as many firms did, you can do mind-bogglingly well. And when your competitors are betting the same $30 for every $1, and your shareholders are demanding that you do better, and your bonus is tied to how much money your firm makes—not over the long term, but this year, before December 31—the downside to refusing to ride the bull market comes into sharp relief. And when naysayers have been so wrong for so long, and your risk-management people assure you that you’re in good shape unless we have another Great Depression (which we won’t, of course, because it’s different this time), well, you can easily convince yourself that disaster is a possibility so remote that it’s not even worth thinking about.

It’s easy to lay the destruction of Wall Street at the feet of the CEOs and directors, and the bulk of the responsibility does lie with them. But some of it lies with shareholders and the whole model of public ownership. Wall Street never has been—and likely never will be—paid primarily for capital preservation. However, in the days when Wall Street firms were funded primarily by capital contributed by individual partners, preserving that capital in the long run was understandably a higher priority than it is today. Now Wall Street firms are primarily owned not by partners with personal capital at risk but by demanding institutional shareholders examining short-term results. When your fiduciary duty is to manage the firm for the benefit of your shareholders, you can easily persuade yourself that you’re just balancing risk and reward—when what you’re really doing is betting the firm.

As we work our way through the wreckage of this latest colossal bust, our government—at our urging—will go to great lengths to try to make sure such a bust never happens again. We will “fix” the “problems” that we decide caused the debacle; we will create new regulatory requirements and systems; we will throw a lot of people in jail. We will do whatever we must to assure ourselves that it will be different next time. And as long as the searing memory of this disaster is fresh in the public mind, it will be different. But as the bust recedes into the past, our priorities will slowly change, and we will begin to set ourselves up for the next great boom.

A few decades hence, when the Great Crash of 2008 is a distant memory and the economy is humming along again, our government—at our urging—will begin to weaken many of the regulatory requirements and systems we put in place now. Why? To make our economy more competitive and to unleash the power of our free-market system. We will tell ourselves it’s different, and in many ways, it will be. But the cycle will start all over again.

So what can we learn from all this? In the words of the great investor Jeremy Grantham, who saw this collapse coming and has seen just about everything else in his four-decade career: “We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.” Of course, to paraphrase Keynes, in the long term, you and I will be dead. Until that time comes, here are three thoughts I hope we all can keep in mind.

First, bubbles are to free-market capitalism as hurricanes are to weather: regular, natural, and unavoidable. They have happened since the dawn of economic history, and they’ll keep happening for as long as humans walk the Earth, no matter how we try to stop them. We can’t legislate away the business cycle, just as we can’t eliminate the self-interest that makes the whole capitalist system work. We would do ourselves a favor if we stopped pretending we can.

Second, bubbles and their aftermaths aren’t all bad: the tech and Internet bubble, for example, helped fund the development of a global medium that will eventually be as central to society as electricity. Likewise, the latest bust will almost certainly lead to a smaller, poorer financial industry, meaning that many talented workers will go instead into other careers—that’s probably a healthy rebalancing for the economy as a whole. The current bust will also lead to at least some regulatory improvements that endure; the carnage of 1933, for example, gave rise to many of our securities laws and to the SEC, without which this bust would have been worse.

Lastly, we who have had the misfortune of learning firsthand from this experience—and in a bust this big, that group includes just about everyone—can take pains to make sure that we, personally, never make similar mistakes again. Specifically, we can save more, spend less, diversify our investments, and avoid buying things we can’t afford. Most of all, a few decades down the road, we can raise an eyebrow when our children explain that we really should get in on the new new new thing because, yes, it’s different this time.

Presented by

Henry Blodget is the editor of Silicon Alley Insider, an online business publication.

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