Some of us can remember the market crash of 1987. A recent college graduate, bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to learn from peers and many levels of superiors, with Wall Street Journal ink stains on my hands around the clock, my desk at the time was with a group of others like me, next to institutional salespeople on a mid-sized floor by current standards. The manager, who was wise, had access to a computer terminal with greenish market quotes and all sorts of fine-print, but that was inaccessible to us young’uns. We had to call a special number that played a message, updated irregularly, in order to catch the latest vibe. We ran up the phone tab that day, and that was at a time when the flat-rate plan, even for local calls, had not yet been invented. There were almost no wireless phones, not even for wise managers, not even the brick-like ones that would become more widespread later, so we were frozen solid at our desks all day, dialing. Wall Street, back then, was almost a cottage industry.
That’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one. The balance sheets of the biggest banks, as I recall, bumped up against $100 billion. For the RJR Nabisco deal to get done the bank syndicate was the whole finance SIC code. The whole industry, more or less, was a co-manager and got league table credit. That was in the early days of league table credit, but Wall Street firms were inventive that way right from the start. Then came the S&L crisis and we invented product with more conservative risk elements than buying companies at… ten times cash flow! (I smile as I type, we were so cute back then, so delicate.) This is how asset securitization came into existence – to strip out risks that were undue – which started out with credit card receivables and was eventually extended to other financial assets and led, eventually, to Enron and the sub-prime mortgage bubble.
That’s also an exaggeration, also a mild one. And anyway it skips over the NASDAQ bubble. That started as a dot-com phenomenon and quickly branched into other fields, including the development of what had actually been a cottage industry to that point – venture capital – transforming it to a global institutional giant. Like all things, this too passed, and this too returned, and we pretty much know the rest, even the youngest among us who may still remember 2008 and 2009 and 2010. And as I look back on these years and decades with their ebbs and cycles all the way to 1987, I can’t help but feel as though Wall Street – despite asset securitization, as mentioned, and other novelties like mechanized trading and greater global financial flows that were made possible, in no small part, by a smaller cellphone that also churns out price quotes in colorful apps – is more or less the same.
Well, that’s not entirely true, it’s probably overstated and I wouldn’t recommend a literal reading of the statement. Having lived through the changes and eras described, I am keenly aware of the differences in the segment between then and now. But by the same token it seems to me that bigger, faster, louder, is not in essence the same thing as moreÂ advanced, and, on a certain level, is not even particularly different. To explain myself more clearly, let’s take a look at the sector by way of contrast. When we think of innovation in healthcare, for example, we think of technologies and drugs that have and can lead to a complete transformation of human possibilities. When we think of innovation in energy, we think of new sources that can turn personal consumption and the geopolitical landscape on its head. In aerospace and transportation, we are contemplating space travel. And in communication and media, we wouldn’t even know where to begin as we scan the timeframe covered by this article.
In finance, on the other hand, innovation has been mostly superficial. We have introduced electronics and computing into the mix – using technology advancements made in other sectors – but the nature of the business is unchanged. We have sliced up risks in different ways, but that has only made the same balance sheets bigger. Fundamentally, Wall Street is no different from what it was in 1987, even as other sectors have evolved – in some cases to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Â And yet those other segments (i.e., industry and consumerism) are what ultimately shapes banking and finance, even if Wall Street dictates capital flows. For this reason, and particularly in light of economic disruption that has impacted all categories, I expect innovation to start happening in finance and banking in much more meaningful ways ahead. I expect to see advances that mirror the era of invention and change in which we live.