Archives for Wall Street



Exploitation-Neutral Consumption

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street was a guilty pleasure for me.  It wasn’t that the movie valorizes Jordan Belfort’s crimes, which defrauded victims of more than a hundred million dollars, but I felt uneasy about being entertained by a work of art indirectly derived from the pain of others – especially since it wasn’t clear that the injured parties were participating in the movie’s profits.

The movie literally and figuratively kept the victims of Belfort’s fraud outside the frame. In only a few scenes do we hear even the disembodied voices of the defrauded investors.  But imagine what it would be like to watch the movie in the presence of one of Belfort’s 1,500 real-life victims, whose ranks included architects, engineers, insurance agents, real estate appraisers, and other middle-class professionals.

The movie repeats Belfort’s claim that his firm only targeted the super-rich. The idea is that we needn’t worry so much about who was hurt by these crimes, because these investors were so wealthy that they wouldn’t be as impacted by the loss of a few dollars. But some of his victims’ families tell a very different story: “My father lost practically a quarter-million dollars,” said one man, whose father, an engineer, was cold-called at home by a Stratton broker. His father suffered a stroke under the stress of his losses. As another investor puts it: “I’m not a rich guy, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.” Read More »



What’s a Wall Street Executive’s Wins Produced?

LeBron James was recently given his 4th Most Valuable Player award by 120 sportswriters.  Well, at least 119 sportswriters agreed LeBron was MVP.  Gary Washburn – of the Boston Globethought Carmelo Anthony was the league’s MVP in 2012-13.

It doesn’t take much effort to establish that LeBron was more valuable than Melo.  The numbers tell us (numbers taken from theNBAGeek.com) that LeBron in 2012-13 was a much more efficient scorer from the field; and a better rebounder, passer, and shot blocker.   LeBron was also better with respect to steals and personal fouls.  Yes, Melo scored more.  But that is just because Melo took many more shots than LeBron.  Unfortunately, people tend to think that players who take many shots have a huge impact on outcomes in basketball (consequently, players have an incentive to take as many shots as their coaches and teammates will allow).

Although no other sportswriter shared Washburn’s view that Melo was MVP, 102 of the 120 voters thought Anthony was one of the five most valuable players in the league.  So Washburn was not alone in his belief that Anthony is a “great” player.   Read More »



Wall Street Cheating

A new survey of 500 financial service professionals in the U.S. and the U.K. finds that 26 percent of survey respondents “had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace” and almost 25 percent “believed that financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct in order to be successful.”  

Depending on your worldview, you may read that previous paragraph and think, Oh my goodness, that’s outrageous! Or, conversely, you might think Only 26 percent?! Read More »



Dear Occupy Wall Street: Are You Sure You’re in the Right Place?

I get it – people are angry. Very, very angry. I’m angry too. And Wall Street sure makes a great scapegoat, hence the Occupy Wall Street protest. Wall Street is a symbol of the “greed and corruption” that took over America and caused this whole mess.

But let’s take a minute to examine the facts and see if we can’t find some better scapegoats:

In 1997 Andrew Cuomo, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, allowed Fannie Mae to reduce the standards by which they would secure loans. This helped create the entire subprime category. Was this a bad thing? Of course not – it allowed more people to leave the ghetto, move to the suburbs, and achieve the American Dream of owning a home. Who knew that “Dream” would turn into a nightmare in a mere decade. Andrew Cuomo is not Nostradamus. We can blame him of course, but he had good intentions despite the negative results. Read More »



The Markets are Mad: Is High-Frequency Trading Making Things Worse?

Thursday’s 423-point gain by the Dow marked the first time ever that the industrial average has posted four consecutive days of 400-point moves. Less than two weeks into August, there have already been six trading days that saw triple-digit swings this month. While the recent sell-off has been swift (the Dow is off more than 12% since July 21), it’s also been choppy. Volatility is back in a big way. The VIX Index, also known as the fear index, has shot up recently, nearly doubling over the last week. The VIX tracks the expected price of a range of protective S&P 500 options over the next 30 days.

While your average investor generally hates volatility, there are those who feed off it, namely high-frequency traders. These are the guys who use complex algorithms and super-fast computers to scour the markets for tiny price differentials, often executing trades in microseconds (one millionth of a second). The more volatile the market, the easier it is for them to make money jumping in and out of stocks across exchanges.

Now, it’s not quite fair to lump all high-frequency traders together. They don’t all necessarily do well in volatile markets. While some are killing it, there are certainly others who’ve been getting killed; it all depends on their strategy. But generally, traders need two things: 1) a price, and 2) movement. Recently, they’ve had plenty of both. Read More »



Flawed Incentives and Dubious Morals: JPMorgan & CDOs That Were “Built to Fail”

It’s been a busy week for JPMorgan Chase. It’s only Wednesday, and already the bank has settled one civil fraud lawsuit, and been slapped with another one. Both shed light on Wall Street’s flawed system of incentives that helped bring on the financial crisis. They also raise questions as to the morals of bankers.

On Tuesday, JPMorgan agreed to pay $153 million to settle civil fraud charges brought by the SEC alleging that it “misled” investors when it sold them junky mortgage bonds. The deal in question was put together by Magnetar Capital. If you’re not familiar with Magnetar, it’s an Illinois-based hedge fund that made a killing shorting synthetic mortgage-backed securities that were essentially built to fail. Here’s how it worked: Magnetar would put down a few million bucks to start a collateralized-debt obligation (CDO), cram it full of the junkiest mortgage bonds it could find, then get a bank like JPMorgan to sell it off to investors as a triple-A, gold-plated piece of the booming housing market; when in reality it was a time bomb filled with toxic waste. Read More »



How Prevalent Is Insider Trading? And What’s to Be Done About It? A Freakonomics Quorum

As I type these words, the biggest insider-trading trial in years, that of Raj Rajaratnam, has just gone to the jury. I haven’t followed the trial too closely, but the gist is evident: the line between “insider trading” and the legitimate, if sharp-elbowed, acquisition of useful trading information is extremely blurry. This is hardly the only insider case at the moment. Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, famously said last fall that “illegal insider trading is rampant and may even be on the rise.” So it seemed a good time to put together a Freakonomics Quorum and ask a couple of straightforward questions. Read More »



Ten Reasons You Need to Quit Your Job

Contributor James Altucher reflects on a career of disparate jobs in corporate America and Wall Street, and offers 10 signs when you know it’s time to quit that corporate job you loathe. Read More »