Wall Street Mocked American Values

The announcement last week that Trader Monthly magazine was
ceasing publication was one of those moments when a chance arrow of
history scores a perfect bull's eye on a deserving target. The current
recession, brought on at least in part by Wall Street's bonus lust, has
claimed countless innocent victims. But in this case it has finally
delivered a comeuppance to our era's loudest, gaudiest, cockiest
champion of Wall Street excess.

Those who still single out former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain as a
symbol of extravagance should take note. Yes, the man once spent over a
million dollars having his office remodeled and went on to arrange
questionable bonuses for the year in which Merrill lost billions and
sold itself to Bank of America.

Just a few years ago, however, the bonus cognoscenti at Trader Monthly
depicted Mr. Thain as something of a piker. In an article that began
with the sentence, "What, did somebody forget a zero?" they sneered at
Mr. Thain's "reported compensation," which they claimed was $6 million
for 2006, back when he was CEO of the New York Stock Exchange.

What was $6 million in those days? Remember, 2006 was the year of
"the Biggest Bulge Ever," as the magazine tastefully put it, when "the
bonus pool increased to a size almost beyond comprehension." That was
the year that Goldman Sachs famously distributed $16.5 billion to its
employees, and if you were one of the lucky ones, Trader Monthly
-- "See It, Make It, Spend It," was its slogan -- stood ready to help
you figure out how to blow your share properly, conspicuously,

Oh, there were cars: Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis,
sometimes described in the magazine's characteristic tone of flippant
indulgence. There were airplanes, reviewed and rated in a column
specifically dedicated to that purpose.

There were Scotches, including, in the "Bonus Guide" for 2008, a
$20,000 bottle of Johnnie Walker. There were watches, mechanical ones
of course, and among the most desirable were the ones with transparent
faces, presumably so the little gears were visible and everyone knew
the timepiece was for real.

Reading through back issues of the magazine, which was published in
Europe with distribution help from The Wall Street Journal Europe, one
does not get the sense that its trader readers aspired to live this way
because they were jolly bon vivants. Quite the opposite. At one point
in its intermittent pursuit of the best possible record player, for
example, Trader Monthly described what it claimed to be a $300,000 turntable as "a huge middle finger to everyone who enters your home."

If you didn't understand why someone would want to greet their
guests in such a way -- and as a nation we certainly didn't -- then you
didn't understand what it meant to be a trader.

But Trader Monthly did, and it limned the trader so that
all might behold his glory. A trader was a sort of embodiment of the
primal drama of capitalism; not just an uberconsumer, but a bullying,
self-maximizing, wealth-extracting he-man, a lout in full.

Traders often "craft themselves to be shocking," says Caitlin
Zaloom, an anthropologist at New York University who has studied trader
culture. "They try to make themselves into characters that embody the
dog-eat-dog character of the market. In order to be a top speculator,
you're supposed to be able to crush those around you and aspire to your

Consider, in this connection, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trader whom Trader Monthly inducted
into its "Hall of Fame" in 2006, describing him, admiringly, as "a
conqueror, physically imposing and, at times, verbally abusive. Clad in
his signature white jacket, he would crush anyone who dared to cross
him or tried to pick his pocket."

The magazine's panting worship of the truculent personality
culminated in a bizarre spectacle it arranged in November of 2007:
trader boxing. Before an audience chewing steak and guzzling luxury
vodka, the furious fists of bond traders connected with the jaws of
corporate vice presidents.

And to those who wondered why the nation should heap up its wealth
at the feet of such pugnacious vulgarians, the magazine gave the usual
answer: Traders prospered because they delivered.

"The rewards have become so astronomical that the competition for
coveted entry-level trading positions has become extremely fierce,"
mused the magazine's founder in the gilded year 2007. "Or is it the
other way around -- the talent entering the market is so substantial
that it has pushed the returns and, therefore, the rewards to levels
once considered unthinkable?"

Although he didn't mention it, there was also a third possibility:
that much of the financial engineering, the fancy new derivatives and
balance-sheet legerdemain, was part of a bubble that would one day
burst. That many of these hustlers, gamblers and pugilists were helping
to misallocate capital on a fantastic scale. That with or without the
aid of a $300,000 stereo component, they were telling America just what
they thought of it.

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