Stamatakis: Wall Street isn’t as devious as some protesters think

By Nick Stamatakis

The worst job of my life was my six-week stint as a community day camp counselor.

As anyone… The worst job of my life was my six-week stint as a community day camp counselor.

As anyone who knows me could guess, I was pretty awkward around the young’uns. I liked talking in full sentences too much, and I don’t think they understood any of my satirical references to Friedrich Hayek.

But the worst part of the job was listening to kids complain about the unfairness of their four square games. Typically, two or three kids would take the top positions and destroy all the others. Sometimes, this was because they were more skilled, but mostly they just knew how to make up rules as they went along.

Children recognized the injustice, but felt powerless to stop it. The obvious cheating went on without rebuke.

I think of most of the Occupy members camping in Mellon Square or elsewhere as these same children, 20 years older. They see rising income inequality and assume that the people on top are cheating — especially people in the financial sector.

But the world isn’t a game of four square. The increase in wealth at the top of the pyramid does not imply that money is being removed from the rest of society, and it certainly doesn’t imply that we’re subsidizing cheating. Far from conspiring against us, those at the top often work to our collective benefit, despite their obscene salaries.

One arena in which people become filthy rich is the futures market. Buyers and sellers make bets on the future price of a commodity and often reap vast benefits. As unfair as this practice seems, it stabilizes prices, allowing seasonal industries to survive. Tomato farmers, for instance, need these traders. Otherwise, when millions of tomatoes hit the market at harvest, the price crash from increased supply would leave many dusted. So sure, people get grossly rich from trading futures, but to everybody’s benefit.

Even more insular practices, like high frequency trading, have redeeming aspects. High frequency trading is the act of buying and selling huge amounts of assets for very short periods of time, using complicated algorithms instead of human decision-makers to calculate exchanges. Typically, the rich benefit most from this because they have access to the proper equipment.

But even this practice improves the economy as a whole. A February 2011 paper in the Journal of Finance notes that high frequency trading liquefies markets and provides valuable pricing information to firms. So even if many of these benefits are transferred to the wealthy, some good is distributed through all levels of society.

Of course, the seemingly biggest example of Wall Street cheating is the subprime mortgage debacle. In this instance, we’re told, investors knowingly ripped people off by playing hot potato with quickly defaulting mortgages, making billions before jumping ship.

But this narrative is incorrect, according to the University of Texas’ Jeffrey Friedman and Université Paul Cezanne Aix-Marseille doctoral candidate Wladimir Kraus, the authors of “Engineering the Financial Crises.” Although parts of Wall Street certainly looked like casinos, many of these very risky bets were properly hedged — traders were willing and able to take the losses. Rather, it was the safe AAA securities that were responsible for the financial failure. Bankers and traders placed too much trust in these boring, safe assets — the kind regulators love — that turned out to be complete frauds. It wasn’t the subprime mortages that failed, it was the prime mortgages, the kind greedy risk-taking traders would have avoided. This was more of a mistake than a conscionable Ponzi scheme.

Evaluating each financial instrument is probably beyond my pay grade, but the point should be clear: The people winning wildly on Wall Street are more often than not providing legitimate good to the world, even if they aren’t producing anything you can touch or see.

That’s not to say there isn’t some corruption in the system — people like Bernie Madoff did commit legitimate fraud. These people should be prosecuted. These people are making up rules in their own four square games.

But most people making millions are not cheating at four square. Even if the rich keep 90 percent of the wealth they create, their income in no way prevents others from getting rich. Perhaps more importantly, just shuffling some wealth from the top to the bottom won’t change things in the long run.

There are a million problems with the financial situation we find ourselves in now. Inequality is bad for societies, both socially and economically. Thousands of our most brilliant students are going into financial engineering instead of other wealth-generating industries. Simply put, there may be something intrinsically unfair about such an unbalanced system.

But that isn’t what this column is about. Rather, it’s about the economy not being a game of four square: When there are more people firmly in place at the top, it doesn’t prevent the rest of us from moving up.

Contact Nick at [email protected]