May 02

Apologize or Else

MarketApparently Wall Street and the wealthy generally are so incensed with President Obama that they have demanded a national apology in the form of a televised speech for what they regard as the unfair demonization of the rich by the administration. The demand  reportedly took place during a New York  meeting between Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and Wall Street political contributors.

For the next hour, the donors relayed to Messina what their friends had been saying. They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession…

One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief….

“This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years,” [one] donor said. “And it shows.”

Much has been written about the vitriol felt by the wealthy and Wall Street toward Obama. It has been opined that the explanation for the hatred is rooted in his rhetoric concerning the wealthy and their need to pay their fair share of taxes. Obama has indeed been fond of touting the virtues of bottom-up economic growth rather than trickle-down. Another theory is that Wall Street is incensed by Obama’s attempts to promulgate new regulation following the financial collapse brought about by the very same folks now demanding an apology. The most simple explanation recently offered for the consternation of Obama claims simply that Wall Street insiders are nothing more than spoiled brats who whine when any barrier is placed between them and stealing the hard-earned money of every day Americans.

This episode if particularly sad because the current administration has done nothing but accommodate Wall Street at every turn. It refused to break up any of the large banks once it became clear that many in the group were no longer financially solvent. It refused to offer homeowners any real relief if any share of that relief would come from the hide of Wall Street. It capitulated to Wall Street in maintaining extraordinary capital inflows of taxpayer funds into the large banks for what has now been nearly four years. It has negotiated widespread immunity from civil action on behalf of Wall Street with all but one of the states’ Attorneys General in exchange for chump change. It has paid only lip service to any real attempt to reduce the principal owed on tens of millions of underwater homes. The list of charity provided to Wall Street is indeed lengthy and diffuse.

Back in April of 2009, Obama famously said that “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”  He could not have been more accurate in his description. Yet, at this watershed moment, when it should have been abundantly clear to Obama that no amount of largess would satisfy them, he chose to play the role of referee rather than to pick up the ball and dunk it on behalf of the American people. The period since has been littered with obfuscation and outright malice toward Obama from Wall Street. Once it became obvious to Wall Street that Obama was going to pursue a course of mild regulation, wealthy power brokers all but cast aside any plans they had to support the President’s reelection efforts. This has borne itself out, as Wall Street has donated exponentially more money to Romney than to Obama. Wall Street hasn’t maintained its status-quo methodology of hedging its bets, rather it has gone all-in on the Republican candidate. As recently as 2008, Wall Street was goo goo for Obama, donating nearly 50% more to him than rival John McCain. This time around anger has translated to a windfall for Romney.

And in this election cycle, Wall Streeters didn’t have to look far for a more natural fit. Mitt Romney founded a leading private-equity firm, Bain Capital, and he promised to repeal Dodd-Frank altogether. By late fall, invitations to some of Romney’s New York fund-raisers were carrying the names of dozens of financial executives, many of whom knew Romney personally or had closed deals with him during his years at Bain. Some Romney donors started asking their Obama-supporting colleagues to Romney events just to tweak them.

Wall Street donors were also emerging as the financial engine behind Restore Our Future, a super PAC founded by former Romney aides. Even as Obama outpaced Romney in traditional fund-raising, Restore Our Future, exploiting the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent rulings and regulations, was bringing in millions of dollars in unlimited checks from hedge-fund and private-equity magnates.

By the end of February, the group had raised more than $43 million, almost half of it from Wall Street — more money than Obama raised from the industry during the entire 2008 campaign. Paul Tudor Jones was among the group’s donors, cutting Restore Our Future a $200,000 check in December. At the same time, a super PAC founded by former Obama aides, Priorities USA Action, was struggling, raising less than $5 million, much of it from Hollywood and unions. The Democratic group faced a particularly cold reception among Wall Street Democrats, some of whom feared any money they gave would be used to finance attacks on their own industry.

With the passage of the 850 page Dodd-Frank Act and the thousands of pages of analysis required by the act, Wall Street abandoned Obama entirely.

“I think it’s an unfixable relationship,” one Democrat involved in planning the March 1 fund-raisers told me this spring. “They hate him. They really, really do. They hate all the Democrats.”

Notwithstanding the meager reforms included in the legislation, Wall Street viewed it as a direct assault to their bow, and has fought back by bankrolling conservative candidates. Ultimately, the reform serves in some measure to prevent Wall Street from imploding itself or the larger economy. However, when a sector of the economy has an overt guarantee from the government to be rescued should it become unstable, no regulation is seen as responsible or necessary.

Obama does have the right instincts. It has been widely reported that he and his inner circle have not been willing to coddle and cavort with business power brokers as the Clinton’s had. He apparently is uncomfortable in small fundraising groups of Wall Street executives. He’s right to feel as he does. Wall Street and business executives don’t need his help. They don’t need him at all, they want nothing more than guarantees that he won’t overly restrict their efforts to continue to extract wealth from the economy for themselves. However, beginning in 2009 and continuing to this day, he has made poor decisions regarding which side to support in the war between banks and Wall Street and the American people. His rhetoric falls flat on many as it has become obvious that it will not be backed-up by policy initiatives. The administration has continued to funnel trillions of dollars though Wall Street in hopes that some measure of the riches would find its way to Main Street. It hasn’t happened.

Yet Wall Street despises him nonetheless. Had the President made the decision to allow several of the large banks to be broken apart, forced lenders to cram-down mortgage debt, and prosecuted those responsible for much of the fraud that caused the collapse, Wall Street would rightfully abhor him, but he would have the support of the people. In choosing  to capitulate to Wall Street from the very beginning, he has the excited support of neither.While it is unlikely that Obama will deliver a national save-the-rich speech anytime soon, he is almost certain to strike some deal with Wall Street that calls off the dogs.