Monday, September 27, 2010


Greed, for lack of a better word, is good!

 Gordon Gekko (as played by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street)

This now famous line from the movie Wall Street is on the minds of lots of people these days. For some, it’s because of the release of its sequel this weekend; for others, it’s because of the popular feeling that Wall Street is the cause of our current difficulties. I once heard the film’s producer, director and playwright, Oliver Stone, express his dismay that so many people (presumable people who work on Wall Street) had taken the Gordon Gekko soliloquy as a mantra for their business philosophy.

Yet, it’s not unlike other movie lines or speeches that have entered the popular culture. I once heard a senior sales guy at major software company recite the entire Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. He obviously delighted in the cadence, the words and the delivery of it. It was also obvious that he embraced its philosophy. You can catch it on YouTube if you missed it on Broadway or in theatres.

Movies love to create villains that reflect popular feeling. Taken out of context, the Gekko quote is reprehensible. But, the central theme of the speech was that in a free enterprise system, companies that don’t continually reinvent themselves go out of business.

So, let me get this out of my system, just to set the stage. Capitalism, by definition, is driven by the motivation to make money. If greed is a human emotion defined as the desire to have more money, then capitalism is about greed.

Yet, capitalism is also the driver of our economic success. It enables entrepreneurs to become billionaires and it provides employment for millions. It has also permitted the citizens of this country to enjoy the most comfortable lifestyle in the world. Capitalism is not about being humanitarian.

Yet, we don’t – and shouldn’t – define our culture as greedy or even capitalist. We define it more holistically. Our most successful capitalist, Bill Gates, has given most of his fortune to his foundation which by all reports does lots of good work. His foundation is not a capitalist enterprise, it is a humanitarian one.

So, is Bill Gates the country’s greediest person or the most generous?

Most of the successful people I know are involved in charitable activities ranging from volunteering in their community to donating their hard earned cash to their favorite cause. Personally, I have served on the board of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse (AVDA), and currently serve on the board of Operation Homefront of Florida, I don’t get paid to do it. I do it because I want to.

Alec Baldwin’s character was in the real estate business and my colleague, his disciple, was in the software business yet we are not negatively disposed toward those industries. Yet, these days we are all pissed off at Wall Street’s “fat cat bankers”.

Why? Because they are greedy? Or, is it because “we” bailed them out and they show no remorse for what has happened to the economy as a result of the overindulgence of an entire industry?

Whatever the reason, it’s time to get over it. We need Wall Street. Furthermore, we need Wall Street to be successful. In addition to providing capital to our economy, it is among the few industries where the United States is still a world leader. That leadership brings new money into our economy from foreign investors and provides jobs for many thousands of people.

Apple Computer went public 30 years ago with the help of Morgan Stanley. Would it be the company it is today without Wall Street? In 2006, Morgan Stanley was also lead underwriter of the IPO of First Solar, the Ohio company which is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. The company used the funds to expand its manufacturing facilities in Maryland, adding jobs in the process.

So, am I saying that greed really is good? Let me express it a bit differently. When I haven’t worked on Wall Street, I have worked for Wall Street money. And, I am here to tell you that “money doesn’t care”. It doesn’t care about people or the environment or the local church. It only cares about making more money. And, that’s the way it should be. That’s what makes our economy so resilient and, ultimately, that is what will pull us out of this mess we’re in.

And, before you let yourself off the hook, ask yourself if your money cares. Do you read every prospectus from every mutual fund or 401K in which you are invested? Do you take your money out of any investment that isn’t friendly to the environment or fair to its employees? Probably not. Why? Because your money just wants to make more money too. That's why, in our busy lives, most of us just check our monthly brokerage statements to see if we made more money last month.

Oh, and by the way, it’s Wall Street that is working hard to make you that money.

Just like Bill Gates, the desire to make more money is part of us but it’s not all of us.

But, it’s election season and conflict creates drama. Politicians and the media need conflict to get your attention.  Casting Wall Street as the enemy is a great way to get votes.

The role of a leader who wants to change the current paradigm isn’t to feed the media the conflict it seeks; it is, rather, to rise above it and provide a vision of how we work together to solve the crisis.

It leaves me wondering, as usual, WHO WILL LEAD?


  1. yea, wall street is a very convenient target these days for the slick politicians. the housing bubble actually is the responsibility of speculators, crooked appraisers, republicans like GW Bush who believed that "ownership is freedom", democrats who also made it easier to get loans, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, congress, credit rating agencies like moody's, investment banks, etc.

    the mortgage crisis was the fault of many so-called leaders.

    it was defense spending that pulled us out of the great depression. i'm still not sure which sector will pull us out of the mess that we're in now. God knows it won't be "Green energy"

  2. John, you paint a very hopeful portrait of Wall St, I only wish it were an accurate one. Wall St has become a casino, the brokerage firms are the house, but unlike legal casinos they actually cheat on the small investor. If you notice about 70% of the volume is what they call high speed trading, trading that is so fast that it can't be seen. It's not a level playing field for you and me. I spent 30 years on the NYSE, it's a different place now. Underwriting is a very small part of the business. Skimming the cream off trades is the main business. Those guys on the "Street" fumbled their firms and had Main street pick them up off the floor. Ben Graham of Graham and Dodd fame (Warren Buffett's mentor) said,"Wall St learns nothing and forgets everything". Nothing has changed since he said that about 75 years ago. Wall St needs regulation very badly.
    You may disagree with the following, but I believe that only the present administration can lead us out of this morass. It took 10 years to get us in, it'll take us at least 4 years to get us out and it won't happen by just leaving the economy and the capitilist system alone.
    Good luck

  3. Good comment. Leadership does not have to be in the form of brinksmanship to bring about needed change in government or the economy. It does, however, have to inspire people to believe that a new vision is credible and can work over time.

    Keep in touch.

    Best, Ron

    Ron Klein | Holland & Knight