NEW YORK (
) -- One of the country's leading commentators on the financial crisis and its origins had a telling revelation and a startling conclusion about what it all means.
The revelation: Lawmakers have no idea what they're doing, nor do financial executives.
The conclusion: There's a huge leadership vacuum in the financial industry that has existed since at least the mid-1980s. It's not quite clear who can fill that role, whether they will be allowed to do so or where they will come from if so.
As a result, the stock market may simply be irrelevant, according to the commentator.
Michael Lewis -- the well-regarded bond salesman-cum-author/journalist/pundit extraordinaire -- spoke at an event Monday sponsored by Sungard, which provides software and consults with financial-services firms.
Essentially, what one could infer from his discussion was that leadership lacked sophistication and knowledge during his time in the industry. Now that leaders are backed by data and Ivy League degrees, they lack the "gut feelings" that drove former industry titans to follow the right path or create markets that never existed before.
The situation is apparently so severe that the people in charge of figuring out how to reform the financial system are asking Lewis for advice, despite the fact that he hasn't worked directly in financial services for more than 20 years.
"It terrifies me," said Lewis, going on to explain that he preferred being able to "sleep at night" rather than tossing and turning over testimony as some of his peers have presumably done.
"They're trying to get their minds around the whole financial system," he went on, later adding: "They're knocking on my door because they don't trust anyone else, and that's even more troubling."
Lewis was referring to the fact that lawmakers had asked him to testify before at least one committee tackling financial-crisis issues. (Specifically, he mentioned Arlen Specter -- the Republican turned Democrat, who recently lost a primary race to compete in the fall -- having called him to seek cooperation.)
Furthermore, while it isn't a logical leap to assume that lawmakers would seek his guidance, it does appear a little silly. Current and deposed leaders of financial institutions make sense. So do economists and braniacs that fill universities and Obama's cabinet with all of their theoretical arguments. And one can understand why Congress would want to hear from
, the so-called "Oracle of Omaha" who is chairman and CEO of
But Lewis -- while he remains a respected journalist -- hasn't been involved directly in the financial markets since the late 1980s when he traded bonds in London. (A period of time that one structured finance lawyer
recently referred to as "back when London was considered a backwater for American i-banks.")
Lewis worked for a few years at
, an investment bank that eventually vanished in a series of mergers into
. Parts of it may have been encapsulated in Smith Barney, which Citi partially divested in a deal with
, and other parts may have been in Phibro, the trading shop that had to be divested recently when a high-profile trader made too much money trading energy derivatives.
This is not a bashing session for Lewis: He left the industry knowingly, willingly, thinking he'd never turn back. At the Sungard event, he said, "When I left Wall Street, not only did I think I'd not come back, I thought I wouldn't be allowed to come back."
That's because when Lewis left, he left with a bang.
The bang came in the form of
, which detailed the excesses of Wall Street and how absurd it was that they were permitted to boil up. At the event, Lewis noted that he and his cohorts had each been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to provide financial advice to clients, despite the fact that they had just 26 years of experience with life, just a few of which pertained to financial services. The higher up the rungs one went, the more ludicrous things seemed to get.
Describing the profile of a higher-up, Lewis said he was not well-educated, and at times not even a high-school graduate. He -- there were no "shes" -- was from "somewhere horrible in New Jersey"; his name was "Tommy or Danny or Bobby"; and he had an "incredible amount of body hair." As far as the top-level executives went, Lewis seemed to have even less respect.
He drew parallels to Salomon Brothers' excesses in the late-1980s and
today: "The book I'd written in 1989 wasn't about the end of an era, but the beginning of an era," he said.
Lewis noted that in both situations, "not only were five guys generating more than 100% of the profits, but no one else understood what they were doing, not even the CEO."
That may be something of an exaggeration, but nonetheless, Lewis seemed to imply, correctly, that whether or not his bosses had MBAs and PhDs, they didn't foresee the messes they were creating. The Salomon mortgage-backed securities innovations led to the derivatives based on those securities, all of which were part of the current crisis. Whether high-school educated, Ivy-League educated or not educated at all, no one seemed to see it coming -- except for a select few wise guys that made a killing, detailed in Lewis' most recent book,
The Big Short
, and others like it.
Still, at some point in the recent past, people had some faith in their financial executives. Now, even the most respected have their hands dirty in some mess or another. They either move to politics, shrug it off or sit in a holding pattern til the winds die down enough to move forward.
head Robert Steel, who has reportedly been tapped to become the deputy mayor of New York City. Goldman's former CEO Hank Paulson went on to lead the Treasury during the height of the crisis, while another, Jon Corzine, went on to lead New Jersey, failed at getting re-elected, then scooted back into the head of the table at MF Global.
Then there's former
CEO John Thain, who was ousted from the combined
Bank of America
entity and now leads
, after it emerged from bankruptcy. Former
CEO Dick Fuld has avoided the limelight by taking up with the hedge fund Matrix Associates, and former
CEO Edward Liddy did the same by joining private-equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice. Others, like former
CEO Kerry Killinger, haven't openly accepted any new offers.
Today, there's the new guard: Bank of America's Brian Moynihan, a young, fresh-faced former lawyer trying to make nice with consumers; Vikram Pandit, the Indian-born intellectual who holds degrees in engineering, science and finance, and now leads Citigroup; Jamie Dimon, the New Yorker with Ivy-League credentials who is respected, but has been around for quite some time and may be departing soon; Lloyd Blankfein, who is tainted due to his association with Goldman, regardless of credentials; Morgan Stanley's leadership, which always seems to be playing catch-up with Goldman; and John Stumpf, who heads
but still has that community-banker sensibility (and reputation).
Lewis didn't mention the leadership of today's financial firms by name, apart from comparing Goldman with Salomon. But speaking in the context of Wall Street's lack of stewardship, and Washington's lack of enforcement, he said the following:
"I'm thinking of writing a piece asking, Why do we even need the stock market?" said Lewis. "It keeps screwing up everything ... If the CEO can't understand what the hell is going on inside his firm, how are shareholders supposed to understand?"
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York