A few months ago, Democratic party leaders attended a meeting in New York with some of the titans of Wall Street, among them heads of brand-name hedge funds and top private equity firms. The gathering was billed not as the usual high-dollar fundraiser but as a bridge-building exercise in which powerful financiers could vent their opinions privately to Democratic bosses.
Two US senators who formed part of the Democratic delegation kicked off the meeting by inviting the financiers to air their concerns about party policy. One of the big name Wall Street figures stood up, proclaimed grandly that he was speaking on behalf of every financial person in the room, and then slammed into the Democratic lawmakers for having had the audacity even to consider disbanding a low-tax arrangement popular with hedge fund managers known as “carried interest”.
“That was startling to me,” said one of the other financiers present in the room that day. “Here was a gathering of Wall Street’s greatest minds and what were we discussing? Not how to generate more jobs or create an economy that works for everyone, but how to protect our vested interests and tax advantages.”
Let’s call the financier speaking here by the false name Frank. He is one of a rare and fascinating breed which Politico has dubbed Bankers for Bernie – high-profile Wall Street figures who, unlike most of their peers, are prepared to abandon pure self-interest and embrace the radical financial reforms espoused by Bernie Sanders.
Even Asher Edelman, one of the real-life templates for Gordon “greed is good” Gekko of the 1987 movie Wall Street, has joined the club, writing in the Guardian that only Sanders is “committed to honest solutions” to the crisis of income inequality.
The fact that Frank – a prominent New York hedge fund manager – is only willing to talk to the Guardian anonymously itself tells a story. It’s not that he’s ashamed about his backing for Bernie – quite the contrary: he has openly canvassed for Sanders in Iowa and frequently goes out leafleting for him in New York City. Rather, Frank’s desire to keep his name out of the news was a reflection, he said, of the stultifying consensus within the New York financial world that Sanders’ proposals to rein in Wall Street and prevent another Great Recession are dangerous and must be rebuffed. He looks at his fellow hedge fund folk, and thinks to himself that “they have made so much money, yet all they want to do is preserve what they’ve got. It’s got so out of whack that virtually nobody is willing to think about the basic unfairness of income inequality or how to improve the economy.”
Since Sanders launched his run for the White House last May, the senator from Vermont has dragged finance reform from the margins of political debate to the center of the Democratic presidential stage. Now the issues that he cares most deeply about – banks that are “too big to fail”, Wall Street financiers who are immune from prosecution, grotesque income inequality – regularly dominate the televised debates that pitch him against Hillary Clinton, the latest of which will be held in Brooklyn Thursday night.
It’s got so out of whack that virtually nobody is willing to think about the basic unfairness of income inequality
In the past week, the question of Wall Street reform has gained further prominence as the focus of the presidential contest has swung to the home turf of the world’s financial capital ahead of New York’s own primary vote on 19 April.
Unusually for New York, the state, with its fat crop of 291 Democratic delegates out of the 2,382 needed to win, is being fiercely fought over, and that in turn has pushed the question of what to do with those pesky financiers and their high-risk gambles even further up the political agenda.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Wall Street within the New York primary. More than half of the active Democratic voters likely to participate in the ballot live in New York City, and within the boundaries of the five boroughs the financial services industry accounts for almostone in 10 private sector jobs and nearly a third of the payroll – equivalent to a total of one million of New York City’s private sector jobs.
That doesn’t mean that all those jobs and all that money are going to those titans of Wall Street who were in the room with Frank. Much of the economic activity goes to relatively low-paid service workers who support the financial sector, such as healthcare, food and retail workers.
“Financial services form a big voting bloc, but people who work at the lower end of the industry and in the support services may well be Bernie fans,” said Paul Ryan, a fully signed-up member of that elite club, Bankers for Bernie. Ryan, a managing director at Tripoint Global Equities, an investment bank that works with small businesses, believes that the physical presence of Wall Street and the ostentatious wealth that flows from it through Manhattan provide ample evidence that Sanders’ radical policies are right.
“New Yorkers are particularly well positioned to see how the rich are screwing over everybody else. You just have to look at real estate prices – people will take a look at what’s happening across the city and a certain number will be disgusted by it: Bernie speaks to them,” he said.
Ryan said his work with smaller companies, who continue to find it much harder to obtain finance than big corporations in the wake of the 2008 crash, has set him apart from most of his peers and made him more amenable to Sanders’ call for a Wall Street shake up. “These past few years haven’t been good for my clients as nobody is talking about meaningful policies to reinvigorate small business and manufacturing,” he said.
Ryan admits there is an element of self-interest in his support for Sanders in that his investment firm depends on the financial health of its clients who are hurting. But he also insists that his unusual position as a financier who wants to see major change on Wall Street comes from something more fundamental in him: “Conscience. I have a conscience. We have gone so far down the road of Reagan economics we’ve ended up in downright cruelty. That’s why Bernie must win.”
We have gone so far down the road of Reagan economics we’ve ended up in downright cruelty. That’s why Bernie must win.
Paul Ryan, financier
In the case of Wade Black, COO at the boutique investment banking firm Scarsdale Equities, it was the experience of watching the financial world suffer serial convulsions that turned him into a Banker for Bernie.
“I’m 42. In my relatively short career on Wall Street, I’ve watched us lurch from crisis to crisis – from the Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the dot-com bubble, post-9/11 – without exactly learning our lesson.”
After all that, Black came to the conclusion that “capitalism works better if we don’t have a class of banks who take all the reward and none of the risk.” And like Ryan, he thinks the fallout of that disparity is written all over New York city.
“Just look at the city and you see the problem writ large. Income inequality in New York is huge – you just have to walk around Queens and Brooklyn to see what’s going on. It’s unsustainable.”
Asked to describe how he came to feel the Bern, Black said that his anxieties about the industry in which he has worked all his life grew out of his questioning of American politics. “I developed a dissatisfaction with establishment politics,” he said, adding that in 2012 he voted for neither Barack Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Then in 2014, Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt helped to “pull the scales from off my eyes. It showed me that the regulatory structure was rigged and I could no longer ignore that.”
Black said he did not mindWall Street becoming a target of Sanders’ invective. He’d continue supporting the candidate, he speculated, “even to the extent that Bernie’s reforms meant I lost my job”.
Though Sanders’ passionate stance against the large and growing inequalities that are visible in New York City may resonate with many Democratic voters in next week’s primary, the US senator from Vermont still has an uphill struggle going into the vote. The most recent poll from Monmouth University has Clinton ahead by 12 percentage points, with 51% of likely Democratic voters in New York supporting her compared with 39% for Sanders.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute, said that there was still much to play for as there were signs beneath the headline figures that Sanders’ criticisms of Wall Street were resonating with important New York voting blocs. In particular, in upstate areas and rust-belt towns such as Buffalo and Rochester, the decline in manufacturing and the ensuing economic woes spoke to Sanders’ message.
“Sanders attracts young people who are uncertain about their own future and fear they won’t do as well as their parents did, as well as older white men who aren’t doing so well and are plentiful in cities like Buffalo,” Murray said.
Clinton has tried to fend off her rival’s attacks by stressing her dependability as a potential president who could get things done, in contrast to what she has portrayed as Sanders’ flights of fancy. The approach on Wednesday won her the influential backing of the liberal tabloid the New York Daily News, which earlier this month held an editorial board interview with Sanders in which he appeared to struggle to answer fairly basic questions about his Wall Street policies such as how he would break up the biggest banks.
Later, Sanders put out a statement in which he laid out his plan to break up “too big to fail” banks within the first year of his administration, using the authority vested in the executive by the post-2008 crash Dodd-Frank Act. But by then the damage had already been already done. Announcing its endorsement of Clinton, the Daily News dismissed Sanders as “a fantasist who’s at passionate war with reality” while praising her as a politician who was “supremely knowledgeable about the powers a president can wield to lift fortunes in need of lifting”.
Still, it is indisputable that the unexpectedly potent campaign of a self-described democratic socialist who has put Wall Street at the core of his critique of modern America has forced Clinton to shift ground sharply to the left. She has come a long way from the first lady who stood by President Bill Clinton’s side in 1999 as he signed into law the repeal of Glass-Steagall regulations that in turn allowed investment and commercial banks to fuse and unleashed, in the view of several erudite economists , the reckless lending that would cause the Great Recession.
In her own Daily News editorial board interview , published on Monday, Clinton went as far as to agree with Sanders that Dodd-Frank gave the White House authority to break up banks “that pose a grave threat to financial stability”. She promised that as president she would appoint financial regulators who would be prepared to make hard calls to prevent a repeat of 2008, as well as to empower and resource prosecutors to press criminal charges if merited – a far cry from the 1990s.
For me income inequality is the civil rights issue of our time
Adam Green, cofounder of the million-member advocacy organization Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), said that ideas like breaking up too-big-to-fail banks were not long ago on the margins of Democratic politics. “Now the center of gravity of the Democratic party as it thinks about Wall Street has dramatically shifted and both the candidates are talking about jailing bankers who break the law and breaking up big institutions.”
For the Bankers for Bernie, however, Clinton’s talk about toughening up the regulators and empowering prosecutors doesn’t go far enough. He may be an investment banker himself, but Ryan prefers Sanders’ pledge to begin breaking up the banks in his first 100 days in the White House over Clinton’s more indirect promises.
“She has a thousand talking points, but when the lights are turned off and all the glare of the election fades, politics-as-normal will return, the lobbyists will get to work, and nothing at all will happen,” he said.
Frank, still speaking anonymously, agrees. “Hillary Clinton is paying lip-service to Wall Street changes. Maybe in her heart she means business, but for me income inequality is the civil rights issue of our time, and I feel strongly we need a president who is totally committed to making this happen.”