By Jason Zweig | March 16, 2012 2:00 pm ET
Image credit: Frans Snyders, “Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market” (1614), Art Institute of Chicago
Greg Smith’s letter announcing his resignation from Goldman Sachs Group contained many juicy tidbits, perhaps most notably that he heard at least five senior Goldman executives refer to their clients as “muppets.” (In the U.K., where Smith was based, a “muppet” refers not just to a stuffed cartoon character but is a synonym for “idiot.”)
Cynics with a sense of Wall Street history, however, were entirely unsurprised: Contempt for clients is as old as markets themselves.
In fact, it’s only in recent years that the term “client” has been used at all.
For decades, brokers called themselves “customers’ men.” In 1949, the great analyst Benjamin Graham noted in the first edition of his book The Intelligent Investor:
A great deal is at stake in the innocent-appearing question whether “customers” or “clients” is the more appropriate name. A business has customers; a professional person or organization has clients. The Wall Street brokerage fraternity has probably the highest ethical standards of any business, but it is still feeling its way toward the standards and standing of a true profession.
With his last remark, Graham was emphasizing that the morals on Wall Street might not be below those in other businesses – but that they ought to be far better. Graham also wanted his readers to realize that the word “customer” epitomized Wall Street’s culture of sales, not service.
In that respect, 2012 differs little from 1949.
Over the years, I have heard brokers and institutional traders refer to clients as:
dupes (a word that appears in Thomas Mortimer’s “Every Man His Own Broker,” probably the first popular guide to investing, published in London in 1761)
ducks (as in “When the ducks quack, feed ‘em”)
lambs to be shorn
(Note: Since this is a family website, I’m omitting dozens of terms you would never want your children to hear.)
As you would guess from these sorts of metaphors, brokers and investment bankers have long been regarded (often by themselves) as predators.
In his An Essay on the South Sea Trade, published in London in 1712, Daniel Defoe (yes, the author of Robinson Crusoe) called stockbrokers “Man-eating Discounters … those Cannibals.” In his The Anatomy of Exchange-Alley (1719), Defoe referred to the typical investor as a “gudgeon,” or someone as stupid as a fish, and a “cull,” or simpleton. The great essayist Richard Steele, in The Tatler of May 25, 1710, used “a beast of prey” as a synonym for “trader.”
In the early 18th century, a broker was often called a “sharper” or a “bite” (or “biter”), in obvious allusions to the sharp teeth of carnivores. “Setters” and “pointers” apparently flushed out naive citizens for manipulative insiders to prey upon.
Strikingly, according to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language, in the 1920s unscrupulous stock promoters revived similar images: a forceful stock salesman was called an “airedale,” and someone who brought in new customers was called a “bird-dog.” Mencken also drily noted that the term “dynamiter” referred to a stockbroker “of extraordinary virulence.”
The shock isn’t that the big kahunas at an investment bank might disparage their clients. The shock is that anyone should be shocked by it.
Source: WSJ.com, Total Return blog, http://on.wsj.com/19na4K4