Image Credit: Christophe Vorlet
By Jason Zweig | Nov. 26, 2011
This Thanksgiving weekend, Wall Street should say a prayer of gratitude for Occupy Wall Street.
While some bankers and brokers have sympathized with or supported this ragtag protest movement, others grouse that they are being demonized.
But compared with financiers of the past, who faced nasty rhetoric, political hostility and physical danger, today’s bankers and brokers seem like a bunch of babies when they whine about being targeted by these dissidents.
The “Occupy” rhetoric might sound overheated, but it is golden praise alongside what bankers used to hear.
In 1870, the essayist Henry Adams compared the financier Jay Gould to a spider; Joseph Pulitzer, the famous editor, later called Gould “one of the most sinister figures that have ever flitted bat-like across the vision of the American people.”
In 1883, a young New York state legislator named Theodore Roosevelt lambasted “the wealthy criminal class” on Wall Street. In 1910, Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin called J.P. Morgan “a beefy, red-faced, thick-necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power.”
Between 1892 and 1911, at least 53 bills were introduced in Congress to stifle speculation and derivatives trading, although none quite became law. No fewer than 21 states—including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas—passed laws restricting speculation, short selling or trading in futures or options.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters have also been far more peaceful than their forebears.
On the original “Black Friday”—not the shopping day after Thanksgiving, but Sept. 24, 1869, when Jay Gould cornered and crashed the gold market—fury was in the air. “An angry mob gathered…howling for vengeance,” wrote historian Maury Klein in his biography The Life and Legend of Jay Gould, and “a company of militia was hurriedly ordered into readiness.” Gould slunk out a backdoor to safety, guarded by a gang of armed thugs.
In 1877, a speculator who had lost money betting against Gould ambushed him on the sidewalk, slugging the financier and then flinging him down an eight-foot flight of stairs into the basement of a barber shop. Gould was battered but unbowed, although he never again walked the streets without a bodyguard.
In 1891, an assassin tried to kill the investment banker Russell Sage by detonating 10 pounds of dynamite. The bomber and Sage’s secretary were killed; Sage survived, perhaps by using a messenger as a human shield. In 1892, an anarchist shot Henry Clay Frick point-blank in the neck; the mogul survived. J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, among other financial barons, faced frequent death threats.
In September 1920, a bomb went off in a horse-drawn wagon parked in front of J.P. Morgan & Co. on Wall Street, killing 40 people; the criminal was never found.
Wall Street rarely concedes that regulation has made the markets safer not only for investors but for Wall Street itself. Because the public believes that modern regulation enforces standards of fairness that were lacking in the past, bankers and brokers don’t have to fear for their lives when they walk down the sidewalk.
Wall Street hasn’t yet had to answer to a higher authority, either. In 1940, the investing writer Fred Schwed recalled the eve of the Crash of 1929:
“There was a luxurious club car which ran each week-day morning into the Pennsylvania Station. When the train stopped, the assorted millionaires who had been playing bridge, reading the paper, and comparing their fortunes, filed out of the front end of the car.…Those who needed a nickel in change for the subway ride downtown took one [from a bowl near the door]. They were not expected to put anything back in exchange; this was not money.…It was only five cents [roughly 65 cents in 2011 dollars].
“There have been many explanations of the sudden debacle of October, 1929. The explanation I prefer is that the eye of Jehovah, a wrathful god, happened to chance in October on that bowl. In sudden understandable annoyance, Jehovah kicked over the financial structure of the United States, and…the bowl of free nickels disappeared forever.”
Mr. Schwed, who died in 1966, might be shocked to realize that the bowl didn’t disappear forever after all. Government bailouts in the latest financial crisis distributed billions of free nickels to failing banks—staving off collapse and enabling the banks to speculate anew with cheap money.
Perhaps, as was true after the Crash of 1929, we will only know that this long bear market is over when, at long last, it consumes the people who perpetrated it. Above all, Wall Street should be grateful that Jehovah hasn’t kicked over this bowl of nickels, too—at least, not yet.
Source: The Wall Street Journal