Michael Lewis upset a lot of people on Wall Street with his latest book, Flash Boys, and the media campaign that went along with it, and just in case he left anyone out he’s painted Wall Street in broad strokes as corrupt conformists who struggle to make lasting attachments.
“Not everyone on Wall Street does stuff that would have horrified them, had it been described to them in plain English, when they were 20,” he writes on BloombergView. “But enough do that it makes you wonder. What happens between then and now?”
Lewis compares the market to coin-flipping
Every industry, or at least every company, will have its own culture that affects young graduates who enter its ranks, but Lewis thinks that Wall Street is especially harmful. The focus on short-term gains over long-term value encourages risky behavior, as we’ve all seen, and misaligned incentives mean that bankers don’t necessarily work for the benefit of either their clients or the bank as a whole. These pitfalls are well known and can at least be partially mitigated with better regulations and well thought out compensation packages, but Lewis takes his criticism further.
According to Lewis, most people on Wall Street pretend to know a lot more than they do, and what they offer is less financial analysis than “a forecasting service for a coin-flipping contest.” A lot of short-term stock pickers fall into this category, but many of the most successful fund managers will happily admit that they don’t know what the market is going to do tomorrow. They succeed by accounting for that ignorance in their investment strategy in different ways, not by deluding themselves. The overemphasis on short-term price movements is real, but it isn’t universal.
Lewis oversteps with sweeping generalizations
“Anyone who works in big finance will also find it surprisingly hard to form deep attachments to anything much greater than himself,” says Lewis. His views that the big investment banks should be understood as a collection of ambitious people looking out for their own interests has merit. Claiming that all of those people will have problems forming meaningful attachments is a wild generalization.
Finally, Lewis argues that people in finance are under pressure not to question the status quo, and uses the backlash against IEX as an example. But whatever you think about high frequency trading or the IEX, the idea that the market hasn’t changed along with the IT revolution (eg new computer-enabled strategies including HFT and lower fees) hasn’t been paying much attention. The problems that Lewis highlights do exist on Wall Street, but turning fair points into broad generalizations undermines his arguments.