Michael Lewis, Wall Street, and Trust

Outsourcer?Right after Michael Lewis’s 60-Minutes appearance to promote his new book Flash Boys I wrote a blogpost about it.

The next day I received a phone call from a retail stock broker. His tone was somewhere between kindly uncle and exasperated old-timer, but his message was clear:

“That Lewis guy’s obviously got an axe to grind,” said the caller. “He lost big-time in the market and he’s trying to get even with people. And that Katsuyama guy he writes about, he’s just a spoiled baby, trying to make an even bigger buck than he was lucky to get paid in the first place. The whole thing is just a bunch of hype designed to sell books, and you’re getting suckered into it.”

If you know anything about the book (and if you don’t, here’s a good start), you know that’s a crock. In any case, my caller exhibited three traits:

  1. He’s convinced the world is of the dog-eat-dog variety,
  2. He’s convinced that everyone else believes the same thing,
  3. The default strategy therefore is do unto others before they do unto you.

My caller does not believe in people with different value systems. Let’s call such people “unicorns” Canadians.  (Did I mention Katsuyama is Canadian?)

Now, I suggest the odds of making my caller more trusting and  trustworthy through more regulations are roughly zero. The odds of making him trustworthy  through incentives, can be only slightly better (and I can’t even imagine the incentives).

The only way he’s ever likely to behave in a trusting and trustworthy manner is if he gets beat in a level playing field market by those who are capable of trusting and being trusted.

The Showdown on CNBC

The next day, Lewis and the book’s hero Brad Katsuyama appeared in a very confrontational spot on CNBC  with Bill O’Brien, President of BATS. BATS is an exchange that the book accused of being at the heart of misleading investors and supporting high frequency trading in a legal form of “front-running.”

O’Brien wasted no time throwing the first punch, leading off with:

O’Brien: Shame on you, Michael and Brad, shame on you both for falsely accusing literally thousands of people and possibly scaring millions of investors in an effort to promote a business model. It’s a very, very old tactic to try to build a business on the planks of fear, mistrust and accusation; this is certainly taking that to a new level. It reflects either an unwillingness – a continued lack of understanding about how this market operates or just unwillingness to acknowledge it, because you’re trying to launch a new business and you want to get volume for your platform…

Katsuyama: If you’re going to launch these accusations, let me ask – what market data do you use to price trades?

O’Brien:  We use direct feeds.

Katsuyama: No, you don’t. [You use SIP feeds]

O’Brien: Yes, we do [use direct feeds]

The very next day, the Wall Street Journal reported:

BATS Global Markets Inc., under pressure from the New York Attorney General’s office, corrected statements made by a senior executive during a televised interview this week about how its exchanges work…the exchange operator said two of its exchanges, EDGA and EGX, use a slower feed, known as the Securities Information Processor, to price trades.

This is what is known, in my circles as – technical term – being caught in a flat-out lie.

In any case, Mr. O’Brien exhibited the same three traits as my retail-level caller:

  1. He’s convinced the world is of the dog-eat-dog variety,
  2. He’s convinced that everyone else believes the same thing,
  3. The default strategy therefore is do unto others before they do unto you. Which of course is just what he tried to do.

O’Brien does not believe in people who believe in honesty or fair dealing; in other words, he does not believe in unicorns or Canadians – even when staring one in the face (did I mention that Katsuyama is Canadian?).

The odds of making O’Brien and his ilk more trustworthy through better regulations are roughly zero. The odds of making him trustworthy  through incentives, only slightly better (and I still can’t even imagine the incentives).

The only way he’s likely to behave in a trusting and trustworthy manner is if he gets beat in a level playing field market by those who are capable of trusting and being trusted.

And that is precisely what Brad Katsuyama is setting out to do in the development of a new exchange, IEX. Not a regulatory answer; not a new incentives answer; an answer based on the hope that enough customers in the market will actually choose to do business with an exchange that is unconflicted, that is transparent about its data, that offers only easy-to-understand offers, and that enforces a level playing field.

Will it work?  Stay tuned. There are some interesting positive signs, including even from (hold your breath) Goldman Sachs.

Trust on Wall Street

Having focused solely on trust in business for over 15 years now, several things are apparent to me.

1. The Mother Theresa Paradox is Real. The less trust exists in an industry, the less interested are the industry players in reforming it. It is the already-trust-conscious industries (and companies) who are convinced of trust’s value, and who are interested in improving it. This despite the fact that trust is an overwhelmingly powerful competitive advantage for anyone who can see it. Katsuyama’s new exchange will be a great test of that proposition.

By anybody’s measure (e.g. Edelman’s Trust Barometer), financial services are at the bottom of the trust list. Low hanging fruit, for anyone willing to think their way out of the low-trust box.

2. You Can’t Get Trust with Cheese.  The rats-and-cheese model of behavioral change through incentives doesn’t work with trust, because incentives are personal and trust is relational. Unless you can make incentives team-based and long term, they fail. Even then, they can and will be gamed by very smart rats. See next item.

3. Regulation Is a Vicious Circle. Wall Street pays much more than regulators, and many regulators go to work in the industry they regulate. Regulators have small budgets. But even if that were untrue, you can’t regulate morality. In fact, the more you make “ethics” the target of regulatory efforts, the less it becomes about morality and the more it becomes just compliance.

4. The Needed Values are Clear. They’ve been obvious for some time. They are:

  1. a focus on the client first for the sake of the client
  2. a belief in collaboration
  3. a focus on relationships, not transactions
  4. a default to transparency

These are key to trust. They are clearly in short supply on Wall Street.

So, how to increase ethics on Wall Street? Two answers:

One is, cheer on Brad Katsuyama’s noble capitalist market experiment in honesty, transparency and customer focus.

The other? Instead of Occupy Wall Street, how about – Outsource Wall Street! To Canada!

Within months, I suspect, we’d see lower transaction costs, less risk of flash crashes, higher liquidity, higher legitimate volume, and a reduction in the total size of the industry with no loss of value added.

All it takes is the willingness to operate based on values other than dog-eat-dog.


8 replies
  1. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    “The less trust exists in an industry, the less interested are the industry players in reforming it. It is the already-trust-conscious industries (and companies) who are convinced of trust’s value, and who are interested in improving it.” Amen, Charlie!

    At a recent breakfast I attended, I found myself seated between a financial services executive and a military officer. Talk about Karma! And while this sounds like the beginning of a joke, it isn’t.

    When I told the military officer what I did for a living, he “high-fived” me and said “I get it.” When the financial services guy asked the same question, his eyes glazed over as soon as the word “trust” was mentioned, he mumbled that big organizations are complex. I turned my back on him before he had a chance to do the same.

    What will it take to reach the tipping point in the industries where trust has taken a back seat? When will companies like General Motors stop getting a free pass?

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      A great contrast. The military really does understand trust, because you’re taught you are your brother’s keeper, you’re a team, and so forth. It’s all about relationships.
      By contrast, hard-core market ideology as applied in much of financial services has come to be all about self.
      You sat between two extremes, that’s for sure.

  2. John
    John says:

    Excellent post and I am optimistic as are you and Barbara. There are a number of forces at play now. The recent resignation of Eich at Mozilla points to some of it. Through the transparency and connectedness of communication today (mostly web) consumers and the market are becoming more aware of the”back story” at companies and their leaders.

    As it becomes more obvious that we can no longer hide, it is my hope we reveal our more authentic selves and in doing so we attract the market that is more suited to our values.

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    Another great post, Charlie. I especially resonated with your comment on regulation as a vicious circle. We work with clients in different regulated industries and coach the point you make that if you only act to be compliant you will probably fail. Instead, if you proactively meet the spirit of the regulations you are more likely to demonstrate trustworthiness to any auditor reviewing your business.
    The Edelman’s report nicely summarized this as we need to evolve from only legal requirements to including societal expectations. Back at the dawn of modern economics (e.g., Adam Smith’s time) this was a requirement of business–you could not hide from your community. Today’s world is flatter and more distributed, and many businesses are no longer as connected to (or committed to) specific communities.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      I think you’re very right to remind us that business used to be inextricably linked to community. Certainly true with Adam Smith, regardless of the revisionist view of him by Ayn Rand et al. In fact, it was true in our collective ideology as recently as 30 years ago; just think about banking as represented every Christmas by the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

  4. Robert
    Robert says:

    I’m the founder of an investment firm that was built on trust and putting the client first. Yet, the reality is that If I would have stayed with the Wall Street firms I’d be a much wealthier man today.

    An unfortunate reality is that consumers do have a hard time identifying who to trust. Because of this, in numerous occupations, the scum rises to the top faster, and in much greater quantity than the cream. Dishonesty is rewarded handsomely – especially in politics, law, and finance.

    Personally, I think one of the keys to helping instill honesty is to openly discuss the reality that many dishonest people excel. It’s an important lesson, that many seem to think should be denied, and would rather put forth a more Pollyannaish view.

    On a brighter note, it seems the world of finance is making progress, and as pointed out in the article, that progress is coming from the competition. Firms like mine are beginning to capture enough market share to get attention.

    How have the big firms responded? They’ve made some transparency improvements, and they’ve made a lot of donations to politicians to assure more “regulatory capture”.

    For anyone interested, I just wrote an article last week called “Wall Street Wolves? The real Villain is the Sheep’s Clothing” http://www.leahywealthmanagement.com/wall-street-wolves-real-villain-sheeps-clothing/


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