Wall Street has been given a bad rap over the years.
Some of what is reported in the media and shown in movie theaters is definitely true — but there are also plenty of diamonds in the rough.
As the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, a group of professional business leaders, I am blessed to know many individuals of rock-solid character and deep faith.
I asked one of our leaders, Jason Trennert, chairman of Strategas — a Wall Street firm providing investment strategy, economic research and political analysis to institutional investors around the world — to share his perspective.
Here are his thoughts, shared exclusively with LifeZette:
“I happen to believe that the business model of Wall Street,” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said during the 2016 campaign, “is fraud and deception.”
Given the magnitude of the great financial crisis of 2008, it isn’t surprising that political opportunists and some pundits persist in characterizing those who work on Wall Street as soulless overachievers who would do anything to make a buck. High finance, like any other business or human endeavor, does have its share of scoundrels.
But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the financial services industry employees 6 million people in the U.S., the vast majority of whom are regular, middle-class people who take the subway to work, and worry about paying the mortgage and sending their children to college. Like good people in all industries, they do their best to provide their clients with quality advice and good service.
Those of us committed to the industry feel no need to defend the indefensible — like predatory lending — committed in the name of “financial innovation.” We also don’t oppose common-sense regulations such as higher capital requirements for companies considered too big to fail.
What pains many of us is how willfully ignorant many political leaders understand about the capital markets and their role in powering the greatest economic engine the world has ever known. Many of them seem to see banks as useful only for storing wealth and facilitating transactions — providing savings accounts and debit cards.
Virtually no attention is paid to the next step, which is turning those deposits into capital — money that banks lend to businesses is transformed into productive resources — factories, machine tools, trucks, and the like. The West’s establishment of property rights, and the banking system that grew up around them, turned assets into capital and the ambitions of entrepreneurs and inventors into reality.
Modern banking, while imperfect and subject at times to excess, has been an enormous contributor to human progress, which has put a serious dent in the crushing poverty that was once, even among Western countries, the norm rather than the exception. The ability to raise capital breathed life into the dreams of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, Gates and Jobs.
Charlie Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch, was the first to understand that the distinction between “Wall Street” and “Main Street” was artificial. He believed that the average American — not just the wealthy — should be able to buy shares in the country’s greatest companies. His legacy allowed untold millions of savers to put money in the stock market and retire in comfort.
Virtually all of the millions of people employed by the financial services industry are committed to humbly building better lives for themselves and their clients. I know, because I’ve worked on Wall Street for nearly 30 years and started a firm 11 years ago that employs 60 people in offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
As an entrepreneur who takes his Catholic faith seriously, I have learned that the essence of capitalism is serving the needs and wants of other people — my co-workers, their families, and, of course, our clients. As such, it pains me to see political opportunists continually try to draw distinctions between Americans: rich and poor, black and white, men and women, etc.
The country has proved to be at its greatest when we realize that we are all in this thing called life together. Perhaps we can look to Muhammed Ali for inspiration. The writer George Plimpton claimed that the great boxer recited the shortest poem in the English language at a Harvard commencement ceremony: “Me / We.” That’s half the length of Ogden Nash’s “Fleas” — “Adam / Had ’em” — and twice as profound.”
Jason is one of many good people on Wall Street.
He has a deep love for his Catholic faith, his wife and his children, and, like many bankers and analysts on Wall Street, he wakes up every morning with the desire to be a true light in a city that has plenty of darkness.
These men and women are truly making a significant dent in the moral fiber of this town.
Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.