Six weeks ago, a young, Stanford-educated Goldman Sachs employee named Greg Smith wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times decrying his firm’s “toxic culture” — and then promptly disappeared from sight. The New York Post soon reported that he’d parleyed his poison-pen into a $1.5 million book deal with a top Manhattan-based publisher. Unlike Smith, the highly-educated young people in the video above — an excerpt from tonight’s Frontline: Money, Power and Wall Street, (Part 2) — are willing to show their faces on camera. Million-dollar book deals may or may not be forthcoming. But if they share anything with Smith, it’s a sense that something went very, very wrong on the way to their Wall Street dream.
Take Caitlin Kline, a math major at New York University, who thought of becoming a teacher before joining banking titan Credit Suisse First Boston in 2004. She stayed for six years. In the video excerpt, Kline talks about her experience on Wall Street. “Everybody kind of knows in their heart that something’s not right,” Kline says. “But once you are making money for a while, you don’t ever want to stop making money.” She adds: “You have the sneaking suspicion that you’re not contributing to society. But it was always really easy to say, ‘I know the risks. They know the risks. None of this is our money. So, you know, we can kinda do these things, and it’s all fair game.’”
Kline is just one rueful voice among many, throughout this detailed, four-hour series, which is surely the most comprehensive treatment of the financial meltdown to be depicted on film to date. Frontline takes the time to work through the roots of the crisis, and describes how sophisticated derivatives, the product of years of so-called “financial innovation,” turned into what Warren Buffett called “financial weapons of mass destruction” — wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy. Through scores of interviews with experts, journalists and participants, the film describes in painstaking, tick-tock detail how the crisis caused chaos and confusion at the highest levels of power, from Wall Street to Washington, D.C.
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Four hours of financial jargon, dense interviews and Frontline’s trademark methodical pace can be a lot — especially with such unappetizing subject material — so the producers wisely split the film up. (Part Two of the series airs tonight.) But the length is appropriate for the worst domestic economic dislocation in decades, even if the sheer duration of the presentation induces a kind of stunned nausea. Few subjects cry out for a lengthy, rigorous journalistic treatment like a crisis that remains ongoing, with uncertainty stretching from the millions who remain unemployed to the future of financial regulation itself.
Uncertainty is everywhere. With U.S. economic growth slowing, the already-weak recovery is starting to wobble, prompting fears of a slowdown. Meanwhile, the nation’s top economists are feuding, and throughout the country people still have basic questions that often get lost in the very financial jargon that helped obscure the crisis itself. What just happened? Is it finally over? Is anyone going to jail? How can we make sure it never happens again? With a disaster is so vast, complex and far-reaching, it can be helpful to return to fundamental questions, and Frontline takes the time to examine each, and more, in detail. Unfortunately, the conclusions will not be generally satisfying, or even re-assuring, but I’m not going to spoil anything, so to speak.
It’s worth taking the time to watch for yourself, especially for stories like that of Cathy O’Neil, a young Harvard PhD graduate and data scientist who left academia in 2007 to join one of the most secretive hedge funds on Wall Street: quant trading titan D.E. Shaw. (Quants are the so-called “rocket scientist” physics and math whizzes who used complex formulas to try to predict the market, and of course, “manage risk.”) “I just felt like I was doing something immoral,” O’Neil tells the show. “I was taking advantage of people I don’t even know whose retirements were in these funds.”
Unlike Greg Smith, formerly of Goldman Sachs, O’Neil hasn’t disappeared from the scene with a fat book advance. Rather, she’s joined Occupy Wall Street, where she is now a facilitator of the Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking Working Group. On her blog Mathbabe, O-Neil aims to cut through the jargon and terminology, and get answers about what’s actually happening in the financial system. “Anyone investigating the true health of the banking industry, apparently including regulators, is faced with opacity, complexity, and even outright hostility that stymies all but the most savvy and persistent,” she wrote in a recent post. “Shouldn’t the truth be clearly visible in the accounting? Shouldn’t we all–borrowers, investors, depositors, and regulators–want to know exactly what’s going on?