Ron Chernow: The Lost Tycoons





[Ron Chernow is the author of “The House of Morgan” and “Alexander Hamilton.”]

With breathtaking speed, the world of large Wall Street investment banks has vanished. Fabled firms, some more than a century old, have been merged out of existence (Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch), gone bankrupt (Lehman Brothers), or sought asylum as commercial bank holding companies (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley). Why on earth did this happen?

The death of Wall Street has been a long-running, slow-motion crisis, barely discernible to participants who had still booked huge profits in recent years. Beneath the razzle-dazzle of trading desks and the wizardry of esoteric finance lay the inescapable fact that these firms had shed their original reason for being: providing capital to American business.

The dynastic power exercised by Wall Street tycoons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was premised on scarce capital. Only a handful of European countries and their private bankers had surplus capital to finance overseas development. In this cash-poor world, J. Pierpont Morgan and other grandees exerted godlike powers over American railroads and manufacturers because they straddled the indispensable capital flows from Europe. With their top hats, thick cigars and gruff manners, these portly tycoons scarcely qualified as altruists. As Morgan liked to warn sentimental souls, “I am not in Wall Street for my health.” Yet he and his ilk rendered America an invaluable service by reassuring European investors that they would receive an adequate return on their investments, securing an uninterrupted flow of capital.

To safeguard those returns, old-line investment bankers became all-powerful overlords of their exclusive clients. When they issued company shares, they retained a large block for themselves. Some clients chafed at these gilded shackles, while others gloried in their servitude. As the head of the New Haven railroad, a Morgan client, boasted to reporters, “I wear the Morgan collar, but I am proud of it. If Mr. Morgan were to order me tomorrow to China or Siberia in his interests, I would pack up and go.”

In the sunless maze of Lower Manhattan, the old Wall Street houses were miniature temples of finance. Elite, all-male and lily-white, rife with snobbery and bigotry, they didn’t bother to hang a shingle outside, and the tacit message to pedestrians was clear: keep on walking. This reflected the banks’ patented formula of serving only the most creditworthy clients: industrialized nations, blue-chip corporations and wealthy individuals.

In London, these small partnerships were called “issuing houses” because they issued stocks and bonds but didn’t trade or distribute them. In their risk-averse culture, J. P. Morgan and his breed considered the stock market a faintly vulgar place, better left to Jews and assorted ethnic groups outside the top ranks of investment houses. This bias would later give predominantly Jewish firms like Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs a marked competitive edge. Even in the 1920s, patrician Wall Street firms stayed somewhat aloof from the stock market mania.

Securities laws during the New Deal, mandating fuller disclosure of corporate accounting, eroded the Wall Street moguls’ power. The new transparency reduced the need of many companies for a banker’s imprimatur to certify their soundness. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which forced full-service banks to choose between commercial and investment banking, further shrank the investment houses’ influence....



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