My dispatch from a Wall Street Tea Party can be found on AOL Daily Finance or, if you prefer the unedited version — and GUESS WHO DOES — it’s after the jump.
People in The City deeply resent the way they’ve all been associated with the actions of the (as they see it) relatively small number of people involved in the shenanigans which led to the credit crunch. Most of them don’t trade asset-backed securities or work for the off-balance-sheet subsidiaries, and they don’t see why they are the target of such generalized anger and recrimination. There is truth in that, but there is also a failure to admit that this was a cultural issue, not just the result of a set of specific actions. In fact, the bankers have been careful not to show just how much they’ve minded being the target of such generalized opprobrium.
John Lanchester, from the 2010 book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay
Yeah, not over here they haven’t. All shenanigans may be global these days, but if there is one arena in which American bankers have held truer to modern capitalism’s supposed esteem for “transparency” than their international counterparts, it is in reacting to the generalized contempt of an underemployed, debt-enslaved citizenry for whom the one small (Pyhrric yes, but still somehow invigorating) victory in this age of insecurity is finally feeling secure in the fact that our financial troubles aren’t entirely our own doing, that they were in fact in large part the deliberate design of the same rapacious industry that siphons $35 from our checking accounts for every inadvertent $1.18 overdraft and so forth.
God knows why they care what we think, with their record-breaking earnings keeping them in record-breaking bonuses — maybe a temporary curtailment in their NetJets privileges has dampened the mood? — but they do, and deeply, so deeply that certain members of our nation’s financial oligarchy repeatedly have since the panic’s initial terrors waned seemed congenitally incapable of concealing the fact they are outraged over all this outrage directed at them. There was Jake DeSantis, the AIG Financial Products trader who resigned from his job in the New York Times op-ed page with an angry letter chastising his boss for having the audacity to ask him to repay part of the hard-earned seven-figure retention bonus he’d earned for his year working at the firm that singlehandedly sucked $183 billion out of taxpayers. There was Skip McGee, the Lehman Brothers banker who in the midst of that firm’s trillion dollar bankruptcy snagged a yearly retention bonus more than ten or twenty times that of DeSantis by agreeing to stay on with the Lehman broker-dealer unit’s new owner Barclays Capital, and who months letter penned an apoplectic five-page letter to his son’s school demanding that an English teacher be fired for an alleged comment on the subject of Wall Street “sleazeballs” during a classroom discussion about the catastrophe. (The teacher kept her job, but the principal was fired last week.)
Still, I had heard of no plan for any sort of public up-close-and-personal plutocrat-on-plutocrat spectacle to give voice to the inchoate Green Counterrevolution; no Millionaire’s March offering group catharsis to the angry white wealthy, until Tuesday, Janary 4:12 EST, when I received a mass email subject headed WALL STREET STRIKES BACK AT WHITE HOUSE from one Jennifer Jacobs of Schwartz Communications, writing on behalf of someone named THOMAS BELESIS OF SAVE WALL STREET.ORG, which billed itself as A NEW NON PARTISAN ORGANIZATION THAT IS DEDICATED TO BRINGING THE PRIDE BACK INTO WALL STREET — which it humbly reminded readers is AN ECONOMIC ENGINE FOR THE CITY OF NEW YORK AND THE UNITED STATES. The email promised the presence of HUNDREDS OF BROKERS AND TRADERS and FINANCIAL LEADERS THROUGHOUT THE REGION at an indoor rally to be held the following afternoon on the 23rd floor of 14 Wall Street, finally SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THE RECENT COMMENTS OF PRESIDENT OBAMA.
Befitting such a rare opportunity to hear firsthand the pent-up grievances of plutocrats, we arrived on time at 12:30 p.m. After explaining semi-politely to the downstairs security guards that the Lost Decade of Press had left press passes in short supply we were allowed upstairs to the offices of John Thomas Financial, where an initially polite receptionist marveled something along the lines of “Wow, everyone is coming to this thing…” before ushering us through a maze of hallways, past numerous artistic renderings (both sculpture and paintings) of the Charging Bull, a large wall-mounted aquarium and four or five secured entrances into the Trading Floor, a sprawling 42,000-square foot affair containing the promised hundreds of traders and brokers — and what appeared to be quite a few female relatives and/or girlfriends brandishing digital cameras — as well something I had never seen before, a soda machine stocked exclusively with Red Bull. What I did not see were any identifiable “financial leaders” barring former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who appeared to be holding the attention of at least some of the room with his comeback appearance on the trading floor’s numerous plasma screen projectors of CNBC, which was broadcasting the latest round of Oversight Committee inquiries into the interminable AIG scam.
It was not hard to divert attention away from the hearings, and not only because the legislators’ line of questioning seemed to have lost considerable focus since the inquiry into whether Paulson’s old deputy Neel Kashkari was or was not a “chump.” There was a amped-up, listless energy about the place, like the last week of high school if there were magnet schools for physical education, that pulsed through the room as if to dare all wandering eyes not to feast on the landscape. The dress code generally brought to mind the sort of attire the cast of Jersey Shore might wear to a casting call for The Apprentice: iridescent three-piece numbers buckling slightly to contain the musculature of the boys, “tight” and occasionally ruffled for the few girls in attendance. One fellow’s forehead was badly sunburned, and I was not reminded until much later that the existence of tropical locales and air travel might serve as an alibi; where tans are as mandatory as they appeared to be at John Thomas Financial one can be forgiven for dozing off under the sun lamp on occasion. Mood: grinning shit-eatingly.
In the middle of all this, before a microphone stand and flanked by fifteen or twenty other men, stood Thomas Belesis. Whatever role physical appearance played in the brand John Thomas Financial was hoping to convey — and it seemed from all indications fairly central — Belesis appeared its platonic ideal, the entourage conspiring with his relatively limited stature to project the image of a man who warranted bodyguards. In addition to the good dozen-and-a-half television cameramen assembled, several (bronze-complected) women were dutifully aiming hand-held cameras at him. Someone finally figured out how to turn off the CNBC, and there was silence.
What followed were two speeches of profligate inanity. Belesis referenced the Declaration of Independence, although I believe he referred to the “constitution” in doing so, and then possibly compared the humble beginnings of the nation with the humble beginnings of John Thomas Financial. Then, to raucous applause, Belesis introduced an attractive, tanned, silver-haired man named Bruce Blakeman, who was evidently some sort of would-be politician, although this was anything but evident during most of his speech. In fact, it is hard to say exactly was evident from his speech, other than the fact that he disapproved of President Obama and he wasn’t alone, although he was certainly rare, in the sense that as critics of the president he was clearly capable of making Sarah Palin sound erudite, and I sincerely wish that were an exaggeration. Because if Bruce Blakeman had even so much as flirted with coherence, a casual constituent might have extrapolated from the single titular “fact” to which he made liberal and repeated reference — that the financial services industry contributes a “disproportionate” twenty percent of New York state tax revenue — that Bruce Blakeman’s understanding of the meaning of “proportion” might be radically different from the norm. And that it would be only logical to argue, in a world in which Bruce Blakeman’s definition of what was “proportionate” were the accepted standard, the government ought to fund its wars and schools and police departments and toxic asset relief regimens the way ATM machines do, by collecting flat annual fees from every man, woman and child regardless of income, wealth, age or employment status. Covering the government’s projected expenditures for the fiscal year 2010 would cost an estimated $21,000 a head, a sum which when multiplied by the median New York household size of 2.61 exceeds the state’s median household income by about $1,370, or an effective median tax rate of 107%. Such a policy would seem at least as difficult to endorse as it would be to enforce.
But whatever, all of which is just a rather verbose way of saying that it was unmitigated idiocy, not policy, that Bruce Blakeman was purveying here. When the floor was opened to ten minutes of questions, it became clear that this had not served as a deterrent to seeking to replace Kristen Gillibrand in the United States Senate seat, but it did prevent him from articulating many objections to her voting record. Would he have voted for TARP? He wouldn’t say. Health care reform, Sotomayor, Bernanke? He was not asked. “I can tell you one thing I wouldn’t have voted for,” he did say, finally, referring of course to the American Recovery And Reinvestment act of 2009, because “it didn’t work.” And how had he arrived at this conclusion?
“Because I’ve been traveling around talkin’ to people from Buffalo to Rochester,” he answered, and then, to raucous applause and laughter from the audience: “And they ain’t stimulated!”
I broke for the bathroom shortly after the formal question and answer session concluded, and found the women’s bathroom equipped with a curling iron, a straightening iron, a tube of Oscar Blandi dry shampoo, a bottle of mouthwash and small plastic cups, Victoria’s Secret body sprays and lotions in an array of scents including “Pure Seduction” and “Secret Charm”, but alas nothing in the way of menstrual supplies, not to imply that I was seeking any. If the male to female ratio seemed as favorable to the fairer sex as it seemed among the staff of John Thomas Financial, it also seemed the fairer sex was not taking any chances.
When I returned to the trading floor I found Belesis and some of his minions still surrounded by questioners. Dutifully I walked over and did what I could to restrain myself from entering the conversation. To no avail.
“Sir, you keep speaking of Wall Street in terms of being an ‘engine’ of the economy. But isn’t it more like the plumbing of the economy? I mean, do you really want Wall Street to be bigger and more powerful? What does it actually create?”
At which point one of Belesis’ more sober-looking charges, a fellow by the name of Wayne S. Kaufman, CMT, whose business card identified him as John Thomas Financial’s Chief Market Analyst, interceded.
“Well you know, the economist Robert Schiller, he recently wrote of the earthquake in Haiti, that if they’d had a better financial system they’d be in much better shape…”
“If Haiti had a functioning government they’d be in much better shape! If they had decent highways and a reliable power grid… if they any infrastructure at all they’d be in infinitely better shape! If free markets are so virtuous why did they fail to recognize that they could have gotten some great PR by doing a better job in Haiti? Did the free markets simply discount the likelihood of such a 25-sigma event…”
A slightly more rational member of the media interjected.
“What specifically do you want from the Obama Administration?”
“Well, when Obama uses terms like ‘fat cats’…”
This was not the first time the phrase “fat cats” had been invoked to stand as the supposed apotheosis of the administration’s supposedly gratuitously inflammatory epithets clearly aimed at stoking class warfare. I cannot claim to comprehend the magnitude of the terms supposed offensiveness to their ears; I can only say that I saw an episode of Jersey Shore in which a stranger at a bar (not mendaciously) accused Snooki of being “fat” and in doing so nearly touched off a Peloponnesian War and it was something like that.
“We’re not opposed to all regulation, we just want to elevate the debate to a higher intellectual level, and away from unwarranted populist invectives like ‘fat cats’…”
“Sir,” I said. “I don’t know if you have read Too Big To Fail, but there is a very interesting passage at the beginning where it is noted that Dick Fuld’s salary as the CEO of Lehman Brothers in 2006 was ten thousand times his starting salary as a bond trader at Lehman Brothers in the late sixties. If over the course of a generation, within Wall Street itself, forgetting the rest of the country and the economy and all the other industries, the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has become so huge, well, how much would Dick Fuld have to have paid himself to merit the term ‘fat cat’ to you? The real unemployment rate is eighteen percent, how high does it have to go for the supposedly populist rage to become warranted, in your eyes?”
With this I had officially passed the point of Too Irritating To Humor. “Okay,” Wayne Kaufman CMT said. “We’re done.”
I did not necessarily disagree, although it had been my limited experience with institutions like John Thomas Financial that the task of entering terms like “John Thomas Financial” into the assorted search engines and databases with which the industry’s dread regulators keep tabs on men like Blakeman and Belesis might stave off my own task’s completion for a day or a weekend or so.
John Thomas Financial was founded in 2008 by Anastasios a.k.a. Thomas a.k.a. “Tommy” Belesis, who prior to the rally had most prominently been featured in the media for supposedly dispensing financial advice to Duchess Sarah Ferguson and receiving the 2009 Bronx GOP Man of the Year award, a distinction for which former mayor Rudolph Giuliani filmed a video in which he said among other things that
Tom embodies the spirit of the American dream — the New York dream. The son of immigrants, Tom rose from humble beginnings to become a great success on Wall Street…
This is what it means to be a great success on Wall Street:
In June 2008 Belesis was deposed in New York state supreme court on the subject of his involvement with a company called the InterOil Corporation, a former Enron subsidiary with a claim to a massive pool of natural gas off the coast of Papua New Guinea, a relatively fecund history of associating with share price manipulators and, by the beginning of 2008, a major cash squeeze coming on. Belesis testified that he had essentially orchestrated a deal by which InterOil managed to raise $95 million through a private a convertible debt offering in which Belesis and some of his associates would eventually net nearly $6 million in various fees. Four days after the deal was signed, Wayne Kaufman appeared on CNBC to call InterOil his “favorite stock.” The company’s shares proceeded to jump above the strike price above $32.50 a share, forcing a conversion of the bonds to shares less than a month after the appearance. (Within months shares had plunged below $10 a share, although they have since rebounded impressively.)
Prior to founding John Thomas Financial, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority lists seven firms at which Belesis plied his trades: Joseph Gunnar & Co., Harrison Securities, S.W. Bach & Company, Ladenberg Capital Management and First Asset Management Inc., ATB Holding Company and Gaines Berland, at least six of which have been subjected to sundry boiler room type probes over the course of Belesis’s career, which began in 1996 at First Asset Securities, then known as Lew Lieberbaum & Co.
Lew Lieberbaum is probably the best-known of Belesis’ former employers, owing mainly to a 1997 federal suit brought against it by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in which various female employees testified to having been subjected to a work environment only slightly more degrading than what one might expect of the average Cambodian brothel.
The complaint is no longer available online, so it is hard to say what role if any Anastasios P. “Tommy” Belesis played in perpetuating what the 50-page complaint termed the “daily torrent and virtual hailstorm of sexual harassment” unleashed by the trading floor upon its female staffers. But one does not go to work for a company where lesbian strippers are a regular fixture on the trading floor, where one such stripper was asked to remove her labia ring so that the male employees might petition female employees to sniff it, where ostensible brokers are charged with mopping up the mixture of whipped cream and bodily fluids resulting from the chief financial officer’s midday frolic with his secretary, where the refusal of a female employee to indulge in such an encounter with a male superior is grounds for termination, where women’s breasts are regularly groped by men merely seeking to wipe the food off their hands, where one junior partner makes a habit of picking his nose before ramming his snot-smeared finger into the sandwiches of females brokers, where these and other uncomfortable behaviors are abetted by widespread cocaine use, because one is pursuing the American Dream. One goes to work for a company like the one formerly known as Lew Liberbaum & Co. because if one is not a total douchebag already he is ready to become one.
From the look of his FINRA profile I would venture that Anastasios “Tommy” Belesis falls into the former category. Investors have accused him of churning, fraud, excessive trading, breach of contract and sundry other violations; regulators have ordered him to repay more than a million dollars to investors. In 2005 he was fired from S.W. Bach for misrepresenting his identity to a customer. As someone called BerkshireBull wrote on the Registered Rep message boards in response to another user’s query about interviewing with John Thomas Financial, “never trust a man with two first names.” Even if, as the John Thomas Financial website promises would-be trainees, “we utilize the finest institution for the upmost learning.”
Because there is always another nickname, another Delaware corporation, another offshore bank account, another P.O. box registered in the name of another penny stock going to a hundred to dump on another sucker born every minute with guys like Tom Belesis. These are the guys who falsified the documents qualifying $7-an-hour strawberry pickers for McMansion option-ARMs, and their ubiquity in the American economy is the more mundane consequence of its epic failure to seriously police the financial markets. Perhaps what gets lost when we focus our ire on the TBTF fatcat class is how many of the meatheads on the front lines of our financial frauds could never hope to set foot in a Goldman Sachs training class. But they’re an indispensable piece of the conspiracy, too, because their money is just as good as Goldman’s at buying candidates like Bruce Blakeman, and their voices are even louder when they rail against big government and fill campaign coffers in hopes of dismantling the laws that might protect their victims because they truly believe the only mistake is getting caught, the same way they think that whipping out one’s penis is the upmost in hilarity, because they are detestable children with a throbbing surplus of misappropriated self-esteem. They have already proven that they will destroy the country if you let them, and the only thing you can trust them for is that they’ll happily do it again and host a pep rally afterward to celebrate.