As summer has unfolded in New York, my thoughts have turned to Detroit. I have only been there once, driving through it at the dead of night, metaphorically enough. But like most Americans, I’m familiar with the Motor City’s rise and fall.
During the 20th century Detroit made some of the world’s coolest cars, with all those amazing gizmos that the Beach Boys sang about, and it kept making them until they weren’t so popular any more.
You look back on it and wonder what businesspeople in Detroit were thinking during those long years of decline and then you spend some time observing the New York financial world and you wonder what people here are thinking.
It has been three years since the global economy was brought down by the failure of made-in-New-York financial products – auction rate securities, collateralised debt obligations and the like – that were as badly engineered as any Edsel or Corvair. But there is surprisingly little talk in these parts even today about whether the big financial factories that dominate our local economy are making the right products or positioning themselves well for the demands of a new world.
To some extent, bankers may still be too busy cleaning up the mess to have time for much else. This week’s news that Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, had hired Reid Weingarten, a criminal defence lawyer, to handle his dealings with the justice department shook many investors because it served as a reminder of just how much spilt milk remains on the financial services floor.
There is also a tendency among people who survived the crisis in good shape to say “no, no, no” to suggestions that they should undergo rehab of either a commercial or a reputational kind. Private equity executive Leon Black’s decision to throw himself an opulent 60th birthday party this month – reportedly paying Sir Elton John at least $1m to perform – demonstrates this lack of regard for public opinion (as well as for music – why Elton John? Was Michael Bolton busy?).
But what worries me most is the low moan of complaint that has been coming from so many corners of the financial world this summer. If you see bankers on television these days, chances are they are talking about their growing regulatory burden. A classic case in point came in June when Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, publicly asked Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman, whether the rules and regulations introduced in response to the financial crisis were “holding us back at this point”.
Make no mistake, this Wall Street gripe is not without merit. Given the extent of the regulatory changes made in recent months, mistakes were more or less inevitable, and it is perfectly sensible for bankers to lobby for mid-course corrections.
But there comes a point when a tendency to see fault in our stars rather than ourselves becomes counterproductive from a strict business perspective. The danger is that bankers will be distracted from the task of responding to what may be the end of the muscle-car era in US finance. With companies and consumers still bitter about the lemons they bought in the boom, financiers need to do more than fret about the financial equivalents of fuel-economy standards.
What Wall Street needs is more of the spirit fostered in another city of the US midwest: Cincinnati, home to Procter & Gamble, the consumer products company. It was there about a decade ago that A.G. Lafley, P&G’s chief executive, revived the fortunes of his company by dedicating it to the proposition that “the consumer is boss”.
It was the corporate equivalent of the moment in the rock opera Tommy when The Who sing: “Listening to you, I get the music.” As Mr Lafley, who has since retired as chief executive, has written: “The people who buy and use P&G products are valued not just for their money, but as a rich source of information and direction. If we can develop better ways of learning from them – by listening to them, observing them in their daily lives, and even living with them, our mission is more likely to succeed.”
I suspect that there are plenty of people out there – most notably Americans paying above-market rates of interest on their mortgages – who would welcome a chance to really talk to a banker. There also are undoubtedly money-making opportunities for bankers who would listen and learn. New Yorkers should avoid taking a Detroit detour. It was such a sad and lonely place when I drove through it at night.