Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wall Street’s Deafening Silence

Throughout the long dark days of this financial crisis, one thing that has struck me is the silence of Wall Street’s public relations machines. I keep waiting for one bank, any bank, to give us their best-spin version of what went wrong, or why they aren’t as bad as all those others – or to say something. Surely they must see how vilified they have become. Shareholder activist Nell Minow even quipped that the Street is one bonus away from having the villagers descend with torches.

But when “60 Minutes” did its exposé on the financial crisis early on, none of the major Wall Street banks would comment, apparently in any form. None of them even sent what I call the “coward’s note” – that carefully crafted defense/statement that is read on air at the end of the broadcast segment. Later, when the bank CEOs went to Washington to sign off on billion-dollar bailouts, they left the meeting with Treasury Secretary Paulson and fled to their limousines. They adroitly dodged the press corps waiting outside. None of them did so much as issue a short statement of thanks or say that the money would help them extend more loans to unfreeze the credit markets.

How to explain this total silence? Partly it may stem from a “duck and cover your ass” mentality: anyone who raises his head to defend himself at this unsettled time may just draw more incoming fire. Also the more you say, the more ammunition you supply prosecutors and lawyers busy cobbling together investigations and lawsuits related to the financial meltdown. But the biggest reason may be simply that Wall Street’s largest banks realize how badly they screwed up.

When you think you’re an innocent man, you want to shout your message to the world. When you think you’re innocent to some degree, you seek ways to disseminate your version of events. When you think you’re guilty as hell, you shut up and pray for an earthquake or something that will bump news of your misdeeds off the front page.

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