Wall Street's Jean Valjean Problem

I have a piece at the Wall Street Journal today that, if I’m not mistaken, accomplishes the impossible: I somehow manage to make the Wall Street broker a sympathetic figure.

There is no other industry that inflicts quite as much permanent reputational damage on its own charges than the securities business.  A single complaint – warranted or not – has the power to take you out of the game permanently in this day and age.  I’m not sure if I have the answer to this problem, but today’s post explores it from the perspective of a brokerage firm worker bee who finds himself in a living hell…

“Reform is a discredited fantasy.” –Inspector Javert, Les Miserables

David has worked in the brokerage industry for almost twenty years.  He’s not terribly knowledgeable about markets or stocks, doesn’t have a natural acumen for numbers and isn’t exactly the hardest-working guy in the game either.  But his strength is that he does his best and is a good person.  He’s learned all the potholes to avoid and generally wants to do right by his clients.  He does what his branch manager tells him to do and what the other guys all around him in the boardroom are doing.

Then one day a letter arrives from his industry’s regulator, Finra.  The letter announces an investigation and possible arbitration being brought by a client he only vaguely remembers having done business with years ago – and even then it could only have been a trade or two.

His stomach hurts immediately.

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The Jean Valjean Problem (WSJ)



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