Insider's guide

Former Wall Street Man and financial journalist William Cohan narrates a detailed account of events on the Street

Published 7 years ago on Aug 19, 2017 4 minutes Read

Nowadays, what we think of collectively as “Wall Street” no longer exists on Wall Street. The only major Wall Street firm physically on Wall Street is not even American; it’s German. In 2001, the U.S. securities arm of Deutsche Bank, the giant German bank, bought the elegant building, at 60 Wall Street, that was the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., in the years before its merger with Chase Manhattan Bank. Meanwhile, the original headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., at 23 Wall Street, has been a vacant shell more or less since the bank sold it, in 2003, after the Chase merger to a real-estate developer, who then sold it five years later to an elusive Chinese billionaire, Sam Pa, for $150 million. Pa has done nothing with the building.

Wall Street today is more akin to a Disney theme park, or what a Disney park might be if it mythologized moneymaking. There is a Tiffany, a Hermès store, a BMW showroom, a Tumi luggage store, and an outlet for True Religion brand jeans. Fifty-Five Wall Street, which at one time was the headquarters of what is now Citigroup, is a branch of the Cipriani restaurant empire and is used for benefit dinners. Donald Trump claims to own 40 Wall Street, but, of course, that’s not entirely true: He leases the building from the Italian businessmen who actually own the land underneath it. There are apartments for rent or sale at 37 Wall Street, at 63 Wall Street, at 75 Wall Street, at 95 Wall Street, and at 101 Wall Street.

But Wall Street remains a powerful symbol of American capitalism. Since September 11, cars are no longer permitted on Wall Street, and there are huge steel plates embedded into the road that are operated by motors that make sure that no unwanted vehicle ever again gets anywhere near the street or any of its historic buildings. The New York Stock Exchange, at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, once the very embodiment of Wall Street, is mostly just a television backdrop for the business cable networks, such as Bloomberg, CNBC, and Fox Business, that use it as a set for their continuous coverage of the financial markets. Most trading is now done electronically.

To be sure, a number of important financial institutions—among them Goldman Sachs, American Express, and AIG—still have their headquarters in the vicinity of Wall Street. But by and large, Wall Street, the actual street itself, has become a mirage, a Potemkin village of a bygone era before computers and phones made physical interaction between traders and bankers somewhat obsolete. In mid-June 2016, Jim Cramer, the CNBC television anchor, tweeted a picture of the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, with the New York Stock Exchange in the background and the steps leading to the empty 23 Wall Street to the side. Right in the middle of the wonderfully manicured cobblestoned street—it used to be paved not so long ago—were four young women on yoga mats, striking a pose. “I remember when people used to work here,” he wrote.

So remember this: Wall Street did not emerge fully formed—and fully detestable—as some unknown villain’s grand plan to empower the rich at the expense of the poor. Wall Street evolved over some four hundred years from the simple idea that people have different skills and different talents allowing them to produce different goods and services and that, one way or another, those goods and services need to be sold by the people who made them and bought by the people who want them. Period.

In many ways, Wall Street is the ultimate evolution of a weekend farmers’ market, where fresh produce is brought to a central location in the middle of the town or city to be bought and sold. Everyone has to eat, but not everyone can be—or wants to be—a farmer. Inevitably, there will be a need to trade. On Wall Street, the fresh produce brought to market every day is money, or capital. Wall Street is in the business of matching the people with capital—such as savers and investors—with the people who want and need capital to grow their businesses to buy goods and services and to hire more employees. It’s actually a relatively simple calculus—not complex at all, despite the plethora of Wall Street jargon—that has enabled millions of companies around the world, Apple, Google, and Amazon among them, to grow and to thrive and has helped to lift billions of people out of poverty and into the middle class and beyond. At its core, it’s a remarkable bit of alchemy, one that should be celebrated, not despised, broken up, or dissolved. Doing so because you are angry at the behavior of a small misbehaving subset of bankers would be akin to the proverbial “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”—a massive overreaction to an entirely fixable problem.