In today’s Financial Times, John Kay crafts a Shakespearean characterization of recent life on Wall Street. See if you recognize all of the characters. If you want the details, read (or listen to) Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. This one definitely falls in the “tragedy” category.
Wall Street play for which we pay
By John Kay
Published: August 3 2010 23:20 | Last updated: August 3 2010 23:20
King Sandy: a little known tragedy, comedy and history in five acts, by William Shakesdown. Based on ‘King of Capital: Sandy Weill and the Making of Citigroup’, a story by Amey Stone and Mike Brewster
Act I. Brooklyn. A dead tree stands to the right of a tumbledown brownstone house. The Brooklyn Bridge and the skyscrapers of Wall Street are in the background. Three witches greet the young boy standing on the front steps.
More from this columnist – Aug-03
“All hail to thee, that shall be boss of Shearson,” says one.
“All hail to thee, that shall be leader of Travelers,” says another.
“All hail to thee, that shall be King of Wall Street, thereafter,” says the third.
Young Sandy, shaken, ponders the implications as the curtain falls.
Act II. Manhattan. Sandy, his belongings in a bundle on a stick, crosses the Brooklyn Bridge to seek his fortune. He starts as a shoe-shine boy but his talent is quickly recognised and he becomes chief counsellor to the land of Shearson. He forges an alliance with the duchy of Amex, ruled by the patrician John Robinson. But the Duke resents the clever, uncultured, grasping Sandy and sends him into exile. “There is a world elsewhere,” Sandy proclaims.
Act III. Baltimore. Sandy and his brilliant lieutenant, Jamie, plot their comeback. Building a band of faithful Travelers, Sandy and Jamie move step by step towards Wall Street, finally storming the bastions of Salomon and Smith Barney.
Act IV. Washington and Manhattan. The triumphant Sandy is in a tent outside Washington. The omnipotent King John, Lord of the Citi, enters. Sandy and John agree to unite their kingdoms. Back in Manhattan, Sandy exiles the now too powerful Jamie, assassinates King John, and is proclaimed King of Wall Street.
In the final scene, the fool Grubman is seen playing his fife all the way up Manhattan from Wall Street. Followed by an admiring crowd, he distributes parcels of fool’s gold and internet magic.
Act V. Manhattan and Washington. The fool is exposed: his parcels are empty. He is banished. King Sandy, his reputation tarnished, is deposed. Under the regency of the Chuck Prince, the Citi is riven by competing baronies. The land of Lehman is pillaged by its own citizens. Barons mob the Court, shouting: “Where are our bonuses?”
The situation is calmed by the arrival of Barack the Great, newly elected emperor. His counsellors, Bernanke and Geithner, are at the head of a long train bearing all the treasures of the Americas. The barons break open the chests and rush off with the treasure. Jamie, returned from exile in Chicago, is crowned new King of Wall Street.
At the medieval courts Shakespeare described, the exercise of power was not a means to an end, it was itself the end. Kings and barons sought principally to extend their territory. If they occasionally claimed that the purpose was to bring the benefits of their wise rule to a wider public, the assertion was little more than a smokescreen for personal ambition. The rulers aimed to be exalted as rulers of wider domains and to levy taxes on ever more peasants. The political and economic environment has been transformed. But human nature has not, and the factors that drive powerful men today are little different from those that drove them five centuries ago.
The fine robes of Shakespeare’s princely characters were paid for by the work of the peasantry, the men and women who tilled the fields and garnered the crops. Their labours yielded revenues to support lifestyles entirely disconnected from their own experience, people who knew nothing of agriculture and cared less, and whose activities were sometimes disruptive to day-to-day economic activity but mostly irrelevant. Once there were sowers and reapers, now there are bank clients and factory workers; once there were palaces and carriages, now there are McMansions and private jets. Much has changed, yet much remains the same.