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Sunday: Taking the Top off the Mountain

Digby wonders why the bankers are whining.  They’ve gotten everything they wanted but they’re all upset that Obama is speaking harshly to them.  So, now they’re going to sit on their money and not give him any for his re-election.

Wait!  Why is that a *bad* thing?  If they’re not contributing to his campaign, maybe he and other Democrats will have to start paying attention to what the voters want.  Would that be such a crime?  After all, there are more voters than bankers.  Seems to me that banker money has made it too easy for Democrats to coast instead of doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  So, ok, then, let the bankers keep their money.  And if they give it to Republicans to run a bajillion campaign ads, then Democrats better get on it and do some legislatin’.  But I digress.

So, Digby’s question is a valid one: What drives the bankers to be such whiny Verulka Salt’s who want it all NOW!?  She has a couple of theories that glance at the truth tangentially.  They explain the whininess but not what drives the bankers.  They’re either naive, resentful of populism or arrogant twits.

But if you’ve read my Strategy of No Strategy series, you’ll see if from a different point of view altogether.  The finance class actually consists of a bunch of overqualified strip miners.  They’re overworked, which might explain the number of bad decisions they make, and their compensation system decouples the consequences of their actions from the actions themselves.  They are being paid to make “deals” and the purpose of those deals is to extract “wealth”.  In a way, it’s not that much different from getting into the cab of some giant piece of earth moving equipment and mowing down the side of the mountain and then loading that potential ore onto a conveyor belt to be separated from dirt.  They live in a “company” town and are paid “company scrip”.  It’s a truck system for them as well.  The compensation is not proportional to the amount of work they do, they can be fired at will and they’re never going to leave that mountain because they owe their souls to the company store.  The more they work, the more compensation in bonuses they are promised but it’s never enough.

That’s not to make you feel sorry for them.  That’s just the way it is.  And seeing it for the way it really is can help us get over the very legitimate emotion of wanting to ring their skinny necks right out of their Brooks Brothers suits. We need to separate our feelings of hatred towards them from our understanding of what’s really going on here.

What I see is really going on here with Obama is that he was hired because he is one of them.  He comes from the right school, he has the right pedigree, he had the right connections.  It didn’t matter if he knew nothing about finance.  Just like them, he would get a crash course and learn on the job.  And they have taken this deal with him as far as it would go.  Just like them, Obama has stripped the top of the mountain.  There is no more wealth to be extracted.  Now, the middle class has been mined to death.  It’s exhausted and can no longer generate the wealth that they have been paid to retrieve.  They’re screwed.  The owners (ironically, that would be some of us shareholders through our 401Ks) want more money.  There’s no more to give.  It’s a vicious circle because generating more wealth for us, the shareholders, means laying more of us off, which means less wealth going into the 401Ks.  When Obama finally signs the Grand Bargain, he will be creating an environmental catastrophe but before that happens, he has to win this election and people are hurting so badly, he may not be able to do it.

Do the number of ad buys really make a difference anymore?  We may see the effects of the internet on politics for real this election season.  Some of us have given up TVs altogether and no longer subscribe to newspapers.  I’m guessing that would affect the Democrats more.  Their base is younger and better educated (but not necessarily smarter).  The people who are moved by TV ads are older and less well educated.  That would favor Republicans.  I don’t know, this crap makes me crazy.  It’s all a bunch of political psych tricks that make no difference to how people live their lives.  But I suspect that the Osama bin Laden to-do this week had something to do with appealing to older and independent voters.  I could care less.  All I want to hear coming out of either candidates’ mouths is how they are planning to solve the unemployment problem and save our retirements without requiring even one more half penny of sacrifice from the late babyboomers.  Anything other than that might as well be speaking in some obscure language from a small isolated population in the Caucasus.  “Blah-blah-blah-SEALS! Blah-blah-blah-SHOT-IN-THE-EYE!” Who. Gives. A. FRACK.

So, as I was saying, the bankers are like strip miners and they’re not getting much out of the mountain anymore, their manager says the place is exhausted and they’re puzzled because this particular piece of real estate has been pretty rich for so long that it’s hard to take it all in that it’s gone.  It’s really gone.  And now, they have to go mine somewhere else and in those other places, the ore’s not so rich or it’s harder to get at or there are people standing in the way or it’s going to take time to get the permits and pay off the owners or make new deals.  They’re going to have to do a trickier kind of work now or they’re in big trouble because the deals they are about to make are a lot riskier.  Meanwhile, they’re leaving a big mess behind with lots of toxic runoff and the downstream people are angry because they have destroyed our economic ecosystem.  I guess they want Obama to keep the rabble down while they finish their work but it’s getting loud and noisy and not helping their concentration.  Maybe Mitt can keep a lid on it…

Anyway, that’s the way I see it.  They’re getting paid to stripmine.  Changing the way they behave will require the will to change the environment they work in.  If I were really interested in changing the way this works, I would have protected the employees that worked for Wall Street at the very beginning of this crisis.  I would have enforced workplace standards, required a limit on the number of hours worked, required mandatory overtime to be dispensed with the next immediate paycheck, enforced the minimum wage, tied salary to hours worked and prevented bonuses from rising to more than 20% of salary, mandated more 4 weeks of vacation per year, paid, and required every blessed transaction to undergo rigorous outside auditing, just to slooooow everything down.  Also, I might have had the EEOC or some other agency review hiring practices so that applicants were not discriminated on the basis of where they went to school or their genders.

From the money side of things, I would have begun the process of eliminating the 401K, reinstituted the defined benefit pension plan, and placed rigorous outside auditing checks on every blessed pension fund transaction.  One final thing: I would have made sure that I seized control of any fiber optic cable coming out of Wall Street.  We should never negotiate with terrorists.

Wall Street would have screamed bloody murder but such measures might have gotten a lot of support from workers including some of the workers on Wall Street.

Alas, Obama did not do this.  So now he is faced with having to do without finance sector money and will have to face the mountain this fall.

I kind of like the way this is playing out.

The Strategy of No Strategy: Putting it together

N17 on Wall Street

This is the final part of my take on Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street. I can’t do the book justice in a single blog post (it’s going to take at least four), I’m going to try to summarize some of what she is describing as the culture of Wall Street and how it is infiltrating our lives. I’m going to touch on four major themes in her book: “smartness”, “flexibility”, “shareholder value” and “the strategy of no strategy”. Check here Part1 on Smartness , Part2 on Flexibility and Part3 on Shareholder Value. I am going to try to tie Karen’s analysis of the culture of Wall Street to the pharmaceutical industry because having had a first person perspective, it is my belief that Big Pharma has felt the worst effects of Wall Street on its core business- discovering drugs.

This week, Bruce Booth of Forbes wrote an article about the culture of pharmaceutical R&D and how it has definitely taken a turn for the worse. Let me just say for the record that this is a culture that has developed over time and was forced on the labrats. We didn’t invent it in the lab because we know it would never work. (For more feedback and analysis from the labrats on this article, see this comment thread at In the Pipeline.) Over the years, I definitely got the feeling that our overlords thought of us as 1.)socially awkward nerds who 2.) didn’t know the value of a dollar and 3.) were completely unproductive if left to our own devices. But Booth sets the record straight in some respects. He takes on the ‘tyranny of the committee’ and risk aversion, which are related to one another and further exacerbated by, emphasis on shareholder value, FDA failure rate and class action lawsuits. Then he takes on what many first person labrats would say is the biggest problem with pharma today:

Organizational entropy’s negative impact. [entropy in this context means disorder] For most of Big Pharma, at least a few mega-mergers and their integrations have happened in the past decade. And for all of Big Pharma, there’s been the semi-annual reorganization around the latest fad in corporate design: matrix management, proliferating centers of excellence, end-to-end therapeutic area groups vs functional lines, disease area strategies rather than site strategies, etc… These cause constant organizational upheaval with levels of distraction that can’t be measured. Resumes fly through cyberspace as soon as a deal is announced. Organizations are frozen as these changes happen, fear of the unknown paralyzes entire project teams, and closures/layoffs happen without much regard to upgrading the talent and weeding out the deadwood. Drug R&D takes typically 10-15 years from start to approval; how can it stay on track with a cadence of change this fast? As I noted last summer, most new drugs approved today were discovered in the 1990s. Do you think those approvals would have happened faster if there weren’t so many mega-mergers and reorganizations in the meantime?

The answer to the last question is “yes, probably”. There’s no way to tell, really, but having survived multiple mergers over the past 2 decades, I can tell you that we vamped and put everything on hold for months and years on end while the executives had pissing matches and more local management engaged in political backstabbing. It was a horror show. Much valuable experimental time, money and talent was wasted in the aftermath of Wall Street engineered deals.

But Booth also makes the common mistake that presumes that if all of us just worked at smaller companies, we’ll be more innovative and save oodles of money! If that happens it would be the equivalent of putting a few dozen labrats on a desert island and telling them to build their own labs with the tools available. Yep, there will be some geniuses and amazingly well coordinated teams that will fashion robotics and gel electrophoresis devices from sand and seashells but it won’t necessarily be efficient nor will those labrats be able to purchase stuff they can’t find on the island. There’s a reason why medium sized corporate labs discovered all those drugs back in the 90s.

Nevertheless, this is the new model of drug discovery. You, the scientist are chucked out on your ass and some cocky asshole business class people just assume that you’re going to whip up the next Lipitor with some sleight of hand. We’re encouraged to become entrepreneurs but they seem to have forgotten that our severance packages didn’t consist of millions of dollars in stock options. For the most part, we have a lot of poor scientists with no place to practice their craft and a mountain of extremely hard work and expenses before a vulture capitalist signs on.

The Wall Street smarties never thought about any of this stuff when they made the M&A deals. Nor did they stop to reason out why so many labs were failing to produce new drugs in the wake of those deals. For the last decade, all we’ve heard is that it’s OUR fault. We’re lousy scientists or lazy or spendthrifts. And they probably won’t figure out that the small little islands they set us adrift on aren’t going to be as profitable as they had hoped. But it doesn’t really matter because as soon as they’ve extracted the last bit of wealth from the big pharmas for the shareholders, they’ll just abandon the industry and the American scientific infrastructure to its own fate and move on to some other industry where wealth can be extracted. That’s what they’re paid to do.

Likewise, they will continue to pressure governments to hand over every bit of wealth from their citizens, to adopt austerity measures and cause untold suffering because they are in the business of finance and making money and if you as a country took the loan, they will expect payment. They don’t need to reason out that they’d be better off structuring things so that economies would grow and so they would get a more reliable but unspectacular return over time. That’s your problem. Their problem is to make the biggest, fattest deals they can in the shortest amount of time with the maximum amount of profit. It’s an optimization problem, a Traveling Salesman problem, a Metropolis algorithm on a global scale with one optimization endpoint. How much money can you make? They are in it for the deals, making their numbers and retrieving the wealth and private property of the shareholders. They don’t have time or patience for whiners and losers. They don’t even have the time to worry about another Depression. All they care about is the deal.

Karen Ho describes the culmination of “smartness”, flexibility and shareholder value as a thing called The Strategy of No Strategy. This is where the normal world meets the weirdness of quantum finance. Regular people assume that there is a small evil group directing things for some specific purpose, some grand scheme, some particular worldview. But all that is mere icing on the cake if it happens. What the 1% are really into is how this moment in time is going to affect their bonuses. Their plot to take over the world doesn’t extend much further than that. That is the only cause and effect relationship that matters because other than the expectation of money at the end of the year, they have no other rights or expectations as employees. They’re valued only for their ability to make connections and extract money from other people, they expect to be laid off at any time and the working conditions are brutal. And all of the authoritarian, political crap that gets thrown in to the mix is simply to protect their right to that money. As a result, you, the target of their financial machinations, are expected to conform to their deals. You are expected to give up your job at a moment’s notice to satisfy shareholder value or work in less than optimal conditions because to complain is to be a loser. It even helps them if they don’t have too much contact with you because personal feelings might get in the way of doing what they need to do. If you get in the way of their bonuses, they will have a problem with you, nothing personal. If it ends up feeling very callous and cruel, well, better to decrease the surplus population.

Karen Ho describes how the Strategy of No Strategy drives and changes the world:

Given that the identities of investment banks are wrapped up in their ability to immediately induce change in their people via job insecurity and flexible compensation, it is not surprising that one of their primary strategies-their plans for the future based on their imaginings of “the world and the firm’s position in it”-is, simply, to have no long-term plans (Schoenberger 1997, 122). To actualize their central identity as being immediately responsive to their own changing relationships with the market (including employees, products, and so on), their strategy is, in a sense, to have no strategy. Ironically, having no long-term strategy is contradictory and potentially self-defeating in that investment banks often find themselves making drastic changes only to realize months or weeks later that those changes were unnecessary, premature, and extremely costly. For example, in chapter 5, I described how investment bankers, in part because of their access to “sensitive, proprietary information,” are not only fired in an instant, but must also leave the physical premises of the building within fifteen to thirty minutes. Given how crucial the control of knowledge and the protection of inside information are for Wall Street investment banks, it seems self-defeating that they do not place any premium on loyalty. Despite the fact that firms try above all to enforce secrecy, they accept and maintain this volatility and revolving-door policy.

At first glance, it seems not only improbable, but also “irrational” for investment banks to engage in such practices, for why would a business so focused on profitability and knowledge not engage in practices that always improve its bottom line and its control of information? As many anthropologists have demonstrated, capitalist organizations are not simply motivated by purely instrumentalist quests for profit or governed by perfect rational actors; they are sociocultural organizations with complex, contradictory worldviews and particular organizational practices (Yanagisako 1999, 2002). Profits may be claimed as one of investment banks’ primary ideals, but it is mediated, situated, and enacted-along with other values-through the social and cultural lenses of particular organizations, groups, and bankers. How profits are made, what constitute profits, and what amounts are considered “profitable” enough are also culturally, organizationally, and historically variable.

John Carlton, the seasoned investment banker and managing director from BT, described how Wall Street’s strategy is to operate without a long-term strategy:

“Again, it is a business where there is no tenure. There is no union protection. Basically, if things change, you could be out. That’s one reason why people are very flexible. So you need flexible people, and people who can deal with it every day. Some people would hate that. I don’t mind that. Some people can’t stand it. They can’t last. They say, “I like to know where I am going to be five years from now.” They like the idea of stability. It is not very stable. I think that is a characteristic. Probably most people you talk to would say that it is not a very stable environment. Most businesses have five-year plans-What are we going to be producing?-and have long product life cycles. [We] have very short product life cycles. How do you plan when you never know what the market is going to do?”

Although Carlton attributed the rationale for not having a plan to market unpredictability, my point is that not having a plan is central to the strategy and cultural identity of investment banks.

[...]

Underpinning the continual (re)creation of “instant” teams or product expertise is a corporate culture that values eagerness for change and expediency. The “build a new dam strategy” while the old dam overflows also prefigures waste and even decline. As I learned from informants throughout my fieldwork, these star hires and seven-figure offers are often abysmal failures: stories abound of senior bankers simply pocketing the cash and producing no results, of formerly successful teams that were separated and dislodged from the environments in which they had thrived.

In other words, reflection is not Wall Street’s strong suit.

This is the part of the book that kept me up at night. Here we have a bunch of “smart” people with no job security, driven by their own conditioning and the banks they work for, that see *themselves* as The Market. They are the ultimate precariats. They are no better than miners whose goal it is to take the top off the mountain. And they have asked and gotten more and more leeway to act as they please, without regard to rational expectations for the future of the things they act upon.

The pharmaceutical industry has been destroyed by Wall Street and now, it knows it. There won’t be a recovery for the gigantic monstrosities like Pfizer that merged so fast and furiously that it didn’t have time to structure its most valuable asset- its database of compound and assay information. They’ve jettisoned the most valuable parts of their organizations in order to feed the Wall Street beast and its spawn of corporate CEOs whose job tenure can be measured in less than a handful of years. It does not matter that there is a generation of scientists laid off who will never make the salaries they once had or can pay their taxes. It doesn’t matter that communities and states will feel the effects of hundreds of thousands of terminations. It doesn’t matter that millions of patients will now be left vulnerable to bacterial infections that can’t be stopped or cancer or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter that once the labs have been dismantled and equipment sold off, there will be no one who will be ready to reconstitute the labs when or if our society wants to discover drugs again. It will not matter that they have retained the scientists who are the best salesmen- of themselves- and not necessarily the best experimentalists. All that mattered was the deal at the time it was made. And now, all that matters is getting in on the get-rich-quick deals that can be made from academic basic science and discoveries that are not quite ready for primetime and will be abandoned as soon as they do not generate the expected profits.

For society at large, the strategy of no strategy is behind the austerity measures pushed on all of us. For countries that took out loans, that money must be paid back regardless of the havoc it plays on the citizens or that more austerity makes recovery of that money even less likely. What matters is that the recovering the money is as optimal an exercise as possible as quickly as possible, to get the highest return in the shortest amount of time. It’s sort of like harvesting organs before the body can’t be kept alive any longer. Go read Never Let Me Go and you’ll know what I mean. So, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Great Britain and the US will continue to pay and pay and pay until no further profits can be extracted. Then, they will move on to a different hemisphere. What is surprising it how passive many countries have been in accepting this fate. How long will it take for western countries to rebel like the middle east has? Decades? Will we have to live with decades of austerity and growing authoritarianism?

And now we can see why our governments act the way they do. Back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was the front runner. I remember talking to a colleague who had a friend who was once an investment banker on Wall Street who had insights into how the bankers were thinking in 2007. They knew there was trouble coming and were trying to thread the needle. A Republican candidate might cause another Depression with the wrong policies. No, they didn’t want the patient dead, well, not until they could recover themselves. Maybe a Democrat. But Hillary Clinton had a strong responsibility streak in her. Besides, she came from Yale and we know that the culture of smartness distrusts Yalies as being too liberal. Another New Deal might have been too much like rehab. So, they threw their weight behind the Harvard guy whose unchecked ambition and cool demeanor was more like the cut of their own jibs. Just like the undergrads they hire from Princeton and Harvard, it didn’t matter to them if he knew nothing about finance. They would teach him.

If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, why Obama careens from saving one institution  to another in negotiations behind closed doors and apparently without any guiding principles, like he was making it up as he goes along, now you know why. He is governing on a deal by deal basis, without a worldview and without a strategy. It’s his modus operandi and he does it with equal fluidity with the bankers, the auto industry, congress, health insurance companies and voters themselves. He’s playing Let’s Make a Deal with each individual entity and with everything on the table.  Flexibilty and the “culture of smartness” is important to him, which is why Geithner and Summers got so much face time with him.  Loyalty and planning not so much, which is why Christina Romer got the shaft.  All of the reports on the way the White House operates with the fast paced credit stealing and high profile tasks going to smart young men and the golf outings with “front office” guys, sounds a lot like Wall Street.  If it turns out that his team hadn’t thought about how Republicans would game the debt ceiling business or how the individual mandate without a public option would make employees *more* vulnerable to layoffs and loss of health benefits, well, this is what you have signed onto with Obama.  He doesn’t see his role as a long term policy maker or seasoned politician and it shows.  If you’ve never worked in a corporate environment, you might be forgiven for not recognizing how the schmoozer works the system but there’s no excuse the second time around.

All around the world, bankers had their way with government leaders, well, except for Iceland, whose decendents of marauding Vikings and new female prime minister told them to f&*( off.  I guess it takes pirates to know pirates.  But the rest of the world bowed quickly to the notion that recovery of the banking system was The. Most. Important. Thing. Everything else, their sovereignty, public welfare and future growth, was made secondary to the immediacy of keeping the paper flowing between the banks. The fear of a global meltdown made them cower. But there is no strategy to ever get out from under these conditions. There was no effort to reign in the bankers either. And they have a well oiled propaganda machine and know that when a population is under stress, it circles the wagons and becomes more conservative and nationalistic. Liberal policies look too risky and threatening. In next week’s vote in France, I would not be at all surprised if Nicolas Sarkozy managed to hang onto power, despite his unpopularity. The rational people of France may look to the right at Marine Le Pen’s crazy nationalists and fear that Le Pen’s faction will get enough votes to form a coalition with Sarkozy’s. Voting for the socialist candidate may look too risky. I hope I am surprised.

And what does it mean for this country? Well, I am not at all surprised that expectations have been set for Hillary in 2016. The press only sounds beneficent and contrite this time around, acknowledging that maybe they have regrets about what they and the party did to her in 2008. Bullshit. They know damn well that her chances of getting elected in 2016 are nearly zero. But pushing the timeline for her forward is an attempt to pacify the restless elements of the populace who see her as the only legitimate alternative to either Romney or Obama. At this point, it doesn’t even matter who wins the White House. Wall Street doesn’t see either of them as a threat.

In the meantime, they have just scored another victory in the JOBS bill where they can be less than transparent to investors who they hope to make new deals with. I think the idea behind this was to help small companies, like small biotechs, get investment capital. Small biotechs don’t really have a product to sell. They have ideas and beginnings of products. But development takes a lot of time and money and as the big pharmas have already found, you can sink billions of dollars into an idea and have it shot down by the FDA or siphoned off by a side effect that no one anticipated. So the risks are high. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the deal and in innovative industries like biotech, there are a lot of potential deals to be made.

And then there is correlation between bonuses and crashes. Ho says that record high bonuses on Wall Street frequently precede crashes. That’s not really surprising. It means that there is a frenzy of unchecked deal making and risk taking with large sums of money in some corner of the market where all of the investment bankers have been attracted like magpies to shiny things. All of the money has poured into this sector and bets have been placed for and against. Maybe the new rules will prevent overleveraging. Maybe they won’t. But there is one thing the bankers can count on- a steady stream of new funds from your 401K accounts to their hands that they can bet in a global casino. Pensions are so passe. 401Ks are the new black and you can be sure that there will be an even bigger push for the banks to get their hands on even more piles of money that are sitting around that no one seems to be using.

There is no goal. There is no plan. There is no strategy. It’s all, “What have you done for me since lunch?”.

The system is broken. Its entropic, unsustainable, moving at speed of fiber optic cables and out of control. The best thing we average Joe’s can do is to limit our own losses, get out while we can and sleep with the lights on.

Wall Street, your corporation and baseball

I’m about 60% through Karen Ho’s book Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is we can’t understand about what Wall Street has been doing to American corporations.  Think baseball.

*WE*, clueless American workers think Wall Street is playing a game of rotisserie baseball where they look at the stats of the teams and their players and they trade and swap the players in order to make up a better line up.  In this ordinary, everyday, American working stiff view of the world, what the players can do is important.  The productivity of the team has value.  Most Americans want to maximize the productivity in homeruns per game because that makes sense.  Teams with more homeruns per game than the other team have winning seasons and lots more fans turn out and they sell more tickets and hot dogs and beers and souvenirs and the team makes the playoffs and everyone benefits.

No.  No, no, no.  That’s not they way Wall Street sees it at all.

Wall Street isn’t trying to optimize the line up.  They are swapping baseball *cards*.  They want the original Honus Wagner and Pie Traynors.  They put an artificial value on the card and swap the cards with each other.  In this scenario, the team doesn’t matter.  The productivity of the team going forward doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that the card still has the shine and gloss on it and that the corners aren’t frayed and the sucker hasn’t got any creases in it.  Your job as a corporate manager is not to make the team more productive.  Your job is to make the card look as attractive as possible to the card swapper.  The reason why you cut and dismantle is not to make the company more efficient and productive.  It’s to package up a product that can be sold to another buyer for the highest possible price.  The value of the product doesn’t have anything to do with the actual productivity of the team.

Now, I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of *why* American corporations are valued less for their productivity and more for their gloss.  It has to do with the temporal nature of the banker’s job on Wall Street.  And at this point in time, it looks like Wall Street workers are the Americans most in need of a union.  At the very least they need an intervention and about 6 months at a spa where they can destress and gain some perspective.

No, I am not kidding.  It’s a mixed up, jumbled up shook up world.

Go get Karen Ho’s book and read it NOW

Last night, I read more of Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street and it should be required reading for every literate person in America.  I am not exaggerating.  But if you read it late at night, it might just scare the bejeesus out of you so keep your light on when you go to bed.

What scares me the most is how true it rings to my own experiences at work over the past two decades.  Ho writes like an academic.  This is not a beach read.  You will have to reread passages if you’re not familiar with how finance works.  Her descriptions of capitalism and securities over the country’s history are not easy to get through.  But it’s worth the effort because “vampire squid” does not begin to describe the horror that is Wall Street and what it has done to this country. Somewhere in this book Wall Street is referred to as “parasitical and predatory” and I’d say that’s just about right. But it is precisely Ho’s detached, dry academic style that makes the details so disturbing and makes this book more effective than Occupy Wall Street at focussing our attention on the real culprit of our middle class demise.

Several times while reading this I’ve had to stop and ask myself if all this is true or if I’m just being duped by confirmation bias.  But having seen the evidence of what the pressures of Wall Street have done to Big Pharma since the 80’s, Ho’s hypothesis makes too much sense to deny.  All the pieces fit neatly into place.  And now I realize that I missed my true calling in life.  I should have been an anthropologist because I haven’t missed a thing except some of the backstory that only a person of Karen Ho’s socioeconomic privileged background would be able to ferret out.

I’m only half way through the book so I don’t know if Ho has any recommendations but I know what would get Wall Street’s attention, and I think I’ve mentioned this before: sell your 401K.  Yep, get out of the market altogether.  As long as you have investments in that thing, you and the country will never be free.  And to tell you how much Wall Street has a grip on you, that very suggestion probably made you choke on your Starbucks, right?  You’ve been told for decades that it’s the height of irresponsibility to spend your retirement account (who says you have to spend it?).  You’ve been made to feel like a stupid person eating your seed corn if you take that money out.  Or the fact that the taxes you have to pay for early withdrawal are outrageous makes you think twice about it.  Believe me, I know how you feel.  I have all of my retirement savings tied up in two 401K accounts and the thought of taking it out and paying that criminal excise tax makes my blood boil.  You can bet our buddies at the big investment banks were behind that.  They want access to your money and they want to make it as painful as possible for you to take it away from them.  And it’s not even that they want to play with your hard earned dollars at the casino, although that’s true.  It’s that trapping you and your money in the stockmarket means they can fashion this country’s political system any damn way they please.  Your agency will be harnessed to *their* political goals.  The more you give them, the less you will get back.  The whole goal is to atomize the welfare state so that each person is left completely vulnerable and on her own, a single individual plugged into the Wall Street system without any other means of support.  If the market goes down, YOU go down with it.  So, cash in the 401K if you are unemployed and stop making contributions.  Or if you can’t do that, try to get out of stock funds.  One or two people won’t make any difference to them but millions?  Yeah, that ought to make them blink.

If I and my colleagues hadn’t experienced the effects of Wall Street first hand in the most painful way possible, I would think that Ho’s book was an over the top diatribe against Wall Street.  But Ho does something that the left does not expect.  She rescues the word “corporation”.  Half way through the book, you will start to realize what I have been trying to say for a couple of years now.  Corporations that produce things and employ thousands of people are not the enemy here, or at least the people who work for them and the products are not the enemies.  Even corporate management didn’t start off as bastards, even if some of them have not been overly friendly to labor.  You might say that corporate money has too much influence in politics but as you read the book, the reasons behind that become clear.  And if lefties continue to throw themselves against the word “corporation”, they are only going to be wasting their time.  It is too imprecise.  There are industries that work through corporations and then there are the big investment banks on Wall Street and they haven’t always been the same.  Teasing the agents apart at this point in time is going to be tricky but necessary.

Anyway, just read it.  Make sure you have your Teddy Bear to clutch in the middle of the night.

One very interesting fact from Ho’s book: Wall Street investment banks recruit heavily from a handful of prestigious Ivies.  There are two in particular that the bulk of Wall Street analysts and associates come from: Harvard and Princeton.  I’m not surprised about Princeton.  A few years ago, when I was trying to get Brooke into a private school that wouldn’t drive us all crazy, I toured several in the Princeton area and was surprised to see all the cable business channels running on multiple tv screens in the student lounges.  The kid was waitlisted, probably because we asked for financial aid.  But I digress.  The investment banks seem to think that Harvard and Princeton nurture their students in a way that make them perfect for Wall Street.  They’re smart, driven, ambitious, used to the finer things in life and they are looking for the next Harvard after graduation.  A few others get their attention, like MIT and Wharton.

But investment bankers do not like to recruit from Yale.  They don’t trust Yale graduates because they think they are too liberal.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Wall Street knew it was going down in 2007, it recruited a presidential candidate from Harvard and passed on the one from Yale.

Oh, and Ho uses the word “schmooze” to describe the front office guys (almost all of them are guys) who use their relationships and connections to get to the top.  Some of them didn’t learn a thing during their investment bank’s finance training classes.  Apparently, you don’t have to know anything about finance to climb the corporate ladder to success.  You just have to know the right people and be really good at golf.

Liquefaction

I’m on the way to the garage this morning.  Yellowish oily liquid is seeping from the left front tire area.  Could this be a symptom of imminent failure?  I’ve noticed another expensive sounding noise from my front wheel drive on my commutes to Philly this week.  The last thing I want is to be stranded on 95 during rush hour.

{{sigh}}

Some interesting things on the interwebs to look at:

Atrios is doing his Top Ten Wankers of the Decade.  These are really good.  Check out who he’s tagged so far and pray you don’t make his top ten list.

8th Runner Up : Richard Cohen

9th Runner Up: Megan McArdle

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Yesterday, Digby featured a clip from Chris Hayes show on MSNBC where his panelists discussed what is wrong with those people on Wall Street.  The most interesting panelist was Karen Ho, professor of anthropology at University of Minnesota, who conducted some field work on Wall Street while she was employed there as a management analyst.  She wrote it all down in a book called Liquidated, An Ethnography of Wall Street.  (If you’re going to download an ecopy, go with Amazon.  It’s $10 cheaper than iBooks.  No audible version available.  Dang!)

I read a bit of it last night before I fell asleep and Ho and I come to strikingly similar conclusions.  Hard to believe that this post it a year old already but check out my farewell on my last day of work last year after I was laid off.  You don’t need to be an anthropologist to see what’s going on but all of the background research helps.  Basically, what we’re seeing is the trickle down effect of the finance industry’s management and compensation system on the rest of corporate life.  The finance industry values “increasing shareholder value” (or at least it says it does) and all incentives are directed towards that goal.  Long term productivity strategies are chucked out the window because the finance guys and the corporate CEOs have to satisfy quarterly expectations.  It’s my grasshopper theory.  They’ll keep eating away until there’s nothing left and they don’t care what happens afterwards because of IBGYBG (I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone).

Now, how these assholes got to be in charge is the territory of the anthropologist.  Here’s what I am seeing in the pharma industry.  You only get a job these days if you a.) graduated from an ivy league university or other prestigious lab, b.) you know the right people and they offer to mentor/protect you (it helps if you are in the possession of a Y chromosome) or c.) play political games with the confidence of a grand master.  None of those three things guarantees that you will be good at discovering groundbreaking new drugs.  Trust me on this.  I’ve met ivy league PhDs fresh out of school and they need seasoning.  Industry is a whole different animal than graduate school.  I don’t care how smart you are, translating that smartness to practical drug discovery is an art.  Some master it quickly, some take more time.  But an ivy league degree is no guarantee of success.  It could mean that the candidate is so burned out by the time he/she gets a decent salary that the best years are behind them, but I digress.

What seems to matter is the perception of “smartness”.  A person with this quality can do no wrong.  Pedigree and connections are essential for this perception and as you can imagine, if you are from a working class background, it is much, much harder to obtain these things.  You may not have the economic means to stick it out for 10 years to get your PhD or you may not have been able to get into the best colleges.  You’re probably not a legacy or part of some favored ethnic group.  In other words, it’s harder to get the pedigree or connections you need.  We are rapidly devolving back to Jane Austen’s world where people fight for a “living” and socialize with the expectations of making favorable “connexions” to get that living and where where your relatives are on the social ladder is likely to save or doom you.  Your intrinsic worth or aptitude with learning new things or hard work and achievements are not necessarily going to save you.  A lot depends on your willingness to kiss up to the level above you and your ability to keep credit for your own work.  Not an easy task because if you don’t already fit among the “smart” class, your own work looks like luck or the work of other people.

Ho’s book also explains how it is that we ended up with the crazy and insecure working life most corporate employees live in.  We are always worried about the next layoff.  The pace of work is exhausting.  You don’t realize it when you’re in it.  It’s only after you’ve been away from the toxic environment that you realized how much stress your body has been under from the constant restructurings, mergers, downsizing and increased workload burden.  And at the bottom of it all, you’re constantly made to feel like you’re only a drag on the bottom line.  It looks like I wasn’t imagining it when I got the feeling that the executives up the road considered the research staff to be little more than the laborers who worked with their hands.  It was obvious in the way we were spoken to whenever we had to go outside the lab environment to get something done.  It was apparent in the percs.  Their cafeteria was better, no question about it, and they didn’t pay more for that.  They had a nicer and bigger gym, better classes.  They were able to mail their personal packages to Europe at a discount. They stopped letting the lab staff do that.  The computers were set up to make life easier for the marketing department.  If it made life a lot more difficult for the chemists, too f^&*ing bad.  We were told to stop whining or risk our jobs.  In fact, our jobs were made much harder by the absolute disinterest of the executive branch.  Research just got to be one workaround after another and lots of them.

We are seen as expendable.  I think the executive class has made a huge mistake assuming that those of us who have been liberated will be so ingenious without money that we will make discoveries in our garages that they can swoop down and buy for pennies on the dollar.  It’s not as easy as they think.  In fact, our jobs are much harder than they gave us credit for.

And I hate to bring up politics at this point but after reading just the opening chapters of Ho’s book, it becomes pretty clear that the Obama administration is infested by the “smartness” crowd.  Indeed, Obama himself is a prime example of this class.  It is no wonder that Larry Summers was one of Obama’s appointees.  Summers is the former president of Harvard and is on the board of advisors of hedge funds like DE Shaw, run by a billionaire biologist.  Pedigree, pedigree, pedigree.

Gotta go.  Will let you know how the book turns out.  Should be interesting.  But everything I’ve read so far has been independently confirmed by the research staffs of the major big pharmas.  I’m not sure what can be done about it.  I guess we’ll have to wait until the players are gone.

Later taters.

Wall Street + Stock Buy Backs => Cookies of the Apocalypse

Greed has consequences.  The definition of success also has consequences.  When people judge their success in life by how much money they are making instead of what they contribute to the well being of the society they live in, they can have unintended consequences for other people who they don’t even know in fields they couldn’t care less about.

Let’s follow this trail, shall we?

Matt Taibbi writes another scathing critique on the lack of character on Wall Street.  This is where the worldview is developed and the flawed value system starts.  In this little snippet about John Paulsen and his incredible haul of obscene gobs of cash, we are to feel sympathy for the pain he has suffered for all the gobs of cash he lost on bets that didn’t pan out last year:

Look, the financial services industry should be boring. It should be quaint. Let’s take the municipal debt business. For ages, it was a simple, dull, low-margin sort of industry, in which banks arranged municipal bond issues and made small but dependable profits as cities and towns financed improvements and construction projects.

That system worked seamlessly for decades, until people like Sherman’s interview subjects suddenly decided to make the business exciting. You know what happens when you make municipal debt exciting? Jefferson County, Alabama happens. Or, on a macro level, Greece happens.

When making a few points on mere bond issues stops being enough, and you have to cook up crazy swap schemes and indices to bet against those schemes, ingenious scams allowing politicians to borrow billions of dollars that they will never in a million years be able to pay back, you might end up getting a few parks, schools, and subways in New York.

But what you get everywhere else is a giant clusterfuck that costs the rest of us years and even more billions of tax dollars to remedy.

This is what the protests are all about – it’s anger that Wall Street has been profiting from an imaginary economy that leaves bankers overpaid, but creates damage everywhere else. Sherman doesn’t get this. He seems to subscribe to the well-worn straw-man position that protesters are simply upset that bankers and financiers make a lot of money. Take for example his view on John Paulson, the hedge fund titan who was involved in Goldman’s infamous Abacus deal:

In October, a thousand protesters stood outside John Paulson’s Upper East Side townhouse and offered the hedge-fund billionaire a mock $5 billion check, the amount he earned from his 2010 investments. Later that day, Paulson released a statement attacking the protesters and their movement …. The truth was, Paulson was furious that the protesters had singled him out. Last year, he lost billions of dollars on bad bets on gold and the banking sector. One of his funds posted a 52 percent loss. “The ironic thing is John lost a lot of money this year,” a person close to Paulson told me. “The fact that John got roped into this debate highlights their misunderstanding.”

Hey, asshole: nobody misunderstands anything about John Paulson. They’re not mad that he made billions the year before, and they’re not happy that he lost money this year. They’re mad that the way he made his money in previous years – which involved putting together a born-to-lose portfolio of toxic mortgage bonds and then using Goldman Sachs to dump them on a pair of European banks, who in turn had no idea that Paulson was betting against them.

Matt Taibbi is using harsh curse words.  How declasse.  The fundies react with shock and horror.  Is there no civility on the internet?  Paulsen is rich.  Surely this man deserves respect.

Moving on.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline wrote a rather longish post for him about the pharmaceutical companies buying back stock in what looks like a desperate attempt to push up the stock price and keep more for the executives.  Lovely.  And this is made easier by assuring investors that they have cracked down on research costs, by golly.  We’ll have none of that wasteful spending here:

He has some figures from our own industry: From 1997 to 2009 “Amgen did
repurchases equal to 99 percent of R&D expenditures, Pfizer 67 percent, Merck 62
percent, and Johnson & Johnson 57 percent.” It could be worse – companies in the IT sector have often managed to spend even more than their R&D budgets on repurchases, partly because they increased the number of shares outstanding so hugely during the dot-com boom years.

One complication with the market-manipulation view is that stock buybacks don’t correlate very well with total stock returns. If anything, the correlation is negative: companies (and sectors) that spend the most on repurchases have lower returns. Of course, there’s a correlation/causation problem here – perhaps those returns would have been even lower without the buybacks. But there’s clearly no slam-dunk financial case to be made for repurchases.

Except one: that they’re often the easiest and least controversial use of the money. Companies get criticized if they sit on cash reserves, and they get criticized for missing earnings-per-share numbers. Why not try to address both at the same time? And without having to actually think very hard about what to invest in? I think that Pfizer’s Ian Read is being truthful when he says things like this:

Pfizer declined to make an executive available to discuss its policy. But in a statement, the company said it “remains committed to returning capital to shareholders through share buybacks and dividend payments.”

As for the cut in research spending in February, Pfizer said it has “accelerated our research strategy and made important changes to concentrate our efforts to deliver the greatest medical and commercial impact.”

In a conference call with analysts this month, Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian C. Read, said his company would “continually look” for acquisitions that would increase revenue growth. But in deciding how to use the proceeds from recent asset sales, he said “the case to beat is share repurchase.”

And that, truly, is a shame.

Oh, well, it’s not like the executives are going to stick around to see what a shame it is.  As the following animation suggests, they will be sitting on a beach in the Cayman Islands ideating and leaving the company to hobble toward some finish line on its own:

{{catching breath, wiping eyes, clearing throat}}  Ahem, geek humor and all that.  Too funny, or it would be if so many of us “ancient ones” weren’t out of work.

Thursday: Assholes R Us

Did you see this list of the top majors for the 1%?

We got an interesting question from an academic adviser at a Texas university: could we tell what the top 1 percent of earners majored in?

The writer, sly dog, was probably trying to make a point, because he wrote from a biology department, and it turns out that biology majors make up nearly 7 percent of college graduates who live in households in the top 1 percent.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, the majors that give you the best chance of reaching the 1 percent are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and, yes, biology, in that order.

Undergraduate Degree Total % Who Are 1 Percenters Share of All 1 Percenters
Health and Medical Preparatory Programs 142,345 11.8% 0.9%
Economics 1,237,863 8.2% 5.4%
Biochemical Sciences 193,769 7.2% 0.7%
Zoology 159,935 6.9% 0.6%
Biology 1,864,666 6.7% 6.6%
International Relations 146,781 6.7% 0.5%
Political Science and Government 1,427,224 6.2% 4.7%
Physiology 98,181 6.0% 0.3%
Art History and Criticism 137,357 5.9% 0.4%
Chemistry 780,783 5.7% 2.4%
Molecular Biology 64,951 5.6% 0.2%
Area, Ethnic and Civilization Studies 184,906 5.2% 0.5%
Finance 1,071,812 4.8% 2.7%
History 1,351,368 4.7% 3.3%
Business Economics 108,146 4.6% 0.3%
Miscellaneous Psychology 61,257 4.3% 0.1%
Philosophy and Religious Studies 448,095 4.3% 1.0%
Microbiology 147,954 4.2% 0.3%
Chemical Engineering 347,959 4.1% 0.8%
Physics 346,455 4.1% 0.7%
Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration 334,016 3.9% 0.7%
Accounting 2,296,601 3.9% 4.7%
Mathematics 840,137 3.9% 1.7%
English Language and Literature 1,938,988 3.8% 3.8%
Miscellaneous Biology 52,895 3.7% 0.1%
Source: 2010 American Communty Survey, via ipums.org
{{hangs head in shame}}

See??  This is yet another reason to invest in research.  If you don’t keep us in the lab and pay us well, we’ll go to work on Wall Street.  Nice economy you’ve got there.  Be a shame if something *happened* to it.

I suspect that the large number of geeks on Wall Street represents the number of quants hired to construct and run the dynamic models.  Take D. E. Shaw, billionaire biologist, for example. While he’s running a hedge fund, he’s got a sideline creating molecular dynamics simulations programs on proteins.  I can definitely see the crossover but what the top dogs probably fail to realize is that to the geeks, the programs are just research, as in “what would happen if we tweaked this parameter?” and there goes the Euro. God, help us.

Ironically, major pharmaceutical companies are run by former ketchup company executives and salesmen.  Go figure.  What we really need is for everyone to stick to their own kind.  No more of this mixing of the majors.  It’s unnatural.

However, this study just confirms my suspicions that it is much easier for a hard sciences major to learn business and finance than a business major to learn the hard sciences. And we in the research industries are going to pay for that lack of intellectual reciprocity.

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Did you catch the article in Vanity Fair titled National Public Rodeo about the Juan Williams at NPR fiasco?  There’s a sad little tale of karmic justice in it, considering the way the candidates and Fox treated him in South Carolina.  His story sounds vaguely familiar.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Flashy African-American dude with gigs at prestigious institutions gets hired by a bunch of solidly middle class, no-nonsense, Minnesota-type liberals.  They’re thrilled to be adding to the diversity of their lineup; he thinks he’s doing them a favor.  Turns out he’s an “idea rat”, not a workhorse, he’s considerably more conservative than they realize, and he has a history of lack of respectful treatment of women.  They would have known this if they had bothered to check out his background a bit more thoroughly but they’re blinded by their instinct to do good or fear of looking unfairly and tastelessly bigoted.  The staff and management try to accommodate his quirks and his moonlighting for their arch enemy.  But after half a decade, it’s just not working out.  They try talking to him but whenever they try to rein him back in, he starts accusing them of racism.  Everything is racism to him.  Racism, racism, racism.  So, they sit and wait until he royally fucks up in some spectacular way and then they fire him.  And the ones who fire him who end up losing their jobs in a firestorm of conservative vs liberal rhetoric- and accusations of racism.

It’s either a misunderstanding of worldviews or it’s a clever, common strategy to accuse your detractors of the most vile, prejudicial instincts in order to get what you want.  Too bad it bit him in the ass in South Carolina.  I almost feel sorry for the guy.  But he took the bait from Fox News and they own him now.

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I’ve been following Jeff Jarvis’s Tweets from Davos, Switzerland.  He snarked this tweet late yesterday:

jeffjarvis Jeff Jarvis

Now in the more fun part of #WEF: brainstorming sessions. Surprising that execs will play.

Jeff seems astonished that there is still no sense of responsibility among the uber rich.  They either don’t realize or callously don’t care about all of the misery they’re causing.  Or, maybe it’s all part of the plan.  What strikes me as odd about the very rich is that it seems like they live in a California-esque paradise of self-esteem programs.  No one has ever told them what stupid, selfish excuses for human beings they are.  They’ve never had any “character building” experiences.  You know the kind?  Whenever you needed something really badly, like a college education, and your parents didn’t have the cash to at least keep you from starving, they always said it would build your character?  I should have a rock solid foundation of character by now.  Not so the uber rich.  Their voices are “full of money” and they have no sense of guilt for running over people who get in their way.

jeffjarvis Jeff Jarvis

BofA’s Moynihan responds that bankers will bear their scars for many years to come. So will we all. #wef

Somewhere, I hear the world’s tiniest violin…

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The right’s boogieman, George Soros, says that if Mitt Romney is the nominee, there won’t be much of a difference between a Obama administration and a Romney administration.  The best shot Democrats have to retain the White House is for Santorum or Gingrich to get the nomination.  I happen to disagree with this.  Republicans, well, movement conservatives, will pull out all of the stops if Gingrich gets the nomination.  They want to win and all of the misery of the past three years will be dumped on Obama, some of it for good reason.  He squandered his opportunity to drag the country leftwards to the middle when he first took office and had a filibuster proof majority.

And why did he fail to do that?  It’s because he doesn’t believe in it.  He told you on Tuesday night that he was a moderate Republican.  He’s been saying that for four years now.  His heros are Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.  Doesn’t anyone ever notice that he doesn’t cite any Democrats as his role models?  Well, for one thing, no one believed that crap about him being the second coming of FDR so he had to drop it.  I think that forcing him to actually say he is a Democrat supporting strong Democratic values is physically and psychologically painful for him but I encourage the doubters to try.  Try to make him say something nice about LBJ or Bill Clinton.  Watch him flinch.

Anyway, Soros says he’s worried about the Supreme Court.  I’m not too worried.  I suspect that Ruth Bader-Ginsburg will announce her retirement before the election and will be replaced.  That leaves the composition of the court stable.  It would be different if Alito or Thomas or Kennedy stepped down but for some reason the Supremes have a history of living to a ripe old age whether we like it or not.

Here’s the rest of Soros’ interview from Davos, who, by the way, is also suffering from the failure to imaginate any other contest than the one between the Republicans and the Republican disguised as a Democrat. There are simply no other alternatives, like, replacing the Republican running as a Democrat with a real Democrat. I’m beginning to think that Soros is the one playing 11 dimensional chess here.:

OccupyPharma and other cures

We are also the 99% Meeeeneeeemeeep!

Reader bemused_leftist pointed me to a defense of the control network that I posted about yesterday from a guy who works in one of those companies on the network.  Here are the money quotes from the defense from Andrew Drucker at Made from Truth and Lies: I’m annoyed at the sensationalist financial reporting:

I happen to work for one of those 50 companies, which gives me a little bit of perspective (even if I am very far down its hierarchy). And I can tell you that most of those companies aren’t in that position because of a conspiracy of control – but because you have a pension. AXA, Legal and General, Aviva, Sun Life, and many many more of the companies on there are there because ordinary people put their cash into life insurance or pensions, and that cash is then invested in the stock market so that it can make payouts in the event of either problems (for the insurance) or retirement (for the pensions). And because many of these companies provide pensions either for millions of people, thousands of large companies, or both, they are managing massive piles of cash.

Which doesn’t mean that they’re actually running the companies they own lots of shares in. Most pensions/insurance/life companies are terrified of telling the companies they own shares in how to behave – they want to own shares in something successful so that they make profits, but they don’t have the time to micro-manage them, and they really don’t want to get involved in anything that smells even slightly political.

This actually leads, sometimes, to insufficient control over the directors of large corporations – because if you’re in the FTSE 100, you’re going to find your shares are owned by a lot of investment companies, who just want you to churn out profits, without paying too much attention to, say, board-level renumeration. So you can get away with paying your high level people a lot without a share-holder rebellion. If they were owned by a few ordinary people then they’d find themselves subjected to a lot more scrutiny, and a lot more control.

Well, Andrew, speaking as a former employee of one of those companies that the network node companies are terrified to micro manage, I call bullshit.  The pharma industry has been micromanaged to death by the node network guys.  When they’re not totally onboard some gutwrenching merger or acquisition, they’re telling the CEO to cut more from research.  Yeah, that’s the ticket to a successful, money making pharmaceutical company!  Dismantle the research apparatus.  Do it quickly, like before the next quarter.  Andrew, please do not tell anyone in the pharma industry who has either lost their job or about to lose their job (those are the only two categories at the present time), that the pension fund managers and big banks and other financial sector players have not had a profound effect on the way pharmaceuticals run their businesses.  We have been at the Town Hall meetings when the head honchos have told us directly and to our faces that you guys have been leaning on them- heavily.  It’s not bad enough that pharma has been shooting it’s own image in the foot with lobbyists and high drug prices, that you financial types skim from, or that it is constantly under attack from the left for being less than perfect (as if there is such a thing as a perfect drug, there isn’t).  No, what really pisses the labrats off is yet another boneheaded restructuring plan brought on by some nitwit Wharton School graduate who just has to take the latest management trend out for a spin to teach those damn researchers that research costs money, by golly!  How dare they consume so many pipettes, order so many tests and break so many instruments.  Don’t they know that those costs go into the debit column??  Well, they’re going to have to learn a thing or two or we’re not going to make our quarterly estimate.

It’s been done to every one of the companies I’ve ever heard of.  If the companies aren’t shedding research jobs to hire cheap contractors, they’re shedding research jobs to just get out of unprofitable therapeutic areas.  Well, who needs antibiotics anyway?  The latest news is that Abbott is spinning off the pharma unit altogether.  Oh sure, they’ve got a blockbuster that will keep them afloat for awhile but most likely, they’ll get swallowed up by a bigger shark and where will the cost savings come from?  That’s right, the research unit.  These days, companies buy products, not the group that actually discovered the product.

More joy is on the horizon for 380 Amgen employees who learned just last week that they are going to lose their jobs.  (pharmas are either tricklers or gushers when it comes to cutting jobs.  Amgen is a trickler; Pfizer is a gusher.  But it’s all the same in the end)  Really, guys, do the rest of us unemployed labrats need more competition?  And Merck, the beacon of stability, that has been holding off the financial analysts bravely for the past couple of years while the rest of the pharmas have done what their masters ordered, seems to have finally thrown in the towel.  They are going to be making an announcement next week about reorganizing. Derek Lowe’s blog, In the Pipeline, has some of the details and this complaint from Derek:

And on a similar topic, here’s a post from John LaMattina asking what many people have at one point or another: how come Wall Street analysts get so much influence over how much a drug organization spends on R&D? His examples are Merck, Lilly, and Amgen, and his take is:

“Now, I am all for monitoring R&D budgets to maximize the returns from these investments. And I am all for accountability – asking the R&D organization to deliver new candidates to the pipeline, having formal goals with rigorous deadlines, and for running clinical trials as expeditiously as possible while keeping a close eye on costs. But for Wall Street to reward a company for lowering R&D spending and attack those that want to commit to R&D is absurd. Like it or not, R&D IS the engine that powers a pharmaceutical company. It is also a high-risk endeavor. Furthermore, given all of the hurdles that now exist especially with regard to ensuring safety and having sufficient novelty to justify pricing, R&D is more expensive than ever. But, if you want to succeed, you have to invest – substantially. There are no short cuts.”

Wall Street’s answer, which may be hard to refute, is that if you want the access to capital that the stock market provides, then you have to accept the backseat driving as part of the deal. But do we get the same degree of it as other industries, or more?

That is the rule, Andrew, not the exception.

Now, I know that a lot of people at OccupyWallStreet don’t much care for pharma.   I know it takes a lot of milk of human kindness to love us but try, people, try.  It’s really important that you try to understand this problem.  Because if there was ever an industry that needed to be liberated from Wall Street it would have to be pharmaceutical research.  Wall Street and pharmaceutical research are about as incompatible as two entities can get.  Wall Street is all about short term profits and paying the shareholder.  Pharma research “used” to be about developing cures through science and long term committments.  The Wall Street crew does not care if there is a research industry left in this country.  It is not interested in your excuses that research takes time and human organisms and their cells are very complex.  They are deaf to the pleas that we are being squeezed by the FDA to make our imperfect drugs perfect and need to carry out more and more expensive clinical trials that will cause some drugs to fail to advance.  All Wall Street cares about is whether the quarterly estimate will be hit or not.  And the MBAs who populate pharma’s corporate office suites are there to see that it is done.  That’s why they make the big bucks.

This is an opportunity, occupywallst, to take pharma back and make it work for the public.  Don’t pass this one up.

Moving on to cures of a different kind:

The people at ApartmentTherapy are starting the 20/20 Home Cure on Monday.  It’s 20 minutes a day for 20 days.  Each day features a different project to get your house back in shape.  You can sign up at ApartmentTherapy on Monday.  Here’s Maxwell’s introduction video to explain what it’s about.  If you are a bit more ambitious and need more structure in your home clean up routine, check out the 20 minutes for 30 days plan.  You can add these tasks to your favorite productivity tool (I’m testing out Home Routines for the iPad) and they can come up on a regular basis.  I have heard that if you do something for 21 days, you’re more likely to make it a lasting habit.  So, if you’re like me and you spend  a bit too much time hunched behind your computer, join ApartmentTherapy on Monday for the Home Cure.

Apartmenttherapy is just a great site to add to your daily routine anyway.  If you’re looking for a way to change your home environment in some way, they have the answers, ideas, DIY projects and plenty of design inspirations from people on budgets, updated frequently throughout the day.  They have several sibling sites too that cover everything from renesting, food, and parenting to planning your next high tech gadgets.  Another blog of visual relief for the home is Design*Sponge by Grace Bonney and her crew.  Highly recommended.

On the menu for a cool fall evening, Roast Pumpkin with Cheese Fondue.  I made this last year.  Dead simple to assemble, delicious.  Should be served in front of a toasty fire with salad and a crisp white wine.  Yummm.

ooOOoo, the chemists are getting restless

Last Friday, Derek Lowe posted the latest rumors on Amgen.  The pointy haired bosses are saying euphemistically loaded code words for liberating the wage slaves:

Amgen is out today speaking the sort of language that we’ve all come to fear. It appears that the local Ventura County Star picked up some rumblings from inside the Thousand Oaks headquarters, and when they asked the company about it, they got this:

“We are currently evaluating some changes within our Research & Development organization to improve focus and to reallocate resources to key pipeline assets and activities. . .”

Been there, done that.  The whole day at Amgen was wasted with scared shitless labrats floating from cubicle to cubicle running down the options.  Those who weren’t constructing elaborate scenarios were furiously updating their CVs, searching for their publications and slapping together presentation slides.  Lots of networking going on.  “Heeeey, how are you doing?  Haven’t talked to you for, what is it now?  Five years?  Oh, I’m doing fine.  Working at Amgen.  Yep, great site.  How are the kids?  Really?  High school already?  Doesn’t time fly?  Is it true Satanaco just made you director of flarnjarn chemistry?  How’s that going these days?…”

Thinking back on it, there is a certain pattern to these announcements.  They occur roughly a year after the email about the multimillion dollar contract the company just signed with a consulting firm (located more frequently in Massachusetts, hmmm…).  So, be on your guard, guys.  Don’t wait until the big announcement to bug out.  Do it as soon as you hear the consulting firm is studying your discovery process.

For the past 10 years, chemists, who tend to be introverted types, watched as their work environment disappeared lab by lab.  At first, they were able to jump around locally.  Then all hell broke loose in 2008 and the layoffs came like a blitzkrieg.  There is absolutely no relief, no place to go and no security.  No sooner have you unpacked your new clean labcoats in the new company before there’s a merger announcement or a restructuring and, once again, you have to figure out if you can afford the house *and* the small apartment you’ll be forced to live in during the week in Massachusetts while your employed spouse works in your former state of residence.

The chemists grumbled but took it.  But now that so many of them are out of work, some of us permanently as far as we can tell, the labrats are getting mad.  Here’s a promising comment:

“The reality is that we have all gotten to the good old days when you could stay with the same company with job security. Those days are gone! Do not blame your management! Face the reality. For the chemists, why you think you would be entitled to a good job if the need is not there for your services?”

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that lately in light of the last nine months in the world. Sure, chemists may be smart and resourceful and maybe can deal with getting laid off a lot, but most humans aren’t. Most humans do expect relative job security and certainty for the future. A lot think they are entitled to it. Don’t believe me? Look at Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Spain, and now New York. It all sounds fine to say that we need to adjust to the new market, but I’m guessing that in the future the financial industry will have to throw billions at people to keep them in boring, steady jobs with a degree of future certainty just so they don’t tear out a banker’s throat. Much as Saudi Arabia is doing now by flooding Egypt and Yemen with billions in the futile hope that the hunger and unrest doesn’t spread.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think humans are evolved enough for today’s market. Maybe in a few thousand years… but the instability and uncertain future has obviously risen beyond what the human species as a whole can support with the current gene mix. Too many people want a certain stability on a primitive level. This whole business with the Euro collapsing and the Arab world imploding/exploding will lead to a lot more problems for Pharma (and not only them) in the future.

Sad but true.  Human beings have not sufficiently evolved to give up their food and housing addictions.  If we were, getting laid off repeatedly would be much more pleasant than it is.   I must say that the image of bankers’ throats being torn out by a crowd of angry labrats gave me a momentary feeling of delight, sort of like a lion that has finally downed its prey and is ripping the esophagus out of the neck, like bloody banker steak tartare…  Where was I?  {{catching breath, straightening clothes, wiping chin}} And this comment from an Amgen Oldtimer tells the story of Amgen’s demise.  Substitute any well known biomedical research company for Amgen, it’s happened to all of them:

Yes Amgen was a great company. Under George Rathman it was an awesome culture. For about 15 years, early 80’s to mid-nineties, almost no one left. Attrition ran less than half industry standard. It was a vibrant, scientist driven culture of innovation. Team culture was strong, people supported one another, careers were nurtured, ethics were everyday stuff, not laminated speaking points. As a young scientist there, I awoke each day early and got off to work because my head was full of anticipation for the day.

The middle period was run by Gordon Binder. A decent man, but he set the seeds for future failure. He ran a tight ship financially, growing the company perfectly to beat estimates steadily, quarter over quarter, year after year. A lot of people got rich, but also complacent and no risks were taken with the revenue other than to support internal research. While that was a good thing, the senior team had lost some steam, and was also stubbornly resistant to the McKinsey minded management movement that was threatening all research organizations. While I think this was wise, lack of performance and suggesting no alternatives other than to do what we’ve always done led to the next disastrous phase.

Kevin takes over. In comes GE based performance systems [Jack Welch's "rank and yank" that nurtured Enron as well], in comes BCG (Boston Consulting Group) lead restructuring of R&D processes to generate “seamless alignment”, in comes an attitude that R(esearch) only costs money. Team culture evaporates, those that can manage up well shift around from function to function, with success claimed for new initiatives before any measure of impending failure. Scientists who have clarity about the folly, and speak up, are shown the door. New “superstars” are hired that have no track record of success (but amazingly are all friends!), and that is still true now after a decade at Amgen. ESAs are over-promoted, Hematocrit pushed to high and the fall begins.

Management structures bonuses based on revenue, so Amgen buys Immunex and enbrel, which produces a lot of revenue, less margin, pays too much, but pads bank accounts. Stock falls, so management changes incentive at low price to be aligned with shareholders, taking more money out of the company. In the end, company sheds something like 40-50B in market cap, lays off employees while the CEO buys 2 corporate jets and takes home about $250MM. Amazing pay for shedding that much company value. Amazing lack of concern for employees and patients. Amazingly different company than George Rathman led.

Great company, once.

The anger isn’t limited to Wall Street but Wall Street had a significant role to play in the demise of research in this country.  And now, as one commenter noted, the flood gates are about to open to admit more foreign STEM workers because companies are whining that they don’t have enough well-trained workers in the US.  That might be motivated by Wall Street’s pressure for profits but the ultimate responsibility for reducing STEM professionals to low wage jobs with no security will fall on the president and Congress who don’t prevent the H-1B visas from flooding the system with cheap, expendable labor that can be sent back to Asia when the season’s over, like migrant workers rotating from lab to lab.

Obama should think about that. Chemistry used to be a good career.  The work requires a lot of education, technical skills and experience.  The salaries were decent if not spectacular compared to the corporate office purchasing administrators and sales reps.  Chemists paid their fair share of taxes and had nice houses in the suburbs where they sent their children to local schools and attended school board meetings.  They did demonstrations for kids at Science Fair night.  They coached soccer.  These are not the people you want to alienate in an election year.

Because these are the same people who may show up at a OWS site in a nearby park carrying signs like this:

One more thing:

Over at Craig Crawford’s Trail Mix (nice blog), there is a video of Matt Taibbi talking to Don Imus about Occupy Wall Street. I’ll see if I can embed the video. One thing that annoys me is Don Imus asking Matt if he thinks any of the occupiers even understand the banking issues. Condescend much, Don?? A lot of us have read Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short and can tell you exactly how securitization of mortgages work, what a tranche is and the difference between a CDO and a CDS. Yep, and we know the people at ratings agencies are unreliable at best, looking for jobs with the people they rate at worst. AND that the SEC did nothing about the concerns that were raised by some hedge fund managers. And that derivatives are not regulated to make them transparent. And that fund managers love their status and money and have very little interest or incentive to protect their clients’ pension funds. Is that enough, Don, or do you want more?

Jeez, he hasn’t aged well. He’s younger than my mom and looks about 10 years older. Ahhh, I see. Prostate cancer. That’s not good. Too bad I don’t do cancer drugs anymore…

OccupyWallStreet: We are not cannon fodder for Washington policy wonks

 

My Favorite Sign

Glenn Greenwald gets OccupyWallStreet in a way that many doubters do not.  In his latest post at Salon, Can OWS be turned into a Democratic party movement, he writes:

Given these facts, does the Center for American Progress really believe that the protest movement named OccupyWallStreet was begun — and that people are being arrested and pepper-sprayed and ready to endure harsh winters andmarching to Jamie Dimon’s house — in order to devote themselves to ensuring that these people remain in power? Does CAP and the DCCC really believe that most of the protesters are motivated — or can be motivated — to turn themselves into a get-out-the-vote machine for Obama’s re-election and the empowerment of Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Party? Obviously, if when the GOP nominates some crony capitalist like Rick Perry or eager Wall Street servant like Mitt Romney, few if any of the protesters will or should support them, nor can it be denied that the GOP in its current incarnation is steadfastly devoted to a pro-Wall-Street, corporatist agenda. But it also seems to me quite delusional to think that you’re going to exploit this protest as a way “to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012″ on behalf of the Democratic Party that I just documented.

Presumably, people who are out protesting and getting arrested are politically astute enough to be aware of some, probably most, of these facts. A rejuvenated outburst of “populist rhetoric” from Obama — a re-reading of the 2008 Change script — just as election season is heating up and Obama again needs progressive enthusiasm to remain in power seems quite unlikely to make people forget all of this.

As Robert Reich recently pointed out, OWS and the Democratic Party are not exactly natural allies given that “Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business” and that “a big share of both parties’ campaign funds comes from the Street and corporate board rooms.” As Naomi Klein explained after speaking to the protesters, the reason they are out on the street rather than working for the DNC or OFA is precisely because they concluded that electoral politics or working for either party will not address the issues motivating them; part of what they’re protesting is the Democratic Party. For an FDL Book Salon discussion this weekend, I reviewed Lawrence Lessig’s excellent new book on our corrupted political system, Republic: Lost, and he documents exactly why he transformed from an enthusiastic supporter of his long-time friend and colleague Barack Obama in 2008 into a harsh critic of both parties: because the political system itself has been subverted by oligarchical control. As he put it in his book: : “Democracy on this account seems a show or a rule; power rests elsewhere. . . . the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real.”

So best of luck to CAP and the DCCC in their efforts to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA. I think they’re going to need it.

My spidey sense tells me that the occupiers know that the Democratic party is an enabler of Wall Street behavior.  Where I disagree with Glenn is that *anybody* who takes financial industry money is going to do its bidding.  I don’t believe that.  The crisis of 2008 was so severe that getting away with murder could only be pulled off by making sure the weakest presidential candidate won.  Obama was weak in character as well as experience.  But I digress.

While OWS is still working through the process of what it can do with all of its newly found power, let’s talk about business in America.  What drives me nutz about some activists is the inability to separate the finance industry from corporations in general.  There are some forms of industry that are best carried out by corporations because they provide an economy of scale and physical set up that make working together ideal and logistically possible.  Some industries that come to mind are car and aircraft manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.  Go ahead, try to build a new plane or discover a new drug without a corporation.  It’s bloody hard.  Many unemployed chemists right now are faced with this dilemma.  I have a sneaky suspicion that the clueless MBA class thought cutting a huge number of pharma workers was going to pay off for them because these people would just turn into entrepreneurs and when their  projects got to the development stage, the big pharmas would swoop down and buy them out.  But this is a business school grad’s fantasy.  With very few exceptions, this will never happen.  It’s just too expensive and physically exhausting for a few people to get together and create a whole pharma company out of their garages.  The start up costs alone will bankrupt you before you even get started and there are years, decades even, before a drug hits the marketplace, if it ever does.  The risk is too high for small entrepreneurs who still have to eat.

I hope someone is paying attention to what I just wrote about garage startup pharmas.  Stop hoping for this to happen.  Getting a new drug this way is about as likely as an immaculate conception.  At best, small companies can only do a piece of the puzzle.  The rest has to be farmed out and even when the idea is a good one, what these entrepreneurs really want is for someone with deep pockets to buy them, which most venture capitalists these days are increasingly unlikely to do without a guarantee of a payoff.  Since you can’t get close to guaranteeing a payoff without significant start up funds… well, you can see this is a vicious cycle.  The pharmas would have been better off keeping us and leaving us alone in our labs for about 5 years.

Now that there are a lot of people struggling to make a living by starting their own companies, vulture capitalists can make them offers they can’t refuse.  That will discourage new entrepreneurs from trying it and pretty soon, chemists and biologists will turn in their labcoats and go work for Wall Street where bonuses of only $500,000 will make a spoiled 27 year old Ivy League graduate cry but not your average lab rat.

Anyway, the problem with corporations is that at some point in the last 20 years, their upper management was taken over by people who wanted to play by the finance industry rules.  Many of them, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, have no idea how their businesses work.  They are raised in a business culture that puts making money ahead of everything else.  An executive reading that sentence would laugh derisively and say of course they’re there to make money.  And who would disagree?  That’s what for profit businesses do.  More power to them.  Make gobs of cash.  BUT the way you make that gob of cash *does* matter.  If you do it by reinvesting some of your profit into your business and innovate and grow, your business is going to do pretty well but it might take longer for that gob of cash to grow.  If you do it by slashing your labor and compensation costs, raising prices astronomically and then skim the profits off the top and share the profit, that’s like eating your seed corn and your company will start to show diminishing returns over time.  This is already happening to pharma with many of them going over the “patent cliff” starting this year.

Corporations have decided to go with option number 2 because the finance industry puts pressure on them to deliver more and more money to the shareholder.  And that money gets managed by Wall Street and is used to invest in foreign markets and the people who are left in those corporations are encouraged to put money into their 401Ks and they are compensated with stock options, which are supposed to incentivize you but tend to make you feel like your future is not in your hands whenever the shares plummet.

And then there is the deregulation and non-transparent derivatives, which are also not regulated, and the credit default swaps and the over-leveraged banks and on and on.  The whole system has been changed over the past 30 years to reward speculation by the wealthy.  None of this is news to anyone.

But it just may be occurring to some that the horror stories about what Brookseley Born, Sheila Bair and Elizabeth Warren have come up against in Washington DC is the result not of the bankers but the politicians who have been compromised by the financial industry.  And this problem affects *both* parties.  The Republicans are more up front about it but the Democrats haven’t been much better.  I won’t leave Bill Clinton off the hook here but in his case, there were mitigating factors in addition to Larry Summers and Robert Rubin acting like total assholes.  But we have to remember who rehired Larry Summers after his reputation preceded him.  It was Barack Obama.

We can debate whether Obama was a knowing tool of Wall Street or just aspired to be like the class that reigns there.  But there is no doubt in anyone’s minds by now that under Obama, the finance industry will suffer no shocks to its system at the hands of government regulators.  By the way, Greenwald includes a graph of the politicians that have received the most campaign cash from Wall Street and Chris Dodd’s name was on that list. It should come as no surprise that Dodd was one of the people who obstructed Elizabeth Warren’s appointment to the CFPB.  This article from Vanity Fair gives all of the gruesome details.

So, what does this have to do with OWS?  Well, the naysayers who have never been to an occupation site (hello myiq!) seem to think that the occupiers are or can be co-opted to become another Obama for America organization.  My sense, having actually, you know, *been* there, is that that’s not true.  The occupiers like me who already know that the politicians are standing between the Wall Street and regulation are very suspicious of any activity that pushes them to support Obama.  The other’s are still working through this process.  And the fact that they are working through this process slowly and methodically indicates to me that they will soon reach the same conclusion that we early birds did: if the finance industry plays by its own set of rules, the way to make them behave is to change the rulemakers.  And you can’t re-elect the same rulemakers who answer only to Wall Street and not to you the citizen and taxpayer.  And if the faulty rulemakers are in both parties, then even if some of those more sympathetic rulemakers are on your side, you need to force them to become accountable to you.  And to become more accountable to you, you need to threaten them with electoral losses until they get the picture that the power is at the ballot box and not on Wall Street.

So, will OWS become a tool of the Democratic party?  I don’t know but I doubt it.  That’s because what OWS wants is to make life more fair for the 99% and right now that’s not possible with the current set of rulemakers.  OWS has to apply pressure from the outside of the system.  Becoming a part of that system will never work.  The Democrats will try.  They’ll use fear, uncertainty and dread.  But the power that OWS has is in staying separate from any political party and gathering bodies and momentum behind it.

My best guess as to where OWS is headed is as a voting bloc first and then as a new political party.  What they are doing right now is laying down the foundation for what that party represents and what it values.  I know, I know, they’ll tell you they are still working on what they want and party building is not on their agenda.  But the process they are pursuing has a new party as a very logical endpoint, among other things.  And if the platform focuses on economic issues primarily, it could be extremely appealing to millions of Americans who have had enough of both parties.

The Democrats have more to fear from OWS because so many occupiers have given it a chance, over and over again, to do something to rein in the investment class and have seen nothing come of those efforts.  They know they’ll never make any headway with the Republicans, who are busily invoking images of murderous radical marxists with tattooed faces who poop on cars (well, now we know how to spot the radical marxists).  The occupiers have had it with Democrats but they also have more to gain by taking Democrats on.  They are just now feeling their power.  They’re not about to turn it over to a bunch of Wall Street lackeys

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