The Fact That Wall Street Is Useful Doesn’t Mean People Have To Like It

To the tender sensibilities of some foreigners, the U.S. seems like a hypercapitalist society. This view misses, among other things, the fact that Americans themselves look askance at capitalism and capitalists. A Harris Poll documents the ambivalence many people feel toward Wall Street and its money-minded denizens.

Overall, 22 percent of the poll’s respondents said Wall Street benefits the country “a lot” and 51 percent that it does so “somewhat”; 6 percent said Wall Street harms the country a lot and 17 percent that it does so somewhat. The positive vote is a bit higher than in the past few years, though not as high as when the stock market was booming in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, 71 percent of respondents agreed that Wall Street is “absolutely essential because it provides the money business must have for investments.”

If Americans regard Wall Street as a necessity, though, other responses indicate they classify it among life’s necessary evils. Sixty percent subscribed to the view that “Wall Street is dominated by greed and selfishness”; 59 percent endorsed the similar notion that “Wall Street only cares about making money and absolutely nothing else.” Given those numbers, it’s no surprise that respondents took a dim view of Wall Streeters. A clear majority (63 percent) agreed with the statement, “Most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it.” Likewise, fewer than half (41 percent) agreed that “In general, people on Wall Street are as honest and moral as most people.” A similarly lackluster number (40 percent) assented to the idea that “Most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn.” It’s often said that the rise of the 401(k) has helped transform the U.S. into an “ownership society.” Maybe so, but this hasn’t prompted a majority of Americans to identify the nation’s interests with those of the stock market. Just 37 percent agreed that “In general, what is good for Wall Street is good for the country.”

As a brand, Wall Street clearly does not enjoy the affection of Main Street. And one wonders whether some of the popular animus toward Wall Street rubs off on companies that are publicly traded. Even a positive quarterly earnings statement (let alone an apologetically negative one) will serve to remind consumers that a public company must dance to Wall Street’s tune. If nothing else, it must be easier to make customers feel they’re atop the hierarchy of stakeholders when a company isn’t churning out obligatory reports on how it’s serving its shareholders.