At the end of March, Neil Barofsky, on his final day as the special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), published a scathing indictment of the program over which he’d served as watchdog since its inception in that awful, apocalyptic autumn of 2008. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Barofsky argued that TARP had “failed to meet some of its most important goals”: protecting home values, easing the foreclosure crisis, alleviating the credit crunch—helping Main Street, in other words. Indeed, only when it came to aiding Wall Street had TARP worked like a charm. “Billions of dollars in taxpayer money allowed institutions that were on the brink of collapse not only to survive but even to flourish,” he wrote. “These banks now enjoy record profits and the seemingly permanent competitive advantage that accompanies being deemed ‘too big to fail.’ ”
Without necessarily intending to, Barofsky’s op-ed provided the perfect coda for the era of bailout rage—a two-and-a-half-year spasm of populist fury that promised, or threatened, to inflict enormous changes on the financial sector. In the political realm, Wall Street faced the prospect of root-and-branch reregulation, up to and including the potential nationalization of the industry’s largest players, and in the cultural realm its transfiguration into a kind of pariah state. Once upon a time, the Street’s leading lights had been glamorized and admired to the point of worship; now the likes of Robert Rubin, Lloyd Blankfein, and Richard Fuld were relentlessly pilloried and demonized. Once the megabanks were seen as indomitable powerhouses and sources of “financial innovation” (whatever the hell that was); now the greatest and most fearsome of them all, Goldman Sachs, was recast—by a famous and infamous Rolling Stone screed—as a “great vampire squid.”
Yet today on Wall Street, all of that seems a very long time ago. Not only are the banks rolling in dough again, but their denizens’ customs and sense of self-esteem have largely reverted to the status quo ante. With the enactment of a financial-reform law that is widely seen as toothless, the peril posed by government intervention has receded, and with it the industry’s concerns about the vicissitudes of public opinion. Vampire squids? That’s so 2009—an eon ago in Wall Street time. We won, you lost, get over it, is the prevailing attitude.