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Wall St empathises with 'Occupy' protest

Nov 13 2011 16:05 AFP

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New York - Balanced somewhere on the scale between sympathy and exasperation about the Occupy Wall Street movement, many New York bankers and financiers say the protesters have a point but are missing the mark.

"I don't really understand what message they're trying to convey," sniffed Peter Cardillo, chief strategist at boutique securities firm Rockwell Global Capital.

"They are just creating havoc and interfering with people trying to work."

Thousands of protesters have descended on the financial district in the past two months, fuelling a resistance effort that galvanised into a worldwide people-power movement slamming corporate greed, growing income disparities and multinationals they say control the puppet strings of an unfair global economy.

Some who earn a living on Wall Street and in the surrounding canyons of lower Manhattan are more sympathetic towards the protesters who have been organising speaker forums and gaining celebrity support as they denounce what they see as inequalities fostered by the richest 1% in the country.

"Time after time there were ways in which the banks were taking enormous risks... only to be saved by the American taxpayer," admitted Gregori Volokhine, director of financial management house Meeschaert New York.

A trading manager at a major Wall Street bank, who identified himself as Jack, rued the creation of huge amounts of debt "by encouraging people to buy things they couldn't afford, especially real estate".

Most economic analysts say plummeting home prices following a boom in the housing market helped trigger the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which led to billions of dollars in losses on mortgage-backed securities and the bailouts of US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The bosses of some major US banks, prime targets of the Occupy Wall Street movement, have taken the appeasement tack in public.

Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit told a press conference that protester rage was "completely understandable".

"The economic recovery is not what we all want it to be," Pandit said, as US President Barack Obama's administration battles an unemployment rate that has remained at or above 9% for most of this year.

"Trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the US, and... it's Wall Street's job to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust."

Pandit's counterpart at JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, also believed that large financial institutions left Americans in the lurch, even if he urged people not to tar all banks or politicians with the same brush.

"In general, these big institutions of America let them down," he said.

But the majority of sector employees queried by AFP said Occupy's targets were misplaced.

For them, it is not the financial industry that's responsible for the crisis, although many ceded that the US mortgage sector prompted a global credit crunch through risky financial products sold by the big Wall Street banks to financial institutions worldwide.

"To blame Goldman Sachs for the 9.1% unemployment rate doesn't make a lot of sense," said Mace Blicksilver, a strategist at Marblehead Asset Management.

"Wall Street created the structured financial products but it was government policy (that was) encouraging buying houses," Blicksilver said.

Plus, many traders "work 90 hours a week", bringing in millions of dollars in profits for their firms, and are often "some of the most accomplished academic people in the country", he said.

Trading manager Jack sought to cast the average Wall Street worker as a New York everyman.

Protesters "think that all bankers are rich", Jack said. But 90% of employees in investment banks "make within $300 000 gross a year".

On that salary and "with two kids at home, you don't go to the Hamptons or buy a BMW".

Most believe that the protesters would do better to target regulators at the US Federal Reserve or other government agencies which they said encouraged unsustainable debt under the policies of promoting home ownership.

"They should have a big march like Martin Luther King (did) in the sixties," Cardillo said.

An Occupy delegation had just left the makeshift camp at New York's Zucotti Park on Wednesday to walk to the US capital.

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