Obama's Wall Street speech: Days of reckless greed over

Jeff Zelevansky/Reuters
President Obama spoke Monday at Federal Hall in the heart of Wall Street, pressing his case for the biggest overhaul in financial regulations since the 1930s.

Gordon Gekko, are you listening?

In his speech on Wall Street Monday, President Obama pushed financial reform and warned the chieftains of finance that this time would be different: "I want everybody here to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses."

He's not the only one preaching about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. Director Oliver Stone, who immortalized broker-villain Gordon Gekko ("Greed is Good") in his 1987 movie "Wall Street," is working on a sequel. In it, Gekko comes out of prison to start a new life, a vehicle for Mr. Stone to highlight the recent sins of the financial world.

But a funny thing happens when movie directors (or presidents) try to tell Wall Street its business. The message quickly gets clouded.

Gekko, far from being a villain, has served as an inspiration for many to get into investments. It's “probably been the biggest surprise of my career, that people say that this seductive villain has motivated me to go into this business,” Michael Douglas, who won an Academy Award for playing Gekko, told The New York Times. (He's also playing Gekko in the sequel.)

Will Obama's message fare any better?

"We are proposing the most ambitious overhaul of the financial system since the Great Depression," he said Monday. "I want to emphasize that these reforms are rooted in a simple principle: We ought to set clear rules of the road that promote transparency and accountability."

The administration has yet to make specific what those rules of the road are, says Mark Rzepczynski, managing partner of Lakewood Partners, a fund management firm in Boston. One of the big conundrums: Who is too big to fail?

After the speech, "is it clear or less clear that all organizations are not going to be bailed out?" he asks. "In a perfect world, we'd like to have everyone live or die from their own behavior." But when American automakers got in trouble, the federal government stepped in, he points out. When US tire makers balked at what they called foreign competition, the administration again responded with tariffs.

"These are complicated issues that we need to think through carefully," Mr. Rzepczynski says. "The commonsense answer is not always the best answer."
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