Wall Street Ends Crazy Year With Existential Angst and Big Bonuses

As Goldman Sachs Group Inc. boss David Solomon chatted at a November dinner for retired partners, he mentioned that the firm will be among the country’s most profitable big public companies this year. But the veteran mergers banker Geoff Boisi was struck by how muted the excitement has been.

“I don’t know if malaise is the right word — it’s this uncomfortable feeling,” said Boisi, who left Goldman in the 1990s, became a vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and has run his own firm, Roundtable Investment Partners. “People are more unsettled and ill at ease.”

He wasn’t just speaking about the mood that night at The Shed, a $475 million arts center in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.

The biggest U.S. banks are putting finishing touches on their most profitable year ever and preparing to dole out some massive bonuses, yet the usual sounds of Wall Street’s backslapping and toasts have faded. They’re not only hushed by exhaustion from nearly two years of global pandemic, or even wariness of conspicuous consumption in an age of vast inequality. Industry denizens describe a sense that assignments are unending, trouble is brewing and the real fun is elsewhere.

Veterans of past Wall Street booms suggest that, somehow, this one doesn’t feel so good. One reason: The wealth reeled in by elite traders and dealmakers is getting outshined by the quick riches touted by cryptocurrency fanatics, fintech whizzes and meme stocks. There’s also the gnawing realization that the financial industry is benefiting from the turmoil set off by Covid-19, stimulus efforts and a burst of market ebullience that will inevitably fade.

Here’s how prominent investor J. Christopher Flowers puts it: Wall Street knows much of its windfall is coming from “speculative nonsense.” Take, for example, the glut of special purpose acquisition companies — or SPACs — making executives and some bankers rich as they rush to market. They have “a large element of baloney,” said Flowers, the former head of Goldman’s financial institutions group who now runs private equity firm J.C. Flowers & Co.

Banks have been toppling their old records this year in almost slapstick fashion.