It was easy to miss amid last week's great celebrity die-off, but while a nation turned its lonely eyes to the departing shade of Billy Mays, the securities industry moved into what it ominously termed the "execution phase" of its campaign to roll back "populist" resentment against the lords of the paper economy.
This effort comes on the heels of a similar lobbying blitz announced earlier this month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the Campaign for Free Enterprise. In announcing its bold capitalism-preserving crusade, the Chamber called out a faithless cabal of "union leaders, some environmentalists, and a growing force of anti-business activists." These shadowy lumpen-advocacy interests are hellbent on "pushing government at all levels to close trading markets, lock down capital markets, expand entitlements, and raise taxes to unsustainable levels," Chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donahue warned.
Of course, the only place you're likely to hear a call to "lock down capital markets" or "close trading markets" would be some sort of nightmare slogan-off between the Young Spartacists and the LaRouchites. And the Chamber is, in principle anyway, itself on record supporting certain kinds of entitlement expansion, albeit in limited doses. That pretty much leaves tax increases, which are moving back to Clinton-era marginal rates for earners making more than $250,000 a year, and rate a basic "Meh" from battle-tested conservative tax warriors such as Bruce Bartlett.
But having a faulty message has never been much of an impediment to business lobbying before. And both the Chamber and the securities industry officials are backing up their self-pitying pitches for public sympathy with generous complements of cash. The Chamber is coy about how much its laying out to save free enterprise, but when Donahue tersely announces "enough is enough" and pledges that the business lobby is launching "one of the most important and necessary initiatives in the Chamber's nearly 100-year history," you can practically hear the champagne corks pop all up and down K Street.
And the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), according to Bloomberg News reporter Robert Schmidt, is plunking down a cool $85,000 a month to "polling, lobbying, and public relations companies." In the Orwellian cadences of Washington-ese, this is what passes for a "city-by-city, grassroots" undertaking, according the internal SIFMA memos outlining the effort.
And a securities-minted notion of "grassroots" messaging is even more attenuated than the DC lobbying shops' standard rent-a-constituency model. The SIFMA memos, for instance, "call for using regional securities firms, many of which have escaped notoriety in the financial crisis, to push the industry's message with their local members of Congress." Yep, when Americans rise up to decry Wall Street corruption and excess, and the complete failure of the financial industry to own up to a chastened new economic climate, that's when you call up your industrial reserve army of regional securities firms. In your face, outraged citizenry!
Nor does it help matters, perception-wise, that two of the lead lobbyists contracted out on the SIFMA effort are Michele Davis, onetime spokeswoman for Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Jim Wilkinson, Paulson's former chief of staff. Both now ply their image-managing wares for Brunswick Group LLC, which SIFMA has hired out on a monthly retainer of $70,000. Paulson, of course, is the mastermind behind the Troubled Asset Relief fund, whose frantically vague mandate and seeming total lack of oversight are what produced the AIG scandals, Bank of America's outbreak of executive trough-bulimia and other provocations to the riled-up populist national temper in the first place.
All in all, it seems that image maintenance just isn't the financial industry's strong suit. To really get out in front of industry trends, Wall Street should probably stick to tried-and-true causes like jury-reform.