The Simplest Explanation of (few) Financial Professionals Cupidity

Former hedge fund trader Sam Polk recently wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he provided an insider explanation of greed among Wall Streeters. Polk´s term for greed among professionals on Wall Street is “wealth addiction.” According to Polk, wealth addicts are the ones who believe that regardless of how much money they make, they deserve more, and they are more deserving than those who dedicate themselves to other professions, such as teaching or medicine. 

Polk´s explanation of wealth addiction among Wall Streeters is based on the premise that the innate desire to feel powerful is inextricably linked to money. We like to feel powerful and money makes us feel powerful. In his interview for the New York Times, Polk recalled how he felt when he was working on Wall Street:“I felt so important. At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet. Nonetheless, I was thrilled with my progress.”

Ultimately, Polk became aware of the greed as he saw the way others reacted to measures they viewed as threatening, such as raising taxes or cutting bonuses. These measures were viewed as an attack, as they threatened the individual´s power and the power of the institutions supporting their endeavors. Polk told the New York Times:

“…in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. ´But isn’t it better for the system as a whole? ´ I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, ´I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.´”

Polk did concede, though, that not all Wall Streeters have a wealth addiction problem. Those who have millions and think they have enough are not likely to be addicts.

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