Is Belfort's "Wolf" The Real Wall Street?

By Susan Antilla | Updated September 02, 2014 AAA

Ask a pal at a Wall Street firm about the box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street, and brace for one of those sour faces that suggests there’s a bad smell in the room. Those sex-obsessed, drug-taking thugs who ripped off investors in Martin Scorsese’s all-time, biggest-grossing film have nothing in common with the refined investment professionals who do business on real Wall Street, they will tell you.

On Wall Street, after all, people don’t toss midgets at targets in the middle of the trading floor. They don’t sell schlocky penny stocks of worthless companies, either, although they do have a knack for peddling big-commission products stuffed with time-bomb investments. They don’t do all those drugs and have all that sex; who could find the time when you’re so busy working to find investments that are in clients’ best interests?

To buy into Wall Street’s “we’re classier than they are” argument, you need to overlook some inconvenient facts. Wall Street's main lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, has for several years been attempting to water down proposals that would force stock brokers to put clients’ interests ahead of their own - a so-called fiduciary duty.

Investment advisers already operate under a fiduciary standard, but brokerage firm salespeople, who often call themselves “advisers,” are following the law if they merely recommend something that’s “suitable” for clients. The Dodd-Frank Act gave the Securities and Exchange Commission authority to make the rules for brokers just as stringent as those of investment advisers, which didn’t sit well with Wall Street’s VIPs.

In a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission in October 2013, Sifma summed up its objections to the recommendations of a subcommittee of the agency’s Investor Advisory Committee. It’s okay to raise the standards, Sifma said, but a blanket regulation that it sell customers only the products that are best for them just wouldn’t do. Mull that over when you log in to check your portfolio tonight.

For a few whimsical moments, though, let’s play along with Wall Street’s take on things. As Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo put it in an interview with Hollywood Reporter last month, “That movie doesn’t know the first thing about Wall Street.”

Josh Brown, a money manager and social media star in the investment world, told Yahoo! Finance that the world depicted in the movie was at best “a distant cousin of Wall Street.” These days, according to Brown, investors “are more likely to blow themselves up” by signing on to the flashy online consoles offered by online trading operations than by heeding the bad advice of a fast-talking penny stock broker reading from a sales script to entice suckers.

Brown at least allows that there might be some link, but others who defend the honor of Wall Street make no compromises. Stratton Oakmont, the sleazy Long Island brokerage firm depicted in the movie based on convicted felon Jordan Belfort’s life, “couldn’t be further from the real Wall Street - and this movie was about con artists,” wrote PR man Ronn Torossian, the founder of New York's 5W Public Relations, in the Huffington Post in January.

No con artists on Wall Street? Well there was that one Wall Street guy who rose to be chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market. He was such a trusted big shot that the Securities and Exchange Commission used to send newbie enforcement recruits up to New York to spend time on his trading floor; his name was Bernie Madoff.

It’s in  Wall Street’s interest to put a distance between itself and rogues like Belfort and his firm, says Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for investors.

“If people understood the similarities between Belfort and Wall Street, there would be a riot in this country,” he says. Kelleher explains, for example, that Belfort’s operation dealt in barely-regulated penny stocks that came with either skimpy information or documents that twisted or obfuscated the facts. On conventional Wall Street, says Kelleher, firms bask in the convenience of the opaque, too, trading the kinds of over-the-counter derivatives that helped crash the economy in 2008.

“Wall Street likes nothing more than a non-transparent, non-regulated market,” he says, which is what investors got both in Stratton’s products and in some of the dense stuff that the Street sells today. Obscure products “are where you can rip people off the most,” he says.

In fact, sometimes products are so unfathomable that stock brokers themselves later sue their firms for putting products on the buy list that hadn’t been properly vetted - or perhaps were vetted but the risks weren’t disclosed. A former broker at Wedbush Securities won a $4.3 million arbitration award against the firm last year, arguing that he lost business after his customers took a hosing on Wedbush’s collateralized mortgage obligations.

Still, there’s a belief among credible commentators that Wall Street and Stratton are worlds apart. In her Hollywood Reporter interview, Bartiromo said that Stratton sold the “dumbest companies ever that had no prospects whatsoever” while Wall Street “is about raising money and lending money to viable companies.”

There was a time when Wall Street put a lot more effort into doing just that - raising money and providing the capital that businesses need to grow - and less time dealing in toxic securities and useless, high-commission products. These days, though, it’s no secret that the folks who brought you the 2008 financial crisis can do a lot more damage than a roomful of script-reading drug fiends in western Long Island.

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