Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wall Street Sharks, and how to tell them


If you squeeze a shark's nose, it'll go into a trance.* In one documentary I saw,1 in which they demonstrated it on some sharks in a public aquarium, some knucklehead also tried it on a great white shark at sea, from the safety of a boat, with a shark on a hook. There it was, waving its nose above the water, and a guy leaned over the gunnel, reached, and squeezed. It really did seem to relax.

I like that idea. I'd like to use it on the sharks of Wall Street.

In the 19th century, you could get yourself challenged to a duel by pulling a man's nose. The deal was that a man (this only applied to men) presented himself as a gentleman in his outward appearance, and his outward appearance was typified by his profile, the most pronounced element of which was his nose. If you pulled his nose, you made fun of his claim that he was a gentleman. That in turn meant...well, gentlemen were respectable. They mattered. And in the days when being well-to-do implied virtue, you implied he was one of the great unwashed--or, in the South, akin to a slave.2

It's been a while since white-shoe firms dominated Wall Street. They're still there, of course, and people from wealthy backgrounds still dominate financial circles. But smarts and scrappiness outdo Old Money any day, and no one expects gravitas in a financier, let alone a sense of the public weal.

Today, the financial world is a game, exhilarating to its players, in which the score is in dollars, in which the nimble player outsmarts everyone else and darts through legal loopholes just as they close. The closer you skate to the edge of the ethical line, the more clever you are, assuming you don't lose too many lawsuits. The last trace of gentility in finance is that an actual indictment means Game Over.

In the 1870s, at least one financier lost most of a fortune to save the stock market from two Wall Street sharks who tried to corner the gold market.3 Can you picture that happening now? Would Bill Gates shore up the U.S. Treasury?4 Of course not.

Nowadays, if you are not playing the financial game, if you aren't nimble and street smart and ready to bite, you're just prey.

So next time I'm in a big-money negotiation, maybe I'll reach out and squeeze the other guy's nose. If he just looks at me funny, I'll walk away. If he slugs me, I'll close the deal.

*CORRECTION: The trance behavior occurs when you turn the shark tummy-side up and is called "tonic immobility." It has been tested on various shark species and their biological near cousins and works on almost all of them.

I owe this information to a diligent librarian at the Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Marine Biological Laboratory, who contacted a shark expert on my behalf and also found an article from a 1994 Zoo Biology: "Tonic immobility in 12 elasmobranchs: Use as an aid in captive husbandry," by A.D. Henningsen of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. According to the abstract, the aquarium uses the technique for critter maintenance--measuring the animals, drawing blood, and so forth.

As for that guy squeezing a shark's nose over the gunnel of his boat--I wonder what he actually wasdoing?

1[PLEASE SEE CORRECTION ABOVE.] I saw this in a documentary this past winter. I've already spent hours trying to track down a transcript. So far, no luck.
2According to Kenneth S. Greenberg's 1997 book Honor & Slavery, on the South.
3The Gold Ring by Kenneth D. Ackerman, 1988.
4Yes, Friends of Bill G., I know Bill Gates isn't a financier. But he sure is a shark.

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