Dangerous hats
Better smart than right

The most powerful people in finance

Mystery peopleSanta isn't the only one keeping a list.

Fortune has its 500 most admired companies; Forbes has its 400 richest people in the world; and Worth magazine has its "power 100," i.e., the 100 most powerful people in finance.

I doubt any of these lists would survive a rigorous audit, but they're instructive nevertheless.

Consider, for example, that nearly half the people on Worth's “power list” are in government. In fact, the twelve most powerful start with Mary Jo White, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and extend to Ben Bernanke, retiring Chairman of the Federal Reserve. 

You have to go all the way to number 13 to find someone who actually works in financial services. That’s where Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, shows up – six ranks lower than the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.

Of course, when Worth’s “power list” was being compiled, Dimon looked like the prettiest pig in the feedlot. Since then, he’s negotiated a total bill of nearly $20 billion to settle an array of mortgage-related lawsuits and investigations, demonstrating just how long a shadow regulators and policy makers cast in the world of finance. 

Will financial firms ever be able to demonstrate that they don't need fulltime  nannies?

There's a glimmer of hope on Worth's list. There, at position 98, is one Jake Siewert.  Siewert (who I don’t know) is Goldman Sachs’ top PR guy. 

He joined Goldman in March 2012, when customers, investors, and employees were voting with their feet and writing op eds on their way out the door. Prior jobs in the Clinton White House press office and as counselor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggest his mandate is to deal with regulators and policy makers more than with the public. 

But in fact, Siewert reportedly got the job based not so much on his political connections as on his demonstrated ability to manage high profile, high-pressure situations – and personalities.  

The media have a tendency to anthropomorphize big, complex companies in the likeness and personality of their CEOs. Siewert made the “power list” largely on his success “humanizing” a CEO who had infamously called his job “God’s work” and couldn’t understand why there was such a fuss it had recommended its customers buy securities it was simultaneously betting would decline in value. 

Still, Siewert has a long way to go. The Reputation Institute, which measures these things, ranks Goldman 145th out of 150 companies it tracks. It’s in familiar company; its peers are all in the lowest two categories.

For its part, Goldman has not repudiated the Wall Street mantra that “greed is good.” But it appear to be trying to get closer to the ideal of being “long-term greedy,” meaning it will pass up short-term profits if they come at the cost of long-term relationships.

If Siewert's job includes helping the firm convince its managers and leaders that it's serious about this, he may be able to make a difference. Otherwise, don't look for him on next year's list.

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