OCTOBER 19, 2012
Felix Salmon’s foppish war on the banks.
THERE AREN’T MANY people who can get the Treasury secretary on the phone—and fewer still who can get away with yelling at him on the call. His wife, sure. Probably the president. Add to that group Felix Salmon, Reuters’s finance blogger, who has no problem raising his voice and giving Timothy Geithner the what-for while bobbing away on the yoga ball that serves as a desk chair in his Times Square workspace.
Salmon is a cheerful 40-year-old Brit whose cheeks are often tinged the same color as his last name. The day we met at Lure, his favorite fish place in SoHo, he was dressed in blue bucks, seersucker pants, and a custom-made pink linen shirt. He only wears custom-made shirts, in fact—“which doesn’t mean that they’re expensive, it just means that I’m fussy when it comes to shirts.”
The hostess felt it necessary to tell me, both coming and going, how positively wonderful Felix is. (The phone number he leaves for reservations is easy enough to remember: The last five digits spell F-E-L-I-X.) She knows Salmon in his bon vivant capacity, as do many in New York’s journalism and art communities. But he gets similar praise from his regular readers, a group that includes such heavyweights as Larry Summers and occasional lunchtime companions like Geithner, Peter Orszag, and Nassim Taleb.
Salmon’s blog is equal parts libor and libertine. On it, you’re just as likely to read about the knotty tax problems of owning a particular Rauschenberg or the cuisine of Eleven Madison Park as you are the latest round of quantitative easing. But nestled amidst his thoughts on bikesharing and boutique Spanish wines and whatever else strikes his wide-ranging fancy, Salmon has mounted one of the most sustained, deeply felt criticisms of the deregulation that preceded the financial crisis.
Five years ago, barely anyone had heard of Felix Salmon. He was a journeyman financial journalist with no academic background in economics, blogging for the now-defunct Portfolio.com. Before that, he was a blogger for the famously bearish, superstar economist Nouriel Roubini. (He got that job after contacting Roubini out of the blue to tell him why his book on financial crises in emerging markets was wrong and asking him to lunch to discuss.)
Not until the economy crashed in 2008 did Salmon’s vigorous, discursive, finger-pointing blog become a must-read. What set him apart from every other journalist eager to take on Wall Street was that, with his high-end taste and appreciation for the finer things, he easily could have been one of the finance guys he was ripping. In post-crash New York, Salmon managed the magic trick of damning the excesses of a bygone era while simultaneously provoking nostalgia for them.
Salmon is an average writer and top-shelf thinker, but his genius lies in being a lot of fun, both in prose and person, at a time when the media and finance worlds aren’t nearly as enjoyable as they used to be.
For one thing, Salmon delights in argument. “I’m rude about a lot of people on the Internet,” he says brightly. “And half the time, I change my mind anyway. ... I love being wrong.” Famous targets include conservative economist Ben Stein, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, the proudly slimy hedge-funder Anthony Scaramucci, and certain fonts that he considers to be tasteless. (He once stormed out of a Reuters meeting because the agenda had been rendered in Comic Sans.)
Salmon likes to frame his spats as merely good fun, and it’s partly this attitude that makes it easy to dismiss him. But there’s a crusading quality to his Wall Street posts. He hates the Frankensteinlike big banks—not just their clinical, models-driven investing (derivatives are a particular hobbyhorse), but the way they gouge small customers on the nickel-and-dime stuff like checking-account fees. (He may be the only finance blogger who has sat on the board of a credit union.) A trip through the cheeky “technocrats” tag on his blog reveals a scathing assessment of the origins of the financial crisis and the Obama administration’s handling of it. “We’ve had virtually nothing in the way of apologies for screwing up the global economy, and it would do us all a lot of good if people who both caused and benefitted from the financial-services boom would man up and admit to their mistakes,” he wrote in a 2009 post aimed at Larry Summers, a frequent target.
In another post, Salmon branded Robert Rubin public-enemy number one: “He, more than any other individual, deserves an enormous amount of blame for the financial crisis.” Rubin, he wrote, had “institutionalized and epitomized the revolving door from Wall Street to Washington and back again” and was “slippery and unapologetic in hindsight.” His criticisms don’t quite have the rhetorical panache of, say, Matt Taibbi’s famous screed comparing Goldman Sachs to a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” But that doesn’t make him any less angry.
And yet the players involved in the crisis take Salmon far more seriously than someone like Taibbi. In part, that’s because Salmon’s critique, though equally tilted left, is less sweaty zealot and more gentleman-scholar. He writes with the vocabulary of someone in the Citibank marketing department gone a little rogue. And unlike Taibbi, who seems to want the architects and janitors of the crisis drawn and quartered in a kind of a public shaming, Salmon wants them to apologize—not to humiliate them, but to be sure they have truly junked their previous paradigm and replaced it with something better. “Financial journalists are often suck-ups. Felix is the opposite. He gets the attention of the overclass by challenging them more intelligently,” says Jacob Weisberg, who co-authored a book on the global economy with Robert Rubin. “Masters of the Universe are wise to fear him, at least a little.”
Every once in a while, though, Salmon will agree with something those bankers and technocrats have done, and that aura of convincibility adds to both the effectiveness of his critique and his charm. And more meaningfully, unlike other critics who think that the whole system is irredeemably flawed, Salmon clings fiercely to his belief that individual actors can and do change the course of capitalism. It makes sense, then, that the worst sin in his book is not hubris or greed, but inflexibility.
In a recent blog post excoriating Jack Welch for suggesting that the White House might somehow have manipulated jobs data, he inadvertently managed to sum up his own philosophy. Whatever your opinions might be, he wrote, “What’s not fine is to base those opinions on nothing but ideology, and admit of nothing which could make you change your mind. At that point, you’re not a thinker any more; you’re a theologian.” And theologians generally aren’t too much fun. When I asked Salmon what, exactly, he is trying to accomplish with his blog, he replied, immediately, “I want to enjoy myself,” before tucking into his plate of daurade.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Occupy Le Bernardin: The critic Wall Street loves to lunch with.”