Occupy Wall Street: Not The Stuff Revolutions Are Made Out Of

by: Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

The counter-culture revolutionaries of the 1960s advised their young followers to never trust anyone over the age of 30. That is actually pretty good advice for the would-be radical. By the time a person turns 30, they generally have too much to lose. Chances are good they have a spouse and a child—and perhaps a 401(k) and a mortgage payment to boot. Alas, by the age of 30, “the Man” has gotten to them.

Che Guevara would be proud.

It appears that the Man has also corrupted Occupy Wall Street. The movement—a motley collection of anti-capitalist protesters, angry youth, and disgruntled labor—has now filed for trademark protection of the name (See Occupy Wall Street Applies for Trademark).

The movement—which is unincorporated and whose leadership is something of a work in process—intends to use the trademarked name to sell t-shirts and other merchandise.

Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. We have an anti-capitalist movement applying for trademark protection in order to sell branded merchandise at a profit—or what we like to call engaging in capitalism. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Fahrenheit 32

In an earlier article, I suggested that Occupy Wall Street would fold up its tents and go home when the first real cold snap of the year hit Manhattan. I stand by that claim. The movement lacks the organization, purpose, or broad public support to have any real staying power. And though Occupy Wall Street has thus far been (mostly) peaceful, it looks a little too much like the anarchist anti-globalization movement to be fully embraced by polite company in the mainstream Democratic Party.

Will they be so bold when it's cold?

Writing for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf gives two conditions that must be met for Occupy Wall Street to become a credible political movement. First, it must have a new ideology driving it and second, it must have a social force to march behind it.

Wolf writes, “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideology was socialism and the force was organized labor.” But today, “Socialism is a conservative force, dedicated to defending entitlements built up over a century” rather than pushing a new agenda, and organized labor is no longer much of a social force (see Wolf’s article).

Occupy Wall Street is not offering anything particularly new, and its adherents are a loosely-knit group of people with little in common other than a sense of dissatisfaction with their lots in life and a rather nebulous sense of somehow being wronged by “the rich” or by “Wall Street.” Other than “separating money from politics,” which is itself a vague ideal, Occupy Wall Street has no clear political agenda. This is not the stuff that revolutions are made out of.

This is not to say that the movement isn’t right to be angry about the culture of bailouts that has sprouted since 2007 or about the influence that Wall Street holds over both political parties. But it lacks anything resembling a coherent manifesto on what to actually do about it.

Longer-term solutions might include an effective reintroduction of the 1933 Glass-Steagall act that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment banking. Or perhaps they could support the proposed Volcker Rule, which would ban banks from engaging in proprietary trading. Reserve requirements could be raised to ensure that banks have adequate capital on hand in the event that loans go bad. Trader bonuses could be deferred to assess the risk being taken to achieve outsized gains. Margin requirements could be raised and more closely regulated.

Of course, none of these solutions looks particularly great on a protester’s sandwich board or on a (potentially trademarked) t-shirt. They are technocratic solutions that involve adults in positions of authority doing real work rather than trolling the streets of lower Manhattan beating a drum and bleating meaningless slogans.

Current weather forecasts for New York have the temperature staying in the mid-50s for the next week or more, so the protests are likely to continue a while longer. But once the temperature dips below 32 degrees, Occupy Wall Street will occupy the history books.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.