Review of "Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street"

Karen Ho initiated the fieldwork for Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street by obtaining employment at Bankers Trust NY Corporation, a Manhattan investment-banking firm, for 6-months before she was eventually “restructured” out of employment there. Ho utilized kinship bonds via colleagues she’d met during her undergrad and graduate degrees at Stanford and Princeton and the aura of “smartness” attached to those institutions much in the same manner that the majority of young investment bankers did to obtain their position. She than expanded the scope from her own experiences to include those that she interviewed via contacts she made over a three-year period.

Ho connects this portrait of embryonic and low-level finance culture illustrated to traditional historical writing that limns the development of the American corporations divergence from stakeholder models of business to the prioritization of shareholder value. As Ho shows, in sections that would make good companions to excerpts from Balogh’s A Government Out of Sight, this perspective emerged first as a result of legal rulings contesting the nature of who the modern corporation was meant to serve – the public interest or the private shareholders. What develops is a judicial imperative to serve the former no matter the cost to the latter and the adoption of a financial model that concerns itself solely with the bottom line shown in quarterly reports rather than the long-term prosperity of the corporation, its employees or anyone else otherwise connected to them. The implications of these rulings have huge social and economic effects, ones leading to increased “liquidity” justified, at its base, by the need for increased capital return. Shareholder value, however, is not just a business practice but, like that of Christian free enterprise, has a moral tenor to it. It “…meant more than raiding the stock price of a corporation, it also signified a mission statement, a declaration of purpose, even a call to action. Creating or reclaiming shareholder value was morally and economically the right thing to do, it was the yardstick to measure individual as well as corporate practices, values, and achievements” (Ho 125).

Using the language and conceptual framework of the dismal science, economics, this rhetoric encouraged illogical corporate mergers and hasty leveraged buyouts that served to temporarily boost stock prices, while simultaneously rendering thousands unemployed, millions of dollars of corporate assets stripped, and driving the longevity of hundreds of corporations straight into the ground. This viewpoint additionally glossed over the inescapable interconnectivity between financial actors, neglects numerous other stakeholders and glossed over the “smartness” of those running the business about to be purchased by a conglomerate with that of the fresh faced newly grads incentivized to continuously be breaking apart and putting together new combinations.

Ho discusses this shift away from the stable corporation dominated market of the 1950’s and 60’s with an almost nostalgic tone, mourning the marginalization of the perspective that the combination of government regulation and corporation as social bodies offering its citizens/employees certain forms of stability and protection from the market forces. With the increasing emphasis placed upon the individual to guard against all possible outcomes, this is understandable. Freedom is not just that ability to do as one pleases but to be free from imposition, be it levies or need to engage in increased attention to myriad economic indicators due to the deinstitutionalization of financial security within the private and public sector.

In this vaguely concerned as to the state of business affairs vein, Liquidated is akin to To Serve God and Wal-Mart and Liar’s Poker, where we see an insider account of the business practices constituting the markets and culture of neoliberalism. Ho, however, differentiates itself by delving further into the abstract rhetorical practices used within the industry to obfuscate the social and material realities that conceptualize businesses as “too big to fail” and individuals are “too small to be cared about.”