Printer Friendly

Hello sweetheart, get me mergers and acquisitions.

As Philip Weiss showed, one who put himself on the line in the wrong way was Steven Rattner This piece appeared in 1986

On a night in August 1982, in a loud New York restaurant off Union Square, Steven Rattner, a London correspondent for The New York Times, and Roger Altman, an investment banker at Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb, met for dinner to discuss Rattner's future, The two had become good friends a couple of years earlier when Altman was an assistant secretary of the treasury and Rattner was covering Jimmy Carter's economic policy for the Times. Now Rattner, at the age of 30, had decided he wanted to leave journalism.

Rattner was one of the Times's ablest writers. His rise in the organization had been rapid: at 22, clerk to James Reston; at 23, covering energy, one of the most important stories in the country; at 24, a full member of the Washington bureau; at 29, a foreign correspondent in a prestige bureau. But by the summer of 1982, Rattner felt he needed a change.

It was a good time to become an investment banker. Banking was changing, and Rattner had the personality for its competitive new environment of short-term relationships. His persuasive skills would be useful on deals, Altman told him. Working a client wasn't so different from working a source.

Altman was certainly right about its being a good time for banking. The new spirit of competition brought about by deregulation combined with the rise of a new materialist ethic, especially in Manhattan, had made investment banking glamorous in much the same way that journalism had been in the years after Watergate. Investment bankers and arbitragers were being profiled in mainstream publications like Esquire and The Atlantic. Radio stations quoted the gold price between rock songs. Zelig and Rattner

But was this the right world for Rattner? As a student at Brown, Rattner had written idealistic editorials proclaiming that the country's moral fiber was "weak" and denouncing "global. . .corruption and disdain." It would seem only natural for such a person to wonder aloud whether Lehman Brothers offered avenues for socially useful work. But Altman does not recall that Rattner raised the question of whether investment banking was meaningful work except, he in this sense. He wanted to know whether he'd be fulfilled by banking. Was it overly narrow?" Rattner asked Altman whether investment bankers ever lifted their noses from their spread sheets. He was a young man who had lived abroad and traveled widely. He had a feeling for good art. Altman assured Rattner that he would meet people who shared his intellectual curiosity and cultivation.

Rattner took the job. Barely a year and a half later he moved to the New York Times of investment banking, Morgan Stanley & Company, where in 1985 he brought in a stunning $33 million in fees. After just 18 months, he was promoted, at age 33, t"principal," a partner who cannot vote on firm policy. The jump usually takes six years.

When he left the Times, Ranner was earning about $50,000 a year; last year he is said to have made as much as a million. Rattner specializes in deals involving communications companies, Most of his time is devoted to mergers and acquisitions-helping to buy and sell media properties. In some cases, these efforts may have served to compromise the editorial quality of news organizations that, like The New York Times, have been known for valuing the product more than the bottom line.

In any age, there are certain people who, because they are both very smart and unusually reactive to their society, help illuminate prevailing values through their actions. Rattner's life seems emblematic of the spirit of the times. Rattner's career path, impressive as it is, has a conformist quality that calls to mind the Woody Allen character Zelig, the "chameleon man" who always took on the coloration of those around him. When journalism defined the spirit and values of a generation, Rattner was a journalist. Now that investment banking defines those things, he is an investment banker. This chameleon quality makes Rattner an instructive case study of the process by which many of today's best and brightest have lost interest in making a difference with their lives.

Investment banking doesn't have to be predatory and destructive. Beyond warding off unwanted takeovers, investment bankers can help foster the creation of new jobs or promote worker ownership,

On the other hand, most of Rattner's deals simply sop up dollars for morally neutral, if pointless purposes. Take Rattner's biggest deal of 1985: helping the owners of KTLA, a television station in Los Angeles, sell out to the Tribune Company of Chicago for $510 million, the most ever spent for a TV station. Golden West, Rattner's client, was in essence a group of speculators who had bought the station for $245 million just three years before from the former cowboy star Gene Autry. Though they operated the station, their primary interest was in seeing its value go up. The only mistake they made, the leader of the group told the Los Angeles Times, was in thinking it might take eight years to get $500 million. The KTLA deal was a classic "asset play." Ninety percent of the shares were owned by seven investment bankers who weren't particularly interested in running the TV station.

I asked Rattner to compare the social worth of reporting with that of investment banking. He sat back and held the bridge of his nose. "I have two answers," he began. "I guess in the cold light of-No, I don't know if that's true either." It was about the first time he'd faltered that afternoon. He paused, then spoke s"It's something I've thought a lot about. I don't view investment banking as the ultimate social fulfillment to me. I do it because I like what I'm doing. And yet we all do have a responsibility to put something back.

"Being an investment banker for the last three years has made me realize more what all of us should do. I'm a failure at discharging all my social responsibilities. When you're a journalist, though, you convince yourself of your social usefulness and you don't worry about it. Being an investment banker strips that away. I won't tell you that it is a socially responsible profession, whatever the hell that means, but I won't say journalists are either."

Later, he said he often felt that reporters were motivated by the desire for glory and to "hobnob with the great and near great." It's a point to consider. Much as we might want it to, no job confers virtue automatically. What matters is the moral content of our actions in that job. What is troubling about Rattner is that in recognizing that no profession is inherently moral, he also seems to have given up on the idea that individuals should strive to be useful to society.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Putting Yourself on the Line
Author:Weiss, Philip
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:1156
Previous Article:Ralph Nader reconsidered.
Next Article:Criminals belong in jail.
Topics:


Related Articles
The M&A art of waiting.
EDITORIAL CONTRACT ODYSSEY GREEK THEATRE AND PUBLIC MAY SOON GET BETTER DEAL AFTER CITY COUNCIL FORCED TO RENEGOTIATE SWEETHEART DEAL.
NEW DRAMA AT THE GREEK IMPASSE LEAVES PACT WAITING IN WINGS.
EDITORIAL UNSOLVING PROBLEMS LAUSD STILL HAUNTED BY CULTURE OF FAILURE.
HAHN CRITICIZES DONATIONS TO STEIN.
EDITORIAL POWER PLAYERS DOWNTOWN PR FIRM CASHES IN WITH DWP DEAL.
Kitty's ahead of the class.
EDITORIAL ANTONIO'S OPPORTUNITY MAYOR NEEDS TO USE BACKROOM DWP DEAL TO DRAW THE LINE ON CITY SALARIES.
EDITORIAL WEEK IN REVIEW.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters