Wall Street learns the high cost of sexist comments

Juliette MICHEL
While the heads of big companies and financial groups generally have done their best to stay above the fray, the #MeToo movement has had a dramatic impact on the world of high finance

The #MeToo movement recently reached dramatically into the world of high finance, as one prominent Wall Street figure learned after losing the management of at least $1 billion in assets over his disparaging remarks about women.

Ken Fisher, whose slickly produced videos promoting his financial expertise still air regularly on American financial news networks, was invited in early October to a conference in San Francisco.

The conference, which advertises a "no media" policy, was supposed to remain private.

But one participant, Alex Chalekian, said he felt so disturbed by some of Fisher's remarks, many with strong sexual undertones, that he took to Twitter to vent his outrage.

He posted a video blasting Fisher's references to "genitalia" and drug use, as well as his comparison of the recruiting of a new client to a crass and boorish attempt to pick up a girl in a bar.

"Things that were said by Ken Fisher were just absolutely horrifying," Chalekian said. He said several women who attended the event later told him Fisher's remarks made them feel "very uncomfortable."

Fisher subsequently expressed regret for his comments, saying in a message to AFP that "I realize this kind of language has no place in our company or industry. I sincerely apologize."

But the damage was done. Several financial entities broke ties with Fisher Investments, which manages some $112 billion.

The city of Boston was among those.

"Boston will not invest in companies led by people who treat women like commodities," said Mayor Marty Walsh.

- 'We are very concerned' -

According to a tally by the CNBC network, Fisher Investments lost around $1 billion in managed assets within days.

The total could grow, since Fidelity Investments, one of the world's largest asset managers, expressed its unhappiness and said it was reviewing the relationship.

"We are very concerned about the highly inappropriate comments by Kenneth Fisher," a Fidelity spokesperson said. "The views he expressed do not align in any way with our company's values. We do not tolerate these types of comments at our company."

Fisher manages about $500 million in Fidelity's assets, CNBC said.

While Wall Street traders' excesses and verbal outrages have been the subject of numerous films, the heads of big companies and financial groups generally have done their best to stay above the fray, though not all have succeeded.

"The brand is the company's value and the CEO is identified with the brand," said Charles Elson, a specialist in corporate governance at the University of Delaware, "which is why it's just a really good idea for a CEO to focus on running the business and to avoid getting into political or social controversy when speaking publicly.

"When they do, it naturally creates problems."

- 'Everyone is afraid' -

Travis Kalanick, a co-founder of Uber, was thus forced out in 2017 amid reports that the company's workplace culture included sexual harassment and discrimination.

Elon Musk had to give up the chairmanship of Tesla this year after his Twitter use got him in trouble with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street's "policeman."

In September, the co-founder of WeWork, Adam Neumann, stepped down as chief executive amid complaints about his lavish lifestyle and some impulsive actions that he himself said had become "a significant distraction."

Across the world of high finance, meanwhile, Fisher's remarks were widely denounced.

Art Hogan, chief market strategist with National Holdings, said that "it's never appropriate to use that kind of language. That would be true today, and it was 20 years ago."

"Maybe it was the norm back to a time of the TV show 'Mad Men,'" which was set mostly in the New York advertising world of the 1960s, "but it has not been in my career."

And in a world where the "ESG investing trend" is growing, Hogan said -- referring to an emphasis on environmentalism, social issues and governance concerns -- "it even speaks louder."

Gregori Volokhine, president of Meeschaert Financial Services, said that Fisher's remarks were not necessarily anything new in the financial world.

"Except now, everyone is afraid between the rise of the #MeToo movement and ESG management," Volokhine said.