The setting was festive. The jewelry sparkled. But the mood among bankers gathered in New York on Thursday evening was decidedly much more subdued, even humbler, than it has been in recent years past.

Persistent unemployment in the United States and the low levels of household income "help explain the protests against Wall Street … this is a level of pain you can't and shouldn't ignore," said JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive Heidi Miller, who has been one of the banking industry's most tireless and passionate advocates.

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