Greg Smith, a now former Goldman Sachs derivatives executive slams his former employer in the NYT:
To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
What are three quick ways to become a leader?
a) Persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit.
b) Get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them.
c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.
It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.
I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist.
Smith’s sentiments are appreciated, but actually he is wrong about a fundamental point, at least in today’s business environment. Goldman doesn’t have to give a damn about its clients because the vampire squid has found a much more lucrative way of insuring their bottom line: government largesse.
Let’s be clear: the bailout of AIG was not solely a bailout of AIG. It was also bailout of Goldman Sachs, to whom AIG were a counter-party. AIG’s failure would have meant Goldman’s balance sheet — already stuffed with derivatives dynamite — blew up. Goldman — along with a whole slew of other firms who created and invested in these dynamite products — would have been bankrupt.
And so the real problem is not Goldman’s rapaciousness. It’s the fact that systemic rapacity is being subsidised and protected by the government. Malpractice and malinvestment — such as the current global derivatives mesh which spreads risk around balance sheets like a pandemic — will in nature always eventually be punished by failure. That’s precisely what we saw in 2008, and that’s precisely what governments around the world crystallised and condoned through their bailout programs. Goldman have no incentive to change their business practices under the present conditions, and they won’t.
What’s the point of running a good business when you can run a rapacious and badly-run one and continue to thrive on government welfare? Bailouts destroy the market mechanism, and allow immoral and stupid firms (and systems) to prosper at the expense of better-run ones.
I wish Smith had the moral courage to approach the real problem — the arrogant and deluded central planners who allow the vampire squid to thrive and prosper.