Wall Street is buzzing this morning about a resignation – a historic one. Greg Smith, the executive director and head of Goldman Sachs’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, not only decided to quit Goldman, he decided to do it in the New York Times, eloquently deconstructing the firm’s moral slide in a lengthy op-ed piece.
The essence of Smith’s piece is devastating. He points to one simple, specific problem in the company: the fact that Goldman routinely screws its own clients. Anyone familiar with the report prepared by Senator Carl Levin’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will recognize the jargon Smith points to in this line, in which he talks about what one has to do to become a leader in today’s Goldman:
Execute on the firm’s "axes," which is Goldman-speak for 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.
We heard about "axes" before in the tales about loser mortgage-derivative products like Timberwolf – that Goldman gave incentives to executives to unload its most toxic crap on clients. It was one thing to read about it in a Senate report, but here we have it from one of the firm’s own directors. He goes further, talking about the ways in which Goldman executives derided their own clients as fools and dupes:
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.
The resignation will have an effect on Goldman’s business. The firm’s share price opened this morning at 124.52; it’s down to 120.72 as of this writing (it dropped two percent while I was writing this blog), and it will probably dive further. Why? Because you can stack all the exposés on Goldman you want by degenerates like me and the McClatchy group, and you can even have a Senate subcommittee call for your executives to be tried for perjury, but that doesn’t necessarily move the Street.
But when one of the firm’s own partners is saying out loud that his company liked to "rip the eyeballs out" of "muppets" like you, then you start to wonder if maybe this firm is the best choice for managing your money. Hence we see headlines this morning like this item from Forbes.com: "Greg Smith Quits, Should Clients Fire Goldman Sachs?"
This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street. It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped. Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.
Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren't just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money. As Smith writes:
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… These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, "How much money did we make off the client" It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave.
Banking, and finance, is a business that has to be first and foremost about trust. The reason you're paying your broker/money manager such exorbitant sums is because that’s the value of integrity and honesty: You're paying for the comfort of knowing he has your best interests at heart.
But what we’ve found out in the last years is that these Too-Big-To-Fail megabanks like Goldman no longer see the margin in being truly trustworthy. The game now is about getting paid as much as possible and as quickly as possible, and if your client doesn’t like the way you managed his money, well, fuck him – let him try to find someone else on the market to deal him straight.
These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business. After all, our government won’t let them. Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed. No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.
The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn't seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big "muppet" clients to start taking their business elsewhere. Right now, many clients stay because they think that even if Goldman takes a bite out of them here and there, the bank still has the smartest guys in the room. But as Forbes writes this morning, this incident may turn Goldman into such a pariah that the best young bankers won't want to work there anymore:
Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best. That's why the biggest threat to Goldman's survival is that Smith’s departure — and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed — leads to a wider talent exodus.
Anyway, Smith's op-ed is a brave and thoughtful piece of writing:
My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.
There are a lot of people who just want to tear Wall Street down and start over again, but what Smith did in this piece was show that people like him can be part of the solution. What he did couldn’t have been easy – kudos to him, and let's hope the inevitable blowback sent his way won't be too rough.
Update: Well, the blowback is already here. The Wall Street Journal this morning has stooped already to helping Goldman smear Smith. Here's their take:
Goldman is taking issue with other elements of Mr. Smith’s piece.
“We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business,” a Goldman spokeswoman said. “In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”
Mr. Smith described himself as an executive director and head of Goldman’s U.S. equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Smith’s role is actually vice president, a relatively junior position held by thousands of Goldman employees around the world. And Mr. Smith is the only employee in the derivatives business that he heads, this person said.
You just knew that sooner or later, the bank was going to come out and say that Smith was actually a janitor in Goldman's Mozambique office or something. It's just surprising they did it so quickly.
Anyone who reads these critiques and even thinks about believing them should go back and look at Senator Levin's report on Goldman. There's backup in there for all of Smith's allegations, from the bit about the axes to the derogatory comments about clients (only in the Levin report, they weren't "muppets," but a "white elephant, flying pig, and unicorn all at once"). All of this is in internal emails that were published long ago. The only difference now is that it's coming from one of Goldman's own people.