Going Away Mad At Goldman Sachs

The big sensation today on Wall Street is a New York Times op-ed by a London-based executive director of Goldman Sachs announcing his resignation–and adding a few comments about the firm’s ethical practices. Times’ business reporter Nelson Schwartz summed up the story as follows:

Wall Street traders come and go all the time, but few have quit with the flair of Greg Smith. The way he resigned from Goldman Sachs, and what he had to say, could reignite a debate over how much Wall Street has changed in the wake of the financial crisis.

Very little, he said in an Op-Ed column in The New York Times on Wednesday. Mr. Smith, a London-based executive director for Goldman Sachs overseeing equity derivatives, decried a drastic change in culture at the firm since he joined it 12 years ago, with profits now coming before the interest of clients who, he wrote, are often derided as “muppets” by people at Goldman.

Mr. Smith is saying publicly what others whisper privately, which is why his cri de coeur may be so provocative. Even on Wall Street — where making money is good, and making more money is better — a few shibboleths still command respect, including the one that the customer should come first, or at least second, not dead last.

Much of the backlash to Smith’s charges has been of the ad hominem variety, like this chunk of snark from Forbes‘ Nathan Vardi, who suggests Smith wasn’t the big-time operator he seems to be and is less a whisteblower than just another rich guy having a midlife crisis:

[A]fter making the decision to go to Wall Street, it took him until 2012—almost 12 years after signing up at Goldman Sachs—to figure out there was something “toxic” going on. Somehow during the credit boom years when Smith was banking big bucks that no doubt have set him up for life the state of affairs wasn’t as bad as it is now at Goldman. Smith had a lot of “love” for the place during that period, when Goldman played an important role in the Wall Street machine that nearly brought down the world.

The way Smith tells it, his decision to work on Wall Street was pure and good, driven by his desire to best help his huge hedge fund clients. But somehow Goldman recently lost its way in helping two of the planet’s biggest hedge fund managers earn 20% performance fees.

Smith is not the first person who wants to tell his former bosses to shove it. He is also not a whistleblower. He remained happily employed at Goldman after it took a massive taxpayer bailout. He stuck around to enjoy the firm’s $45 billion of 2009 revenues after Goldman got $10 billion from the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program and sold $29 billion of low-cost bonds backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. Goldman was also allowed to become a bank holding company and borrow cash from the Federal Reserve’s discount window for just about nothing while riding the yield curve the Fed had set up. Smith stayed for all that.

Fair enough. And Vardi will hardly be the only one to raise eyebrows at the idea that people at Goldman, or investment bankers generally, have just recently lost their ethics.

But it’s a nasty and very public reminder of Wall Street’s unsavory atmosphere at a time when the former Masters of the Universe are trying to keep a low profile. And Smith’s charges aren’t just about Goldman Sachs, as Mark Gongloff explains at HuffPost:

[T]his is not just a Goldman Sachs problem, but a Wall Street problem. Goldman was not alone in selling clients CDOs stuffed with shaky subprime mortgages, for which it paid the SEC $550 million a couple of years (and two Greg Smith bonuses) ago. Nor was it alone in pumping Russia full of debt in the late 1990s, nor was it alone in parachuting out of the market ahead of its clients in 1929.

The problem is the conflict of interest built into the relationship between Wall Street firms and their clients. Both are trying to make as much money as humanly possible, but the Wall Street firms will always have an advantage in expertise and information, and it is almost impossible to avoid benefiting from that advantage. Goldman has long been better at this business than most, but it doesn’t mean that others aren’t trying to emulate its success.

That’s one reason we need this terrible, anti-job-creator thing called regulation.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.