Ben Stein Blasts Goldman: Wall Street Analysts Can't Win

Popular economist and actor Ben Stein rings a familiar bell: Wall Street analysts are just greedy shills.

In this case, Stein suggests that pessimistic Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius is just pessimistic because he's shilling for the firm's traders: Goldman is making a fortune betting against the housing market (and related debt securities), and Stein argues that Hatzius's extreme pessimism about housing and the economy is designed to help the firm's bets. Five years ago, of course, the complaint about Wall Street analysts was the opposite (don't I know it): In those days, analysts were said to be optimistic just to help bankers shovel tech and telecom IPOs out the door.

To amp up the outrage, Stein also notes that Goldman created and sold the very debt products its traders (and Hatzius) are now shorting as fast as they can. Not only is Hatzius conflicted, in other words, Goldman is now making billions betting against the same stuff it was paid hundreds of millions to sell to suckers (maybe even you!) just a year or two ago.

Are you mad yet?

If so, get used to it.

Goldman Sachs, like all Wall Street firms, sits between corporations that want to raise money by selling securities at the highest possible price and investors who want to make money by buying securities at the lowest possible price. Goldman's mere existence, therefore, is a conflict: Every time Goldman facilitates a transaction between these two clients, someone gets the shorter end of the stick.

What's more, Goldman Sachs itself competes with both sets of clients. The firm looks out for its own interests first, and it usually wins. Ironic? Yes. Annoying? Often. A fact of life? The way Wall Street is currently structured, yes. But this doesn't mean Goldman can't add value. (Note that a lot of highly sophisticated clients continue to do business with Goldman Sachs).

The main impetus for Stein's article, it seems, is that Stein disagrees with Hatzius's conclusion: He doesn't think think things will get anywhere near as bad as Hatzius does. Stein makes some smart points, and, for the sake of the economy, let's hope Stein is right. But let's also applaud Hatzius for having the guts to say something interesting, plausible, and unpopular (if depressing): There's safety in the herd, and most Wall Street economists and analysts never risk straying far from it.

The real lesson here is that Wall Street analysts can't win: No matter what they say, it is easy to suggest that their conclusions might be motivated by something other than the facts. This is fair (who knows what truths lurk in the hearts of men?), but let's at least note that Wall Street shares this conflicted condition with many other industries.

As a commentator, for example, Ben Stein has to sell columns, and this is far easier to do when he has something sexy and popular to say (don't I know this, too). The number of readers interested in dry critique of Hatzius's argument might be measured in the triple digits. The number of readers interested in the ever popular argument that Wall Street is a den of thieves? Countless.

Stein's need to be entertaining, interesting, funny, and provocative almost certainly influences the content of his columns? I hope this doesn't mean I should stop reading him.