Greg Smith Leaves Goldman Sachs, But It's Not Just A Goldman Problem

There is really nothing else you should be reading right now, if you haven't read it already, than the laugh-out-loud hilarious New York Times op-ed by a Goldman Sachs executive director who is leaving the firm in a huff, final bonus check presumably cleared, because the culture at the firm has become too "toxic and destructive."

The second thing you should then read is the Daily Mash's brilliant parody of this op-ed, entitled "Why I Am Leaving The Empire, By Darth Vader."

Thoughtful readers will note, hopefully, one very large similarity between the two pieces. Both Darth Vader and our ex-Goldman hero, the Jewish Olympics ping-pong champion Greg Smith, went to work at organizations that did not have, shall we say, spotless records of humanitarianism.

This would seem like a massive public-relations problem for Goldman Sachs, a heck of a welcome-aboard gift for Goldman's new PR rep Jake Siewert, just in through the revolving door from the Treasury Department.

But this is more than a PR problem. And it's more than a Goldman problem.

Smith joined Goldman in 2000, which according to his memory was a time when noble directors gently guided clients like bleating lambs to untold riches, all the while resisting their more primal urge to throw those clients to the ground and feast on their tender flesh.

That has changed over the years, he writes:

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.

...

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs's success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients' trust for 143 years. It wasn't just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

...

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping clients off.

Goldman, denies Smith's charges and say they do nothing but think about their clients, day and night.

"We disagree with the views expressed, which we don't think reflect the way we run our business," a spokesman told The New York Times. "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."

The actual record raises questions about both Smith's and Goldman's accounts of Goldman's record of client care. Tim O'Brien, now executive editor of this here Huffington Post, immediately recalled a story he co-wrote for the New York Times about how Goldman Sachs had made millions in fees by helping the Russian government -- not exactly composed of babes in the woods -- borrow to the hilt just ahead of its debt crisis in 1998.

This story, which also involves a complex debt-swap deal, will sound awfully familiar to Greece, which was more recently also paid Goldman millions in fees for a debt-swap deal just ahead of its own debt crisis.

And Josh Brown at the Reformed Broker points out that Goldman and other brokerage firms managed to avoid total destruction during the Crash of 1929 because they dumped all their holdings before informing their clients that the market was melting down:

"The 'culture' of Goldman Sachs was, is and always will be about making money, often at the expense of a client," Brown writes.

So will Smith's op-ed, coming on the heels of the Greek debt deal, Abacus, the El Paso-Kinder Morgan deal, and more, chase clients away from Goldman Sachs? Will it lead to the departure of Lloyd Blankfein, which Forbes called for this morning? Maybe so. But where else are these clients going to go? Will they dump the Vampire Squid in favor of a small brokerage firm? That doesn't always work out so well, as MF Global customers can tell you.

See, this 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.

As Paul Volcker put it in that 1998 story about Goldman and Russia:

''What the Russian problem reflects is that today's bankers often don't have long-lasting concerns about customer-client relations,'' said Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and an occasional adviser to Russian government officials. ''You just do the deal and get out.''