Thursday, November 19, 2009

More flak for Goldman

Goldman Sachs is set to pay out record bonuses. Its employees should be thrilled and not thrilled. The latter because the bonus payment is likely to comes as a climac to a period that has turned out to be a PR disaster for the once-admired financial giant.

Goldman's soaring profits are today perceived as unfair- the result of implicit taxpayer guarantees and the demise of competitors such as Lehman and Bear Stearns. They are somehow not seen as legitimate reward for success. In the US, a rash of agitations has broken out against the firm. Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, did not help matters by claiming that he and his firm were doing 'God's work. This remark added various sections of the clergy to the firm's critics.

Blankfein said his remark was meant to be a joke. This points not just to a poor sense of humour but to poor judgement- the public is in no mood today to listen to jokes from Goldman top brass. Blankfein also apologised for the firm's role in the present crisis and the firm promised a commitment of $500 mn towards financing small businesses. But these moves have done little to assuage popular anger.

FT has an article that analyses the principal reasons for the firm's success for so many years now:

Goldman’s stellar performance has been built on two main strengths: a long-standing commitment to making money as a firm rather than a collection of individuals; and a daring boldness in trading and regulatory matters.

....The theory is simple: unlike other banks, where star traders routinely overrule lowly compliance officers, at Goldman the two roles have equal status. “The risk management side is just as powerful as the risk-taking side,” says a former executive. “If a trading desk makes $35m in a week, the attitude at other firms is to let these guys do whatever they want. At Goldman it is: ‘What am I missing?’ ”.

......By cultivating trading and advisory relationships with thousands of companies and investors, Goldman gains knowledge it uses to inform its own trading.

Banks are banned from “front-running” – using specific information provided by clients to trade on their own account before they act on behalf of customers. But they can, and do, use aggregate information, “market colour” gleaned from their interactions with investors, hedge funds and companies. By virtue of being the world’s largest and best-connected trader, Goldman has turned this into an art that has raised rivals’ eyebrows but not sparked regulators’ attention.

So, what does it add up to? Good people and risk management, of course, but also superior information and networking. In the present environment, add implicit government backing and weaker competition. The short point: profits at Goldmanare not driven exclusively by superior skills. Hence the widespread public hostility.

Goldman may look invincible for now. But a basic truth can't be wished away: business cannot succeed in the face of hostility. Just one false step somewhere and the regulators, politicians, media and the social sector will come down on Goldman like a ton of bricks. The biggest challenge for the firm is softening popular anger. It's doubtful that a deep-rooted culture can change sufficiently for the purpose.


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Inquisitive said...

Success in financial world atleast it seems is driven more by the external environment, then by the individual excellence. As and when mood is positive all banks seem to doing well.

In such a scenario, the profits made by a bank are deserved more by the investor who owns the bank and suffers if it goes down, rather than the employee who is just incidental to the success.

Anonymous said...

A sympathetic portrait of Goldman boss Lloyd Blankfein, not something that he has been getting over the past year. The paper has been fair to him despite the fact that he declined to be interviewed for the article. But Blankfein does have a long-standing relationship with the FT: he sits on their jury for the Business Book of the Year. ( I am not going to pronounce this a conflict of interest).

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