It’s that time of year — think February to March — when bonus checks have cleared and voluntary departures from investment banks spike. So it’s obvious why Greg Smith quit now. The question is, why decide to quit in as public and destructive a manner as possible?
When Smith joined, Goldman (GS) was transitioning from a partnership model to being publicly-traded. And I suppose it’s possible that Smith has such deep nostalgia for the partnership he never really knew that he’s willing to hurt his entire current team — everybody who helped him make his millions — in an attempt to goad Goldman into returning to those halcyon days.
But it certainly doesn’t seem that way. Smith says that Goldman is currently “toxic and destructive”. He goes on to say that “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” and that “the morally bankrupt people” need to be weeded out — how, he doesn’t say — by the board of directors. It’s much easier to see the disgruntled ex-employee here, quitting in a huff, than it is to see someone genuinely trying to do his part to reconstitute the Goldman Sachs of Gus Levy and John Whitehead.
Which is not to say that Smith doesn’t make important points. He’s in the equity-derivatives business, which is also where Andrew Clavell came from. Clavell’s blog is down, now, but these words are immortal:
If you claim you do know where the fees are, banks want you as a customer. You don’t know. Really, you don’t. Hang on, I hear you shouting that you’re actually smarter than that, so you do know. Read carefully: Listen. Buster. You. Don’t. Know.
Smith’s clients thought they knew where Goldman was making its money when it sold them equity derivatives. Nine times out of ten, they were wrong. I can guarantee you that every single one of the clients referred to as “muppets” within Goldman considers themselves to be a sophisticated investor. Mainly because they have Goldman employees phoning them up on a regular basis and flattering them with tales of how sophisticated they are.
Clients know in principle that every time they do a trade with Goldman, Goldman makes money. But they don’t know how much money Goldman makes on those trades. And Goldman is extremely good at structuring deals which can’t easily be replicated by combining various liquid derivatives. In turn, that gives Goldman pricing power — so much power, indeed, that in some instances the bank will go so far as to insist that if the client attempts to get independent pricing for the contract in question, then the whole deal is off.
There’s a strong smell of faux-naive coming from Smith’s op-ed. “Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing,” he writes. “Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.” Here’s a question for him: back when he made videos for Goldman urging candidates to join the company, were the people who got promoted those who had ideas and did the right thing? Or were they the ones who made lots of money for the firm? To ask the question is to answer it.