Greg Smith’s resignation lament in the New York Times, Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs, has rightly caused an uproar. He writes, “I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” implying that it has been toxic and destructive all along. Tell us something we don’t know.
Twenty years ago when I worked at JP Morgan, the public bond underwriters and pension managers complained that they were at a disadvantage when competing for business with Goldman because they weren’t allowed to “pay to play”, i.e. make political contributions in exchange for business.
Those two banks had long been at opposite ends of the spectrum. A century ago, the original J. Pierpont Morgan told counsel for a Congressional committee investigating the money trust that the most important criterion for supplying commercial credit was character, “Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me for all the bonds in Christendom.” Language, I must add, that distinguished him in ways large and small from moneylenders like Mr. Goldman and Mr. Sachs. Fifteen years ago an unnamed executive summed up the difference in business practices between the two banks to a Times reporter: “Morgan will show up with 20 people for a three-hour presentation to a client. Goldman Sachs will just send two people to sketch out a deal on a napkin at the golf club bar.”
With Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson, and Jon Corzine among the ranks of Goldman's recent former CEOs who have distinguished themselves in government and finance, you learn almost everything you need to know about the contemporary Goldman ethic, good and bad. Current honcho Lloyd Blankfein has said they are doing “God’s work.” For a Goldman investment banker to evoke the almighty as justification, he has to feel real heat.
Mr. Smith feels let down by corruption in Goldman’s corporate culture:
“It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture … revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients…. 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."
A closer look at that culture would reveal something besides always doing right by the client. Corporate culture is really a nice way of moving people with a variety of motives in lockstep. One man’s client service is another man’s rapacious self-interest. Given the profitability of modern finance, rapacious self-interest has had an inexorable pull. The habits ingrained through a strong corporate culture are merely instruments for moving the herd along. Call it conformism, and in this, as in so many other areas, there’s no question that Goldman is a leader.
Upon reading Smith’s op-ed, I opened an excellent reference volume, The Wiley Book of Business Quotations, to the Goldman Sachs entry for corporate culture. (Okay, maybe that isn't quite accurate—I compiled the book myself and knew what was there.) I found Theresa M. Potter's New York Metropolitan Diary column of November 13, 1996:
Overheard on the elevator at Goldman Sachs on a recent “dress-down Friday,” a conversation between a long-time partner and a smartly attired young analyst.
Partner (sternly): It’s Friday. You’re not supposed to be wearing a tie.”
Analyst (crestfallen): “But it’s not silk.”
It’s a slippery slope.