A (now) former Goldman Sachs executive penned a much-discussed opinion piece in the New York Times this morning explaining that he’s resigning from Goldman because the environment inside the company “is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.” Greg Smith, who spent twelve years at the firm, said it dramatically prioritizes profits over clients, whom are often mocked as suckers (or “muppets,” in company parlance). “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” he wrote.
At The Atlantic’s “US Economy Summit” in downtown this morning, Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker gave the keynote remarks and sat for an interview with the magazine’s Washington editor at large, Steve Clemons. Volcker said he read the piece and that he trusted Smith’s diagnosis. “It is a reflection of a changing market mentality,” he said.
Moreover, Volcker suggested the mentality problem is one that can be solved by enacting the Volcker Rule, which would ban commercial banks from making speculative, proprietary trades.
Volcker recalled the period in the 1990s where commercial banks were allowed to buy and incorporate trading firms into their business, and diagnosed this as toxic not only to the culture at places like Goldman but to the country as a whole.
“[Trading] is a business that leads to a lot of conflicts of interest. You’re promised compensation when you’re doing well, and that’s very attractive to young people. All these firms can attract the best of American graduates, whether they’re philosophy majors or financial engineers, it didn’t make any difference,” Volcker said.
“A lot of that talent was siphoned off onto Wall Street. But now we have the question of how much of that activity is really constructive, in terms of improving productivity in the GDP,” Volcker said. “These were brilliant years for Wall Street by one perspective, but were they brilliant years for the economy? There’s no evidence of that. The rate of economic growth did not pick up, the rate of productivity did not pick up, the average household had no increase in their income over this period, or virtually no increase.”
Volcker noted that commercial banks hold the money of average Americans, and are insured by the federal government. “Should the government be subsidizing or protecting institutions that…are essentially engaged in speculative activities, often at the expense of customer relations?”
This is exactly what Smith described—it was known inside Goldman as hunting elephants. “In English [this means]: get your clients—some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t—to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them.”
Regulators are likely to delay implementation of the Volcker Rule past the July deadline; the financial sector has been lobbying intensely on virtually every aspect and potentiality of the rule. Smith’s op-ed is a good pressure point towards a stronger rule.