Another Perspective

Let Us Now Praise Famous Investment Banks

It took Greg Smith 12 years to figure out that Goldman Sachs wasn't for him?

By 3.19.12

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As the mavens of media once again tear into Goldman Sachs, like piranhas devouring a hapless cow that has waded into the Amazon, it is worth remembering a few things about the investment bank, highly successful for decades. The controversy of course is over the recent and very public resignation of investment banker Greg Smith, who has castigated the firm for its practices and culture.

Goldman deserves a lot of credit. How many companies know how to arbitrage an entire country, the world's largest economy, and a global industry? The masters of the universe at Goldman have executed the challenge of Archimedes, the Greek mathematician of the ancient world, who said that if he had a sufficiently long lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. In its own way, the firm can move global financial markets with its calculus.

It is understatement to say that Goldman is a formidable competitor. While many large companies become distracted and obsess with corporate process, perpetual meetings and verbose PowerPoint slides that explain matrix management, Goldman analyzes the world with remarkable acumen and then executes with precision and excellence. To succeed like Goldman, you have to know how to read a global financial landscape: debt, equity, real estate, commodities, currencies, and regulations. This is a very difficult skill to acquire, and they do it exceptionally well.

Countries and economies have monstrous inefficiencies and swings. For the British, it was mismanagement of interest and exchange rates in the early 1990s. It is well-known that George Soros understood this, and made $1 billion by shorting the British pound sterling. For the U.S. in recent years, it was over allocation of capital into the mortgage industry, aided and abetted by banking regulation that assigned lower risk weighting to mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. This, along with freakishly low interest rates, encouraged overinvestment in derivative financial instruments. And so a bubble was born.

With mortgages long deemed sacrosanct and very low risk, Goldman figured out that there was a massive correction coming and that mortgage-backed securities and other related derivatives should be sold short, profiting mightily when it came time to buy those securities for delivery to counterparties.

In developing countries, there are also massive inefficiencies. Agricultural exports can temporarily drive currency valuations, over regulation protects middlemen that do not add value, and transportation systems such as road, rail, air and sea are fragmented and not integrated. This offers major opportunities to a firm that can eliminate inefficiency in the supply chain and profit from a poor country's disarray. There is no media frenzy about that.

The trouble with Greg Smith is that he took twelve years to figure out that Goldman wasn't for him. Of course, that did not stop him from receiving investment banking compensation, nor evidently has he offered to return it. Presumably an intelligent person could join a firm, attend meetings, assist with transactions and quickly discover if a corporate culture was somehow "toxic and destructive." It should not require twelve years to acquire that kind of personal insight and then glorify it by resigning.

The U.S. Treasury, with all its brilliant financial sentinels and algorithms, allowed itself to be arbitraged by an investment bank. Being able to short a country's securities or currencies is also a way of maintaining discipline, and when free markets gang up, they can undermine political decisions made by governments.

The world needs more of some elements of the Goldman culture -- creative people with global vision, who will execute business adroitly and as ball carriers score touchdowns -- not process bound executives who revel in new jargon and celebrate corporate fluff. The world needs more people who can read a global landscape and act on their conviction with imperfect information, knowing that to make money you have to either take risks that others will not take, or be smarter than they are, or both. It is called being an entrepreneur. Alleged ethical breaches and conflicts can and will be dealt with by the courts, and companies will need to vigorously police their own.

Restoring the American economy through entrepreneurship can be God's work indeed. Perhaps President Obama will someday stand in the White House Rose Garden and say, "We are all investment bankers." 

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.