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Smith Op-Ed Won’t Cause Instant Reform on Wall Street

If Greg Smith wanted revenge on Goldman Sachs, he definitely got it. In one trading day, Goldman lost $2.2 billion in stock value, with shares dropping 3.4%. It was the third-biggest decline in the S&P 500 index yesterday.

Smith, who also wrote that he was quitting after 12 years at the company, blamed Blankfein, 57, and President Gary D. Cohn, 51, for a “decline in the firm’s moral fiber.” They responded in a memo to current and former employees, saying that Smith’s assertions don’t reflect the firm’s values, culture or “how the vast majority of people at Goldman Sachs think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, 84, whose “Volcker rule” would limit banks like New York-based Goldman Sachs from making bets with their own money, called Smith’s article “a radical, strong” piece. “I’m afraid it’s a business that leads to a lot of conflicts of interest,” Volcker said at a conference in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic magazine.

But fear not for Goldman. They’ve made most of it back, today, up 2.35% so far. And before long the world will move on. The op-ed was emailed widely throughout Wall Street yesterday, according to many reports, but that was probably due to the envy of someone finally telling their boss to go screw themselves. There’s a reason that only happens once in a while.

I’d like to think that there are “last straw” moments, when one man’s clarity of vision forces a new reckoning, and every investor on Wall Street queues up to remove their money one by one from Goldman Sachs. Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way. Maybe over a period of years, the unbridled greed will catch up to a Wall Street firm. In the short-term, it’s unlikely.

I thought Nomi Prins, who was the original Goldman Sachs whistleblower, had a good take on all this:

I applaud Smith’s decision to bring the nature of Goldman’s profit-making strategies to the forefront of the global population’s discourse, as so many others have been doing through books, investigative journalism, and the Occupy movements over the past decade since my book, Other People’s Money, was written after I resigned from Goldman. It would be great if Smith’s illuminations would serve as the turning point around which serious examination and re-regulation of the banking system framework would transpire.

The inherent conflict of interest that firms such as Goldman possess through enjoying the multiple roles of ‘market-maker,’ ‘securities creator’ and ‘client-advisor’ foster an environment rife with systemic risk. The trading revenue portion of Goldman’s profits, as well as its derivatives vs. assets ratio, is the highest amongst the American bank holding companies. And yet, in the fall of 2008, the Federal Reserve approved Goldman Sachs (along with Morgan Stanley) to alter its moniker from investment bank to bank holding company, thereby allowing it to gain access to federal subsidies and potential ongoing support.

In this regard, the firm’s practices should remain under intense scrutiny by the general public and legislators. I would hope that the message behind Smith’s resignation will not be obfuscated by debates over the extent to which the firm’s clients are either supported or exploited, but instead, serve as a powerful call to foster a more-strictly delineated and less reckless financial system.

In other words, it’s not enough to just heavily sigh and say “well of course Goldman rips off its clients.” I agree that investors need to wake up and understand how they’re being fleeced, and that they have a role to play in the ultimate resolution of Wall Street perfidy. But public policy must also play a role in not only setting the boundaries of the financial system, but enforcing those boundaries. We’re not really in a position to see that with the regulators we have in place right now. But that ought to be the goal, and we should not wait for the market to reform itself.

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Smith Op-Ed Won’t Cause Instant Reform on Wall Street

David Dayen

David Dayen