Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs-by Greg Smith

Goldman Sachs banker’s dramatic resignation letter, published in the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times

By GREG SMITH @nytimes| March 14, 2012

TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. 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. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. 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.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: 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. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.

When I was a first-year analyst I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelaces. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a derivative was, understanding finance, getting to know our clients and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what we could do to help them get there.

My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.

Greg Smith is resigning today as a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


The Firestorm Over Goldman Sachs

To the Editor:

Re “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” by Greg Smith (Op-Ed, March 14):

Bravo to Mr. Smith! While some may chastise him for not leaving Goldman Sachs sooner, I applaud him for having the sense to identify the horrendous changes that have occurred in a company that once stood for greatness in integrity and service to its clients. This must be a huge disappointment for him, and he deserves recognition for taking this drastic step.

Sadly, Goldman Sachs is but one of too many corporations operating today solely for profit with little thought given to consumers other than “how can we get them to buy our products.” If only more bright young people in today’s corporate world could find their way to leaving these corporate monstrosities.

New York, March 14, 2012

To the Editor:

I was depressed by Greg Smith’s article with its lament for the abandonment of the values he felt that Goldman Sachs stood for when he signed on with it: “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” What added greatly to my despondency was the important moral value he didn’t mention: doing right by the country and the world.

A conscience ought to be part of a person’s and a firm’s values, and a conscience ought to extend beyond the limited community of one’s firm and clients. The recklessness of Goldman Sachs, after all, harmed millions of people beyond its circle.

Hampden-Sydney, Va., March 14, 2012

To the Editor:

I was very sad to read Greg Smith’s bitter departure letter about the disintegration of the “culture” at Goldman Sachs.

I was fortunate to have worked for the firm for 34 years in two divisions, fixed income and investment management. During my career I had the privilege of working with outstanding people who exhibited the highest business standards and integrity.

The firm’s leadership from the days of Gus Levy, John Whitehead and John Weinberg through present management always stressed the importance of the client’s coming first. All of us in leadership positions were expected to live by a very high standard of excellence and to be role models for our younger colleagues.

Goldman Sachs continues to be a leading market maker in thousands of global securities, and its willingness to risk its own capital on behalf of clients is unparalleled in the industry. Mr. Smith’s comments are inconsistent with the firm I proudly knew.

Hobe Sound, Fla., March 14, 2012

The writer is a retired managing director of Goldman Sachs.

To the Editor:

What Greg Smith’s article leads to is the need for the compensation model for brokers and financial advisers to change.

Instead of fees for transactions, remuneration should be based on a percentage of profit for the institutional or individual investor. That way, the culture will alter for the good.

Great Neck, N.Y., March 14, 2012

To the Editor:

I worked in the derivatives industry at a firm owned by a foreign bank for more than 15 years before voluntarily retiring because I had achieved my career goals there.

When a business or a person deals with a third party that is selling something, the vast majority of sellers are seeking to maximize profits. That’s capitalism, and it’s self-adjusting: if a seller is perceived to provide a poor value proposition by its customers (whether it actually rakes in huge profits or not), the customers go elsewhere and that seller either improves the bargain or eventually ceases to do business altogether. Morally there is nothing wrong with this, and it happens with just about every business in every industry.

When you walk into a car dealer, the No. 1 goal of that dealer is to sell you a car — and quickly — so you don’t buy another brand or even the same brand from another dealer. All other things being equal, he’d like to sell you the car that makes him the most profit.

But before the dealer can do that, he must juggle things to convince you that the car is the best one for you and is a good value. It may or may not be the best car for you or the best value; that’s where you, as the buyer, must decide whom to do business with.

If you perceive the seller as “ripping [your] eyeballs out,” you are likely to go elsewhere, and if you do, you send a message to the seller that he needs to change his strategy. That’s how our system works, and the seller is doing nothing wrong if he is obeying the law, which Greg Smith concedes is true in the case of Goldman Sachs.

The most successful long-term businesses balance doing what’s right by the client with selling a profitable product, and Goldman is no different, never was and never will be. For buyers, the old two-word adage still holds: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

Del Mar, Calif., March 14, 2012

To the Editor:

The world will aptly take notice of Greg Smith’s article. He was able to eloquently and resolutely express what is wrong with Goldman Sachs and probably the financial system at large. While unexpected, his commentary is largely a reiteration of what most of us already assumed to be a corrupt system.

Substantially more powerful and disruptive, however, would be if Mr. Smith’s resignation inspired the less vocal minority of “everyday workers” to speak out against the injustices they, too, see in their workplaces.

Coming from a Fortune 500 company, I have seen no lack of barely short-of-illegal corruption, practices well known even at the organization’s lowest echelons.

Mr. Smith’s brave act should be an impetus for others to expose their own knowledge of morally bankrupt business practices, and to reveal even more shocking truths about our broken system.

Denver, March 14, 2012

To the Editor:

Greg Smith’s article about his decision to leave Goldman Sachs highlights only one part of the problem with our financial system. He warns that Goldman’s culture is dedicated only to increasing its own profits at the expense of its clients, and that it risks the loss of these clients if it continues to ignore the clients’ interests. But is anyone surprised by Goldman’s conduct? I think not.

The other half of the problem is that the ultimate clients of Goldman are not truly represented. The large corporations, the asset managers, the hedge funds, and mutual and pension funds are the immediate clients of Goldman, and they are run by fund managers and the corporate officers who are acting in the same fashion as Goldman’s managers — maximizing their own profits at the expense of their clients (the shareholders and investors).

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) No one.

New York, March 14, 2012

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3 Responses to Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs-by Greg Smith

  1. This really made me so very sad – to see a story of an organizational culture eroding is really, really awful. As an Organizational Psychologist, it makes me wonder how the the path could have been altered.

    Thanks for posting –

  2. Reblogged this on The Blend and commented:
    I felt the need to reblog this post – hope we all learn something about organizational culture and employee engagement/happiness from his experience.

  3. lisparc says:

    Thanks MarlaGottschalk for your comment and reblogging.
    The issues exposed in this artical are just the tip of the iceberg. Similar problems exist in many other organizations as well. The letter has caused a hot duscussion on Internet and the ball seems still rolling..

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