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Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs

On March 14, 2012, in Greed, by Editor

Newspaper Article

- By Greg Smith, The New York Times, US

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 makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.”

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.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.

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2 Responses to Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs

  1. Editorial Team says:

    These are a few typical comments that were posted online in response to the article when it became public.

    ——————

    Congratulations, Greg!

    I resigned from more than one company where integrity was seriously lacking. In my first position, I was ordered to help clients lie on financial statements and change invoices – the partner actually handed me a bottle of white out! I was ordered to be a part of hiding a pension shortfall that I discovered and was walked out for refusing to go along.

    I have paid a price for walking away from these ‘great opportunities’, but I sleep well at night. You are brave to take a stand for your clients and for your own integrity. I applaud you for walking away and for speaking out.

    ——————

    A moral decision is to be commended regardless of circumstance; coming of age in a culture that prizes the making of money to the exclusion of everything else makes reaching such a decision doubly difficult. Mr Smith is to be congratulated for his personal revelation.
    However, the survival of the company pales next to the slow-motion chaos into which this behavior – by no means confined to GS – plunges the real world on a regular basis. Of course it’s very clear that those responsible are not the least bit interested, for reasons mentioned in the article.

    If Mr Smith is interested in clearing his conscience, he might consider working to advance real regulation of the industry – at the very least.

    ——————

    I believe the change in culture you’ve seen at Goldman Sachs is just a reflection of the change that has taken place in our national culture over the last few decades. When I was growing up, no one considered a person’s wealth to be an absolute measure of his or her worth to society. Now, for a large part of our culture, that has changed; the acquisition of wealth is seen as good, no matter how it is achieved.

    Money-grubbing behavior is rewarded, and victims of such behavior are considered fair game, not just at Goldman Sachs, but everywhere. My cable company charges huge fees out of proportion to what it delivers, but fails to adequately staff customer service to field complaints. My bank has added ridiculous fees for just about everything except were expressly prohibited by law. I am put on hold for large swaths of time to get just about anything fixed. There is a fervor for ever more tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for on the backs of the middle class.

    Our whole attitude about what is important has changed, and in my opinion, not for the better.

    ——————

    In 2008, I worked for JPMorgan Chase, albeit at a lower level than Mr. Smith. I spent a year trying to tell managers that there were all kinds of abuses going on with respect to disclosures about mortgages and home equity loans. All paid me nothing more than lip service. They couldn’t have cared less about the client; it was all about their bottom line. Then the housing market crashed. Surprise.

    I wrote a letter to – ‘edited out’ -, expressing my concerns. I got a call from one of his flacks in personnel. And instead of saying we’ll look into this and fix it, her question was “Well, what do you want?”: corporate speak for “What do we have to do to shut you up?”

    Ultimately, I left of my own accord, and permanently said goodbye to any kind of “financial service” enterprise. It may sound quaint, but I’ll take my personal ethics over the almighty buck any day; it beats feeling like you need a perennial shower.

    ——————

    It is not easy to resign on principle – and so publicly to boot, with the likely intention of alerting the world to the need for a company or other institution to change. Taking such a stand ought to be more common, but most people have neither the means nor the staying power to make the transition to their next job. The business world does a terrific job of “shunning” the principled one, a la certain religious and other groups. Such a principled action ought to be more common, but especially in this time and world of straitened circumstances and more limited employment possibilities, working people, including and perhaps especially professionals, fear for themselves, their families, lives and livelihood.Coming out so so bravely and publicly often means that one will “never eat lunch in this town again.” Bravo for your courage and principles, Sir. The road onward may well be rocky, but presumably you have assets and have planned for a prolonged “siege” until you “land” your next professional position, start something of your own or join a more principled organization that values ethics and the ethos of putting the customer first. I wish you Godspeed and will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. With best regards and all hope for you and your (now) future life.

  2. Editorial Team says:

    Even though the rest of the world is willing to be honest about the cancerous ‘greed culture’ which has taken hold of society at all levels, it is still helpful when someone working within that culture is willing to be honest about it too.

    Banks and similar such Organisations, will spend millions of dollars in PR campaigns and go to great lengths to present themselves as friendly, honest and reputable Organisations that care about you and the world. The truth however, is that the greed culture permeates the entire Banking sector throughout the world.

    A Bank’s raison d’être is to make money – pure and simple. It is a profit-driven machine. The CEO is remunerated according to profit targets – not by how much he/she improves the state of the world or people’s lives. The money or profit based attitude is then instilled to all the staff below that person to become part of the same profit-making process. It’s like a religion. You will serve the ‘Money God’ and appease him. The problem is – the Money God is never appeased. It ALWAYS wants more and more!

    A lot of people are losing their humanity to this ‘greed conditioning of society’.

    All credit to Greg Smith for at least having the courage to express the truth of what happens behind closed doors – in this open letter to the New York Times.

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