Friday, March 16, 2012

Missing An Opportunity v2.0

In case you have been living in a cave, or quite possibly just busy doing productive work, you may have missed Greg Smith's scathing letter to the board of Goldman Sachs.

His message was clear:  Goldman Sachs is now evil.  Stephen Colbert wasted no time jumping in and I've heard that there are some 20,000 blog entries and news articles in the one day since the Times article appeared.  (Note that I found out today that the concensus is that Mr. Smith will soon be opening his own firm that will directly compete with Goldman.)

The point I'd like to make is that the outrage we're feeling is misplaced.  We (you and I) are as complicit as we are victims.  (See my earlier post about Missing An Opportunity.)

Missing the meaning of life.
Mr. Smith lays the blame for the evil on managers who foster and promote a culture which Mr. Smith derides as misguided in its prioritization of Goldman's welfare over that of their clients.

I beg to differ.   These days, society uses profit as the litmus test for morality in business.  Morality can be added up and reported on your 10-Q, 10-K and the ever so telling  Form 4.  Presumably, these managers were selected by the Goldman board exactly with that in mind.  The source of the conflict is not that they have faulty or absent morals or ethics.  The problem is these new, societally blessed moral standards are often in conflict with the greater good.  Fill out that 10-Q and everyone goes home wealthy is not exactly the same morality as "A Chicken in Every Pot".

You may not be able to trace the causality lines between you and Goldman, but it's there - maybe dotted and faint, but present.  We, as individuals and as a society benefit from these impersonal institutions in the form of the products and services they deliver to society, their return on investment and in the risks they permit by insulating well-intentioned, calculated innovation.

Government's role is to function as a intermediary; mediating voice of the voiceless.  Government needs to balance the inherent conflict between the best interests of the corporations themselves, their investors and society in general.  Without that balance, the playing field is tipped and either the public safety or the will to assume the risks inherent in innovation suffers.

In the end, the question is this one:   Are the fees (profit) we collectively are paying to these impersonal institutions reasonable and prudent for the services they provide and they risk they take?  I think we know how Mr. Smith's would answer that question is as it specifically relates to Goldman.

Goldman's shareholders temporarily lost about $2 Billion when this news broke - or right around 4% of Goldman's market value.  This is obviously a statement that investors don't consider this collective outcry for sustainable morality easily monetized, or particularly valuable.

No comments: