Two days ago, Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive director, resigned in sensational fashion, writing a column in the New York Times. In the article, he laid out the reasons for his resignation, citing the change in culture at the firm over the ten years he worked there. He wrote,
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.
In particular, he attacked what he sees as the 3 ways to get ahead at Goldman Sachs:
- “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.”;
- “get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman”; and
- “Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym”
While the article might have been dismissed as one disillusioned ex-employee’s rant, it will ring all too true across the financial sector. The Motley Fool reports Goldman Isn’t Alone in the Delicate Art of Ripping Off People. After quoting some illustrative returns, fees and rewards in the industry, the author writes:
The clients that Goldman and the rest of Wall Street rip off are skilled at ripping off their own clients, thank you very much. Each is part of the same game of inflating expectations and overcharging fees — a system summarized best by the title of Fred Schwed’s classic book, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?
And then he points out that the losers, the client’s clients, are people like you and me: savers, pension fund beneficiaries and retired schoolteachers. The article finishes by asserting that Goldman is just one example of “putting personal interests before clients.”
How did all this come to pass?
In 1999, just over ten years ago, Goldman Sachs went through a public listing. It had previously operated as a partnership but now it is majority owned by institutional investors.
Over on Forbes, an article explains the difference in incentives between a bank run as a partnership and one run as a traded corporation: the switch in incentives is from long-term success to short-term results. The author gives some persuasive arguments for the partnership model and says investment banks should be required to return to it. He finishes,
Real banking reform isn’t about lashing out, but about restoring the connection between bankers’ profits and the economy they serve.
Which is why, as part of my work on injustice in the financial system, I introduced my Financial Institutions (Reform) Bill. The Bill would minimise moral hazard within the financial system by ensuring that those who take risks are held personally liable for the consequences. It would realign bankers’ rewards, their risks and their actions in the real economy. I said,
Hard-working families and individuals paying tax out of typically modest incomes must never again suffer the injustice of carrying the risks, and consequences of risks, taken in the pursuit of often enormous private returns. Risks must fall to those who take them. Instead of vicarious liability of taxpayers, there must be responsibility in the banking system. The Bill represents an opportunity to free the banking sector and the public from regulatory capture and lobbying. It could raise standards from the bottom up, through the preservation and extension of commercial freedom and the development of professional, personal and mutual responsibility.
At the time, I had no idea that yesterday I would meet David Fishwick, founder of a savings and loans firm in Burnley, who is delivering just that. It began when he found people could not buy from his van business for want of credit, so he started making loans himself. He’s an entrepreneur, a self-made multi-millionaire from ordinary beginnings.
Channel 4 are now making a documentary about Dave’s attempts to start a decent bank which serves both savers and businesses. The Lancashire Telegraph reports,
“My bank may be tiny but it will be better than a high street bank. I want to show how banking can be socially responsible and not greedy and reckless and I’m going to do what the high street banks just can’t bring themselves to do, give away any profits to charity.”
The venture will see him guarantee and underwrite all the banking activity from his personal fortune.
It’s quite a rebuff to all those who told me no-one would run a bank if they had to put their own assets at risk. As I pointed out, some of history’s greatest bankers bore their own risks without limit. Now, Dave Fishwick is demonstrating that the basic business of banking — intermediating savings to entrepreneurs through productive loans — is an enterprise which individuals will back with their own wealth.
Dave’s banking business is small. The FSA essentially won’t meet him and no wonder: they make their money from fees levied on those they regulate. Dave’s business is presumably too small to cover the FSA’s costs. So he doesn’t have a banking licence, accepting savings and making loans on a different legal basis. His business, as he tells it, is based on his personal guarantee, trust and entrepreneurship. In the terms Hazlitt explained, credit is something people bring to Dave, through running profitable businesses, and that’s what enables him to make loans out of people’s precious savings, personally underwritten by him.
Dave Fishwick may yet fail. His business may be crushed out of existence by a dull and clumsy state. But I have said time and again that we need a new generation of local financial institutions which reconnect savers and productive businesses. It seems Dave is redeveloping the teamwork, integrity, spirit of humility and sense of “always doing right by our clients” which used to engender pride and belief amongst Goldman Sachs’ staff. There will always be a place for large, sophisticated firms but, together with ideas like Funding Circle, Dave’s enterprise may indicate that a new, more responsible and productive financial system is emerging spontaneously in society.
I look forward to watching the documentary in the next couple of months.
This article was previously published at stevebaker.info.