Category Archive 'Goldman Sachs'

04 Dec 2017

A Chinese Look at the Western Elite

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Puzhong Yao.

Puzhong Yao was born in China, but has studied and worked at some of the most elite institutions in the West, and he still finds the mindset of the Western elite strange.

[L]ike the Evangelical Christians, my life was changed by a book. Specifically, Robert Rubin’s autobiography In an Uncertain World (Random House, 2003). Robert Rubin was Goldman Sachs’s senior partner and subsequently secretary of the Treasury. Only later did I learn that certain people in the United States revere him as something of a god.

I first bought the book because I was puzzled by the title, especially coming from a man who had achieved so much. I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail. When I picked up the book, I was studying math at Cambridge University and, as I looked back at the standardized tests and intense study that had defined my life until then, I could see no uncertainty.

But since reading Rubin’s book, I have come to see the world differently. Robert Rubin never intended to become the senior partner of Goldman Sachs: a few years into his career, he even handed in his resignation. Just as in Rubin’s career, I find that maybe randomness is not merely the noise but the dominant factor. And those reasons we assign to historical events are often just ex post rationalizations. As rising generations are taught the rationalizations, they conclude that things always happen for a reason. Meanwhile, I keep wondering: is there someone, sitting in a comfortable chair somewhere, flipping a coin from time to time, deciding what happens in the world? …

I don’t claim to be a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, nor do I have much in common with this famous observer of American life. He grew up in Paris, a city renowned for its culture and architecture. I grew up in Shijiazhuang, a city renowned for being the headquarters of the company that produced toxic infant formula. He was a child of aristocrats; I am the child of modest workers.

Nevertheless, I hope my candid observations can provide some insights into the elite institutions of the West. Certain beliefs are as ubiquitous among the people I went to school with as smog was in Shijiazhuang. The doctrines that shape the worldviews and cultural assumptions at elite Western institutions like Cambridge, Stanford, and Goldman Sachs have become almost religious. Nevertheless, I hope that the perspective of a candid Chinese atheist can be of some instruction to them. …

It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school. My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again. Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade. But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles. …

Warren Buffett has said that the moment one was born in the United States or another Western country, that person has essentially won a lottery. If someone is born a U.S. citizen, he or she enjoys a huge advantage in almost every aspect of life, including expected wealth, education, health care, environment, safety, etc., when compared to someone born in developing countries. For someone foreign to “purchase” these privileges, the price tag at the moment is $1 million dollars (the rough value of the EB-5 investment visa). Even at this price level, the demand from certain countries routinely exceeds the annual allocated quota, resulting in long waiting times. In that sense, American citizens were born millionaires!

Yet one wonders how long such luck will last. This brings me back to the title of Rubin’s book, his “uncertain world.” In such a world, the vast majority things are outside our control, determined by God or luck. After we have given our best and once the final card is drawn, we should neither become too excited by what we have achieved nor too depressed by what we failed to achieve. We should simply acknowledge the result and move on. Maybe this is the key to a happy life.

On the other hand, it seems odd that this should be the principal lesson of a Western education. In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

RTWT

26 Jul 2016

OK, Two More

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Tweet177

31 Aug 2013

More About Goldman’s Dress Code

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Bankers — The two-button suits, buttonless collars, and custom shirts really don’t look that well.

GSElevator, the cynic who earlier this year was offering advice to summer interns, is back at Business insider, with even more sartorial advice.

I find the millenial perspective interesting, though I frequently do not in the least agree. So, instead of quoting him, I will just comment and respond.

Shoes

Loafers are fine for casual wear, but for business? Especially for investment banking??

My own opinion is that, no, sonny, loafers have not really become appropriate. What has happened is that more tasteless ethnic louts confusedly think the high prices associated with Gucci loafers make them formal and appropriate.

Men walking around offices in loafers will strike the genuinely critical observer as adolescent.

For serious occasions, and banking is serious, a man ought to wear serious adult footwear, with laces.

GSE has lots of money. He ought to get his shoes custom made.

He is right about using shoe trees, but I find his inclination to get his housekeeper to polish his shoes impressively self-entitled. My cleaning women, I think, would typically have either rebelled or done a poor job. I favor getting one’s shoes polished at a shoeshine stand at the station or one’s club.

One other note: Bostonians believe that only waiters swear black shoes. So in Boston, be sure to carefully match fine shades of brown or cordovan to one’s blue and grey suits. Since neither you nor I are actually from Boston, we cannot possibly do what an old school Bostonian would and wear brown shoes with a black suit.

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Socks

If GSE has seen some Brits running around flashing pink socks, he probably should be told that the proper term in “cerise,” and those gentlemen are subtly boasting about belonging to the Leander Club, the home away from home of aging crew jocks.

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Pants/Trousers

No cuffs on full weight formal woolen suits? God forbid! You omit cuffs on summer weight suits, on poplin, khaki, seersucker. But only spivs and ethnic gentlemen with more money than taste wear conventional suits without cuffs.

Pleats are entirely a matter of ephemeral fashion and individual taste.

If you don’t wear a belt, you will have difficulty carrying a handgun. Your trouser waistband will not provide adequate support. Besides, trousers without a belt buckle concealing the top closure look too informal.

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Belts/Suspenders

Obviously, no gentleman should ever wear a visible haberdasher’s logo on anything but a polo short (and, personally, I used to remove Rene LaCoste crocodiles with a razor blade when I was really hard-core).

I think all bespoke trousers ought to come with suspender buttons. I’d say that one ought to wear, in most cases, both a belt and suspenders: the belt purely ornamentally to complete the look of the trousers, and the braces for actual support.

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Shirts

In general, one should avoid white collared coloured shirts. Most men simply cannot pull them off. They are naturally expressive of vanity and excess. And they shout aloud: “I have been to a custom shirtmaker.”

I have my doubts about custom shirts in general. In most cases, they are not superior in fabric, tailoring, or even cost to good men’s off-the-peg shirts, but they are fussier. I have had shirts custom made, but I found that I actually don’t like tailored sleeves which closely hug the wrist, and I’m perfectly content with standard Oxford cloth white shirts from Brooks Brothers, J. Press, or Paul Stuart.

I tend to associate the precise shape of the collar and whether or not the shirt has a pocket with exactly which traditional men’s shop sold me the shirt.

Those of us who attended certain universities tend to wear button down collars in all but the most formal of diurnal circumstances. If one understands these things correctly, one understands that men’s style is timeless. There are no 1990s. There are no 2020s. If Cary Grant came to work at Goldman’s wearing the grey suit he was wearing in North by Northwest (1959), he’d look better than anyone else and he’d be perfectly in fashion.

I think cufflinks are excessive most days, and French cuffs too much trouble. But this sort of thing is within the realm of individual taste and expression. But, if you are going to wear cufflinks in the daytime, they had better be discreet and in careful good taste.

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Ties

You have to tie a Windsor knot if you are wearing a wide collar and/or if you happen to be using a thin tie. Very old neckties often lack good linings. Well-made contemporary neckties, on the other hand, typically form an excellent knot when tied simply in the four-in-hand knot. A Windsor knot will be too big for many collars, will not suit a lot of modern ties, and is liable to identify you as an egotistical Bond villain to any observant agent of MI6 in your vicinity.

If you do not know how to form a tie with what, in my circles, we called a “wimple,” you don’t know how to tie a tie properly. It is an essential ingredient in any properly tied necktie, and if Al Sharpton ties one and you don’t, it may be very sad indeed, but Al Sharpton is right and you are wrong.

I don’t understand all the Hermès folderol. I own a few Hermès ties, but there is nothing in my eyes magical about that brand of necktie. In fact, I tend to frown upon wearing Hermès because its tie designs are commonly just like Ferragamo’s, and I dislike wearing ties which identify their brand via their design. I only own a few Hermès and maybe two Ferragamo ties because those examples are witty club ties, jokingly alluding to various equestrian activities, so they’re useful to wear when I’m working as judge or the like at an event.

I think GSE overlooks more interesting tie questions like: do you wear the currently preferred width of tie, or choose your own? Do you wear club ties in the office? Or are they too hearty and informal? What brands and styles of design do you find intolerable? Do you wear seasonal, humorous, or holiday ties at all, ever? And where do you stand on the bow tie question? My own view is that some people like bow ties and can pull them off, but most of us cannot.

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Suit Jacket

Two button is down market, moderne, not good. The three button jacket is classic. Some men are obliged to wear two button suits due to problems with their figures, but if you do not have to, you should not.

He’s right about grey and Navy, but black suits are also possible. We all have to go to funerals occasionally.

If we are all working at Goldman, then we are all rich and we can all meet with visiting London tailors. GSE fails clearly to warn against allowing them to talk you into any of the excesses of contemporary British tailoring (other than peaked lapels). Buy the US-style sack suit, not the double-breasted, nipped in at the waist, big-lapeled Prince Charles suit. But there does remain room for individual expression. Do you want the stiff, fully-tailored Huntsman military uniform look? Or the Anderson & Shepherd softer tailored look? Hook back vent (American), side vents (British), or no vents (Continental)?

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Business Casual

Do not do business casual.

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Watches

Rolex and Audi may be cliches, but Rolex is the least expensive very high end watch, and people who own expensive watches tend to look at other people’s wrists. In some circles, if you aren’t wearing a Rolex or above, you may lack financial credibility.
GSE obviously doesn’t understand cars. Audi is making better cars than BMW or Benz these days.

I don’t myself believe in rules about watches, but you can count on it that some people will see that Rolex or Royal Oak on your wrist and condemn you as a frivolous waster afflicted with vanity, while others will look at anybody without a top tier timepiece as a probable pauper.

Miscellaneous

I guess he’s right. The generation that has trouble figuring out how to tie a tie had better dispense with pocket squares.

02 Jun 2013

Advice for Goldman Interns

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Obligatory Zegna tie.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Vice President at Goldman Sachs, offers some helpful career advice to this year’s male summer interns via the GSElevator blog:

1. If your boss smokes, smoke.

2. If your boss is Indian or Pakistani, learn the rules of cricket. He probably also smokes, so see #1. But be careful, if he doesn’t, he’s a vegetarian yogi.

3. Don’t wear Hermes ties, ever. You have to earn it.

4. Buy a decent suit or 3, but no cuffed or pleated pants. And don’t wear a tie unless you might have a meeting. No one likes that kind of kiss-ass.

5. Learn how to tie a double Windsor; just make sure the knot’s not too fat.

6. Keep your shoes shiny, but don’t let anyone see you having your shoes shined. You have to earn it.

7. If you went to a decent boarding school, subtly find out if anyone who matters went to the same school. Boom, he’s your rabbi. At this point, no one cares about college credentials; it’s a given.

8. As it relates to fellow interns, make no mistake about it – it’s war:

    Let’s be clear. It’s impossible to compete with female interns. And it’s not cool. So don’t bother trying.

    When a fellow intern leaves his desk, change his screen (or screens) to rolex.com, porsche.com, or morganstanley.com.

    Come up with dismissive nicknames for fellow interns (Chico, Bud Fox, Fredo, Bubba, etc.). Hope that it catches on.

    When a fellow intern leaves his computer unlocked at the end of the evening, change the signature on his Email settings. Using white font, add any variety of obscene words. No one will see it… except for IT and HR.

9. Don’t be too good to do the coffee runs. It shows confidence. Just don’t fuck it up. If you can’t be trusted with coffee, how can you sell bonds or manage risk.

10. Call Bloomberg and have them give you a tutorial on functions. It’s free. And most EDs and above are still using functions and short cuts from 5+ years ago. It’s an easy way to impress them. And many of the Bloomberg girls are hot.

11. Leave a jacket on the back of your chair at all times. While you are at it, keep a tie in your drawer. Zegna is a good choice.

12. Ask the secretary for the travel schedules of the senior members of your group for the week ahead. She’s dumb enough to think you are being proactive. But now you know when you can sleep in, hit the gym, or beat the traffic to Southampton.

13. Never tell racist jokes. Always repeat racist jokes in the proper company and be sure to credit ‘the other intern’ who told you.

Read the whole thing, Bubba.

Hat tip to Lynn Chu.

15 Mar 2012

Another Angry Letter to the Times

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Greg Smith
‘s resignation from Goldman Sachs via a denunciatory letter to the New York Times editorial page yesterday provoked Jim Geraughty (via his emailed Morning Jolt) to imagine the same letter composed by a fed-up Dark Lord of the Sith.

Today is my last day at the Empire.

After almost twenty years, first as a summer intern, then as the Emperor’s spy on the Jedi Council, then as his apprentice and Dark Lord of the Sith, I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of the Empire’s culture, its people (both cloned and non-cloned) and its role in bringing order to the galaxy. I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it, and I don’t mean destructive in its traditional, positive connotation.

This used to be an institution based upon facing one’s foes eye-to-eye, like a room full of younglings. Or betraying longtime brothers-in-arms in the middle of battle, when they least expect it. But instead, management meetings are dominated by the boasting and taunting of Imperial officers whose lack of faith is disturbing, all too proud of the technological terrors they’ve constructed. They fail to see that the power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

I have attempted to reach out and make a gripping argument to those who disagree, but the old, all-too-complacent top management insists these whippersnappers be released and that this assessment is dismissed as “pointless bickering.” Time and again, middle management proves itself as clumsy as it is stupid. Outside consultants are dismissed with a sneer, “we don’t need their kind.” Managers expect us to ignore delays in construction projects by sniveling that our presence is an “unexpected pleasure” and how honored they are by our presence. We can dispense with the pleasantries.

People who care only about making the same super-weapon, again and again, with more or less the exact same weakness and design flaw, will not sustain this Empire — or the fear of its people — for very much longer.

17 Jul 2011

Et Tu, Goldman!

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James Pethokoukis suggests that the lights burned late on Friday at the White House and loud sounds of weeping could be heard by anyone nearby.

[Friday] night in a new report, Democrat-friendly Goldman Sachs dropped an economic bomb on President Obama’s chances for reelection (bold is mine):

    Following another week of weak economic data, we have cut our estimates for real GDP growth in the second and third quarter of 2011 to 1.5% and 2.5%, respectively, from 2% and 3.25%. Our forecasts for Q4 and 2012 are under review, but even excluding any further changes we now expect the unemployment rate to come down only modestly to 8¾% at the end of 2012.

    The main reason for the downgrade is that the high-frequency information on overall economic activity has continued to fall substantially short of our expectations. … Some of this weakness is undoubtedly related to the disruptions to the supply chain—specifically in the auto sector—following the East Japan earthquake. By our estimates, this disruption has subtracted around ½ percentage point from second-quarter GDP growth. We expect this hit to reverse fully in the next couple of months, and this could add ½ point to third-quarter GDP growth. Moreover, some of the hit from higher energy costs is probably also temporary, as crude prices are down on net over the past three months. But the slowdown of recent months goes well beyond what can be explained with these temporary effects. … final demand growth has slowed to a pace that is typically only seen in recessions. .. Moreover, if the economy returns to recession—not our forecast, but clearly a possibility given the recent numbers …

Alarms bells must be ringing all over Obamaland today. Unemployment on Election Day about where it is right now? Sputtering — if not stalling — economic growth? To many Americans that would sound like the car is back in the ditch — if it was ever out.

29 Apr 2010

The Dodd Bill: HuffPo Gets It Right

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Frank Luntz debunks the democrats’ supposed financial “reform” at Huffington Post of all places. This editorial would fit just fine on any conservative blog site.

The New York Times’ headline said it all: “Off Wall St., Worries About Financial Bill”. The Democrats in Washington may think it’s a slam dunk, but the rest of America doesn’t agree.

Look, those who are on the side of significant financial reform are fighting on the side of the angels — and with broad public support. We are fed up with Wall Street abuses and arrogance that makes life for the rest of us on Main Street more difficult. Let’s hold people and businesses more accountable and responsible for what they do and how they do it.

But that doesn’t suddenly equate to support for the legislation now being considered by the Senate. In exactly the same way that the public wanted healthcare reform, just not Obama’s healthcare reform, they want something done to punish the perpetrators of the financial meltdown, but not at the expense of their own checking accounts — or American economic freedom.

The dirty secret of the Senate financial reform bill is that some of its biggest supporters work on Wall Street. Recipients of taxpayer bailout money have no concerns about the bill — in fact, the CEOs of Citi and Goldman Sachs have publicly endorsed it, and several of the other big banks have expressed support. It keeps the “too big to fail” guarantees in place for another generation of financial services companies.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The Democrats supporting the current legislation have assured an anxious electorate that whatever funds are used to create whatever regulatory scheme created will come from the banks, not the taxpayers. Let me emphasize that so that even casual readers will catch it: the Democrats promise that you won’t pay for their legislation, banks will.

Really?

Since when have corporations ever paid taxes, fees or penalties? Employees end up paying in the form of lower salaries and benefits. Customers end up paying in the form of higher costs.

And in this case, every account holder will be forced to pay higher fees on their checking account and savings account. That’s you, my friendly reader. Can you say “checkbook tax”? I can, and I think lots of candidates will be saying it come November. Is that what you really want to do to your constituents, Senator Lincoln? Is that what you really want to explain on the campaign trail, Senator Bennett?

But it goes deeper than just taxation and regulation. Wall Street can pass it all onto consumers. Main Street cannot. And that’s because Wall Street firms have all those pesky well-connected, nicely dressed lobbyists to ensure that whatever is passed strengthens their hand at the expense of the little guy.

Regardless of what side you’re on, the financial reform bill is special interest heaven — a bill written by lobbyists, for lobbyists, and will probably be implemented by lobbyists. The Dodd bill has carve-outs right from the get-go. Real estate agents, title companies, the Farm Credit system, even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae are exempt from its onerous and costly provisions. And for everyone else, it’s been a special interest feeding frenzy.

More than 130 companies have publicly hired lobbyists seeking their own loophole. Mars Candy wants to continue to use derivatives to hedge against price hikes in sugar and chocolate, so they’ve hired a lobbyist. Harley Davidson wants to protect dealer financing of their bikes, so they’ve hired a lobbyist. And eBay wants to not harm its subsidiary, PayPal, so they’ve hired … well … a team of lobbyists.

But most average Americans — the ones who bailed Wall Street out in the first place — cannot afford lobbyists, and won’t be exempted from the legislation.

There’s a reason why American trust in government is at an all-time low. Voters believe legislation like this is passed not for the public interest, but for special interests. And that is certainly the case with the Dodd bill.

21 Apr 2010

SEC Suing Goldman

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In a party line 3-2 vote SEC commissioners voted to sue Goldman Sachs. The SEC charges that Goldman fraudulently represented to investors that the mortgages underlying one of its residential mortgage-backed securities were being selected by an independent third-party. The mortgages, however, were selected by Paulson & Co., a hedge fund that also took a $15 million credit default swap position betting against the same residential mortgage-backed security.

The Epicurean Dealmaker puts the whole fuss wittily into perspective.

I have been reliably informed that something scandalous has recently been unearthed which involves a recurring target of Your Formerly Diligent Blogosopher’s ruminations. I even believe the word “fraud” has been bandied about liberally.

Given that a) I have been occupied elsewhere, and b) I really couldn’t give a flying fuck in a rolling donut whether the Great Vampire Squid of West Street (new digs, natch) vanishes into the singularity or not, I frankly have not paid much attention to the scandal beyond a cursory perusal of the headlines and a couple of blog posts. Honestly, life is just too short.

However, in the spirit of duty which compels Your Humble Servant to satisfy every bloggy whim my Peremptory Audience demands of me (and also because Natasha has temporarily left the hotel room to get more caviar and ice cubes), I will make the following brief observations:

The parties which Goldman supposedly defrauded were large and supposedly sophisticated financial institutions. The managers of these institutions were or should have been paid quite large sums of money to, among other things, protect their stakeholders from fraud, unethical sales practices, and general office supply stealing. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the knuckleheads at ACA or IKB. And, frankly, neither should you.

Whether the alleged fraud rises to the level of an actionable civil claim or simply represents unethical behavior is a question for a court of law. I am not qualified to judge, but the criteria which ultimately determine the nature of Goldman’s alleged offense will be legalistic ones, akin to judging exactly how many mortgage CDO investors’ brains can be fitted onto the head of a pin. While the answer may be definitive, it will not be particularly revealing to the vast majority of us who live outside the cloistered halls of Americus Litigalis.

I must agree with Felix Salmon and others, who claim that the real damage to Goldman Sachs has already been done, with its formerly venerated name being dragged publicly through the mud with an accusation of fraud. While this may have little effect on the majority of Goldman’s business on the sales and trading side of the house—where counterparties are generally too smart to raise a stink about the 800 pound gorilla of the global financial markets (and often too unprincipled themselves to care) — it should and will have an effect on Goldman’s extensive investment banking business with governments, corporations, and other entities.

The Squid has been living for years off the simple fact that, like the fabled IBM of yore, no-one ever got fired (or sued) for picking Goldman Sachs. That calculus has been changed, and I and every one of my red-blooded peers in the industry who is not currently drawing a paycheck signed by David Viniar are making damn sure that CEOs, CFOs, government officials, and Boards of Directors know it. For those of you who were wondering, this is the real reason why Goldman’s market capitalization has taken the vapors to the tune of more than ten billion dollars in response to an action likely to cost it no more than a tiny fraction of that amount: its reputation premium is quietly and rapidly evaporating. There is no shortage of competent investment banks and adequate investment bankers available to conduct the financing and M&A business of the global corporate and government economy. No longer can Goldman rest assured that it will win mandates simply because it is Goldman Sachs.

Hat tip to Walter Olson.

18 Nov 2008

“The Uses of Adversity”

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Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, contemplates the history of the famous firm laid out in Charles Ellis’s The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs, and connects the current Wall Street debacle to the wrong kind of leadership.

The rags-to-riches story—that staple of American biography—has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. “New York merchants preferred to hire country boys, on the theory that they worked harder, and were more resolute, obedient, and cheerful than native New Yorkers,” Irvin G. Wyllie wrote in his 1954 study “The Self-Made Man in America.” Andrew Carnegie, whose personal history was the defining self-made-man narrative of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was an advantage to being “cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty.” According to Carnegie, “It is not from the sons of the millionaire or the noble that the world receives its teachers, its martyrs, its inventors, its statesmen, its poets, or even its men of affairs. It is from the cottage of the poor that all these spring.”

Today, that interpretation has been reversed. Success is seen as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage. The mechanisms of social mobility—scholarships, affirmative action, housing vouchers, Head Start—all involve attempts to convert the poor from chronic outsiders to insiders, to rescue them from what is assumed to be a hopeless state. Nowadays, we don’t learn from poverty, we escape from poverty, and a book like Ellis’s history of Goldman Sachs is an almost perfect case study of how we have come to believe social mobility operates. Six hundred pages of Ellis’s book are devoted to the modern-day Goldman, the firm that symbolized the golden era of Wall Street. From the boom years of the nineteen-eighties through the great banking bubble of the past decade, Goldman brought impeccably credentialled members of the cognitive and socioeconomic élite to Wall Street, where they conjured up fantastically complex deals and made enormous fortunes. The opening seventy-two pages of the book, however, the chapters covering the Sidney Weinberg years, seem as though they belong to a different era. The man who created what we know as Goldman Sachs was a poor, uneducated member of a despised minority—and his story is so remarkable that perhaps only Andrew Carnegie could make sense of it.

Read the whole thing.


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