The blood-sucking vampire squid

… or Goldman Sachs, as they are more affectionately known (surely being blood-sucking and a vampire is a bit of a truism?). The alternative moniker came from Rolling Stone magazine, not a publication widely noted for insight into financial affairs, but that’s just being picky. Some may consider it a slander on vampire squids.

So is this awe (and disgust) shared by those within the industry? After all, relationships in this industry are a bit like those in a soap: constantly changing, complicated and sometimes stretching credulity.

Well, no. But is this surprising? They’re not like MI5 or the Mafia: you are actually allowed to leave once you enter. And when they leave, they join competing firms … and vice-versa. Do these ex-Goldmanites have an aura (the mystical kind, not the strange sensation that pre-empts an epileptic fit)? A strange other-worldly knowingness which can be applied to financial markets with profitable consequences? Tentacles? Well, no. I’ve found them disappointingly dim and, more irritating, lacking in subtlety (shouting at people seems to be their only method of managing people). When I speak to them as competitors / clients / cooperator is there a bit of a lisp from their vampiric canines? Well, no.

I once went for an interview there (the following may contain elements of fabrication mixed with elements of truth, such as the fact people were speaking):

“Ninja, you’ve come across well in all the interviews, but I just get the impression you want a job. You should want to work for Goldman.”
“That seems reasonable. You are just another investment bank.”
“But we’re Goldman.”
“Indeed. My life would be an unhappy one if my only wish in life was to work for yourself, as currently I do not.”
“But we’re Goldman.”

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. You can dismiss the rest of this blog as sour grapes, but some things are undeniable: they’ve made loads of money and they are perennially successful. So if it’s not their people, perhaps it’s their culture? And on that subject, there are three commonly raised “facts”:

  • They subject people to hundreds (well, maybe not hundreds, but more than average number) of interviews before hiring them;
  • They have a “dead wood” policy of trimming a certain number of people every year, i.e. making it easy to get rid of poor performers;
  • They’re a giant hedge fund with a bit of customer business attached to the side.

I’ve never really bought the first item as a good thing, if true. In fact it makes them sound as if they have Alzheimer’s. The second one, though, does make me wonder. Firing someone is a difficult thing to do, aside from the purely humane there’s the problem of being without a member of staff for several months, the bad morale and the possibility you may not be allowed to hire a replacement.  The idea of having it built into the culture would overcome a lot of these advantages and would make it a lot easier to get rid of poor performers. It is, though, ruthless, unhelpful, morally ambiguous, and quite possibly not true, as well as being far from certain to succeed: a climate of fear has its downsides, although, I suppose, if you’re supremely self-confident then you will think it will never happen to you.

As for the final “fact”: I am not convinced. When I bump into Goldman as a competitor their actions seem to be more than just a sham … or, at least, a very good sham with made-up clients and everything, and really this is heading towards paranoia.

There is one other possibility: luck. Are Goldman just lucky? I doubt it’s that simple. Will they continue to be “lucky”. Perhaps. But now their reputation as the investment bank is coming back to haunt them, perhaps it’s not the kind of luck they’re after.


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