Goldman Sachs, Goldman Sachs, clicking in the votes?

February 11, 2010

» Goldman Sachs, Goldman Sachs, clicking in the votes?

Between 3.41pm and 3.57pm yesterday, little more than 24 hours after the Robin Hood tax campaign’s high-profile launch, supporters noticed a sudden spike in the number of people rejecting the plan in their online poll. More than 1,700 came from a Goldman-registered server, with the rest from what appeared to be a personal address. It was unclear whether the stunt involved an individual or a number of people. Goldman said: “We have just received this information, and we are investigating the matter fully.”

Someone at Goldman Sachs has far too much time on their hands. They may find that may not be a problem for much longer.

I doubt Goldman would particularly care what we voted for in a poll, and certainly wouldn’t waste more than ten minutes trying to influence it: even Goldman is firmly aware that, as an industry, most individuals rate us lower than the leech.

Hector Sants to step down from top FSA post

February 9, 2010

» Hector Sants to step down from top FSA post

The FSA faced criticism that it failed to prevent the credit crisis by not restricting risk-taking at banks such as Northern Rock, which built up huge liabilities.

Mr Sants led the fightback and oversaw an overhaul of banking regulation, saying banks “should be very frightened” of the regulator.

I think it is only regulators who think that the regulated do not fear them. On the other hand, I fear a toddler wandering around with a automatic machine gun for a teddy bear, it doesn’t mean I am in awe of their judgement.

Regulators are basically a bunch of people trying to control a system they have never experienced and do not understand. Occasionally bankers all get together and complain about:

  1. The regulator never actually doing anything, seriously, if you follow regulation very carefully and studiously (and spend a lot of money on it) then you get really tetchy when other people don’t and seem to get away with it scot-free;
  2. Them never understanding anything;
  3. How much worse than the FSA all the European regulators are;
  4. The lack of firm decisions;
  5. How much data we submit which is blatantly ignored.

Except we don’t like to say anything because you never quite know how the regulator is going to respond. And, really, we’re very British in that we don’t like to say anything (but, tsk, do you see what they’re wearing). Besides, that teddy bear might go off.

Former BP boss Lord Browne admits sexuality fears

February 8, 2010

» Former BP boss Lord Browne admits sexuality fears

Lord Browne did not reveal that he was gay until the end of his 40-year career at the oil giant.

A correction: he was forced to admit it when he was allegedly blackmailed about it, and then committed perjury.

Lord Browne said there was “a fear that was engendered in people’s hearts about being gay”.

“In corporate life it wasn’t something you talked about, and in the oil industry is was not something you did,” he said.

I do. But there again, I’m not running a FTSE-100 company and he was so perhaps I should focus on acting macho. Hmmm, whining for most of the afternoon that a good man is hard to find was not, perhaps, the best way to start my new straight image.

I may be a banker, but HE’S a journalist

February 5, 2010

I am a banker; I am scum. This is a given.I have accepted it. I am no longer in the closet. Others, though, remain there.

Two interesting examples of interactions with journalists (financial journalists, I have yet to come to the attention of the tabloid press) that our corporate communications department had …

“So, rumour has it you’re going to buy bank ‘X’.”
“We do not comment on this kind of market rumour.”
“So that’s a ‘yes’.”
“No, it’s a reflection of the fact that we don’t comment on this kind of market rumour.”
“So that’s definitely a yes. We’re going to print it.”
“Errrr …”
“Look, you really shouldn’t print it.”
“That’s definitely a yes.”
“You shouldn’t print it because it’s completely, utterly, unambiguously false. You’ll harm your reputation, our share price, artificially inflate the price of the stock, mislead the market and generally cause nothing but harm.”
“But I’ve written it now.”

And …

“So, we’re releasing this new product.”
“Sounds good.”
“Planning the press release next week.”
“I’m out next week.”
“Ri-i-i-i-ight. So could someone else write it?”
“Would you feel comfortable with us giving the story to another newspaper?”
“No. I’ll write a very negative story when I’m back.”
“So, we’ll delay the go-live.”

I do not think anyone actually thinks journalists are nice people, but I suspect most people think they tell the truth. Well they do. If it’s useful. Otherwise they, errr, fill in the gaps. Truth is so last century. Even this, I suspect, is not a surprise to most people.

What is surprising is how riled we do get about what the press reports. Given that significant proportions of it are untruth, manipulation, distortion or taken out-of-context it does surprise me that we bother.

Paulson repeats claims that Britain ‘screwed’ US over Lehman rescue

February 1, 2010

» Paulson repeats claims that Britain ‘screwed’ US over Lehman rescue

In On the Brink, the first book by a key player in America’s $700 billion banks bailout, Mr Paulson concentrates on the crazy months surrounding Lehman’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008.

Barclays negotiated to buy Lehman during the weekend before the bank’s collapse, but the talks fell apart after both countries put up obstacles to a rescue deal. The British bank eventually bought Lehman out of Chapter 11.

Yes, all those barriers. Surely buying the firm that is about to be the world’s biggest bankruptcy is not really that big a deal? Do we really need to vote on it?

Not being a shareholder, it’s hard to speak on their behalf. One of the few things I own is this laptop – if it had decided to buy Lehman Brothers (and, let’s face it, that would be weird in so many ways) then I might feel some resentment at not being consulted, but then my laptop screws me over in all kinds of ways so it wouldn’t surprise me if it was planning a short squeeze (oo-er) on Goldman as I write. Perhaps I should have a say, But then I am just the owner.

It is odd, a few years ago people thought Paulson was machinating on behalf of Goldman Sachs. Now it seems he was just a nutter.

That Mr Obama seemed like such a nice man (and not a crack whore in sight)

January 29, 2010

Mr Obama seems not to like the banks. You can hardly blame him. Banks’ reaction to news that they will be prevented from trading speculatively (prop trading), cut down in size, not allowed to be too big to fail, and be forcibly separated from their retail banking arms was strangely muted. Perhaps they are in shock. Perhaps they think it’s not going to happen.

This all goes back to the concept of “casino” banks. Banks lost stackloads of money because they gambled it all away like a crack whore with a misappropriated suitcase of laundered drug money.

In reality, the casino analogy is quite neat (not so sure about the crack whore comparison though), not because investment banks are gamblers, but because they are the casino. Banks put up capital and risk money, but like any casino they should always end up on top (back to the crack whore again?) as long they keep an eye on the numbers, are careful about the risk and don’t get over-excited … which they unambiguously failed to do. In that sense investment banks and retail banks are not that different: don’t be stupid and it’s a guaranteed money-earner, get stupid and, well, credit crunch all around. Much is said of their complexity, but banks are no more complicated than, say, a hospital – an institution most people feel more than qualified to comment on.

The separation of investment bank and retail bank is a red herring. In the UK it was the retail banks (Northern Rock, HBOS, RBS) which lost devastating amounts of money, on retail business! Follow this technical detail carefully: they loaned money to people who could not pay it back. Oops! But, strangely, the massive shift in regulation could actually be good for banks. By forcing a true political conflict and getting into the detail, the banks may force some people to be on their side and, even, win an occasional debate. It could be even better for London; most US banks have a huge London presence, and it should not take much to move there. Alistair Darling will be pleased. There is even speculation that some of the banks will turn themselves into hedge funds and so side-step the regulation.

Is this a good thing? After all, banks can be destructive, but then  so can hedge funds – anyone remember LTCM?* – but then so can building societies, and car companies, and pension funds, and tulip bulb markets, and … and crack whores? Well, they’re strictly a bilateral transaction, when it comes to getting fucked on a big scale, you need larger institutions.

* Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that went spectacularly wrong, losing almost $5bn in 1998. There were significant fears its bankruptcy would cause a chain reaction in the markets, and so the Fed organised a bail-out, funded by, errrr, investment banks.

Goldman staff have the last laugh on bonuses

January 27, 2010

» Goldman staff have the last laugh on bonuses

They’ve called it the $30bn speech – that’s the value wiped off shares in top US companies in the minutes after President Obama announced on Thursday that he was to introduce measures to reduce the size of financial institutions and limit their ability to take on risk.

Almost without exception, big bank shares headed south on the news, with stock in Goldman falling some 8% Thursday and Friday. But Goldman staff are doubtless delighted at the effect Obama’s statement had on the firm’s shares, as the award price used for calculating the number of shares that go into individual bonus packages (as deferred equity) is thought to have been based on Friday’s close. In other words, thanks to the President’s obsession with bankers and their bonuses, Goldman staff will actually receive around 8% more stock in their bonus sacks than they would have before he opened his mouth. Such is The Law of Unintended Consequences.

It seems too neat to be true – which probably means that it isn’t. It’s a sign of our obsession with Goldman that a speech which implies the end of its business model, has its stock fall significantly and put its very future in doubt is seen as being in its favour.

The blood-sucking vampire squid

January 22, 2010

… 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.

Goldman says reports of CEO testimony improper

January 17, 2010

» Goldman says reports of CEO testimony improper

There are two ways to interpret Goldman Sachs’ activity here:

  • They ruthlessly and unpleasantly sold products they knew were going south
  • They hedged their position

Personally, I believe the latter. Mostly because, as a broker, Goldman’s main job is to help its clients buy or sell the assets the client wishes to buy and sell. Deciding an investment strategy is the client’s job (or their adviser, or asset manager, or whatever). Judging the quality of the assets is the job of a credit ratings agency. Obtaining the assets is Goldman’s job.

If you go to a fishmonger and want to buy salmon – and the fishmonger tells you he thinks salmon is disgusting and you’d be better off going for cod – then you may be wondering when you invited the fishmonger to lunch or asked him for advice on your menu (you may do many other things, from follow his advice or, if you are a serial killer, batter him to death [batter – food pun, ha ha] with a lump of fish, but you get my point). You want salmon, he sells you salmon. He then buys more salmon from his supplier to restock – and his activities of buying and then selling at the same time are unlikely to lead to him being denounced by, well, everybody.

The fact is, investment banking is not a commune. Some hedge fund wants to go long CDOs or the latest cool stocks? Let them. Just don’t expect the broker to do the same thing. We don’t expect our doctors to get our illness, lawyers to become a party to our contracts, estate agents to move in with us. Brokers are risk averse. They’re not going to pin their entire profits on their clients’ investment strategies or even ask them what they are. Many businesses are the same – they are there to help you buy and sell, they are not there to share your tastes. It is when those riskless businesses screw-up, like Lehman, that things get very fishy indeed.

Sorry is the hardest word to say (at least, meaningfully)

January 15, 2010

I am, apparently, overpaid. My employer does not think so, I am less certain, the public is really rabidly, absolutely, 100% doubt-free need-no-truth-drug call-me-a-liar-if-an-atom-of-doubt-crosses-my-mind certain. This is odd, because they do not know me and most people find my job difficult to describe. However, their basic assumption that I am not saving the world is safe, so this is hardly a Batman-esque public anger at the anti-hero ironic situation; other assumptions that I am as evil as a James Bond super-villain probably need further scrutiny in the court of public opinion.

It has been a tough week to be a banker. Well, no. It’s been a tough week to be a solider, or a Haitian, but bankers? I appreciate the public isn’t exactly in love with the banks (which is a shame because they used to be soooooo close) but it has been tough in the same way that the coffee shop running out of your favourite syrup has been tough. The investment banks are outraged but are not saying so for fear of being lynched (an unusually self-aware move): the world, strangely, did not tremble.

The rest of the script is supposed to work this way: I express remorse at mistakes made, look awkward on the subject of bonuses but insist they are necessary, try not to be too obnoxious and hope it all goes away.

Except I am not sorry. I did not take the government’s dollar. I am happy with the salary I am paid (although to be fair, I still have the mental age of a teenager so find being paid at all is a somewhat perplexing experience) and my employer is happy to pay it (as are others would-be employers). I did not create a housing bubble, encourage mortgage dealers to lend money they would never, ever get back. I did not gave credit ratings to unsound securities. I did not take out a mortgage I would never repay. I did not speculate on house prices (either by buying personally, or trading). I did not create regulators who are too proud to admit they do not understand the markets. I did not change how I viewed risk dependent upon my salary (or my bonus). I did not put my money in Icesave accounts. I spend some of my salary and when I do I try to benefit others. I pay tax. I try to do the right thing. I am not sorry.