The Goldman guy

In the past 24 hours there's been a lot of publicity about Greg Smith's opinion piece in the NY Times yesterday about why he's leaving Goldman Sachs:

This guy started out awfully naive if he ever thought that Goldman was ever about anything other than making money. No one ever goes to Wall Street for any reason other than to get rich.

That noble-sounding saying about Goldman putting its clients first is a clever way to attract and retain business, but that's all it is: a pretty motto for public consumption.

Back when I was there, from 1984 to 1996, another of the firm's mantras was, "Be long term greedy rather than short term greedy." But I rarely saw evidence of anybody doing anything other than doing what was best for Goldman, whether short term or long.

Another thing we'd constantly hear internally was how Goldman prized teamwork and wanted only team players. But the people who did best there -- as is true across corporate America -- were those most skilled at backstabbing and other forms of corporate gamesmanship: the opposite of team players.

The character of the firm has not changed, as Greg Smith would have it. It used to be, is, and always will be, about making money as much money as possible.

Goldman used to get far better publicity than it deserved. Back in the 80's and 90's, from the way the press talked about the firm, you'd have thought its employees were a group of extraordinarily smart people who wanted nothing more than to make sure that Wall Street conducted itself honorably. I always had a hard time reconciling the place I read about to the place I worked. (Full disclosure: I did not go there out of a sense of public service.)

These days, however, the firm probably gets worse publicity than it deserves, mostly because of its success and influence. Trust me, every other financial firm on the Street would love nothing more than to be a great big vampire squid wrapped around the face of America and jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. If they could only figure out how.

From a moral standpoint, Goldman is really no worse than any other financial institution. This isn't setting the bar high, but what do you expect? That people pursue careers at Citigroup or Deutsche Bank or Morgan Stanley or Goldman because there are no openings at the Peace Corps?

To believe that you'd have to be as naive as Greg Smith.