The Goldman Sachs Saga

By W.T. “Bill” McKibben


“Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”George Santayana


Marcus Goldman and his family launched their company in 1869, building a reputation highlighted in 1896 with an invitation to join the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and in 1906 to manage the initial public offering (IPO) for Sears Roebuck.


A couple decades later the partners launched Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation. It was basically a Ponzi scheme that made tons of money before the bottom fell out in 1929. At that point former office boy, Sidney Weinberg, took the helm and spent a quarter century rebuilding their reputation. In 1956 Goldman Sachs landed the IPO of the century, Ford Motor Company.


Even as Weinberg rebuilt Goldman’s reputation, however, others in the firm lost sight of their role: putting the Capital into Capitalism. Along with much of the banking world, Goldman Sachs moved increasingly into trading, crossing a line long considered a conflict of interest; a world of strange financial products, often with no societal value. They, of course, didn’t see it that way given the astronomical amounts the firm pocketed.


This world rapidly evolved into little more than a gambling den. The virtual Casino on Wall Street had become a reality. The bankers’ political clout (read contributions) generated legislation in 1992 and 2000 exempting derivatives –including their high risk cousins, synthetic derivatives and credit default swaps– from gambling laws.


From there on it was a race to disaster. In 2003 legendary investor Warren Buffett warned that derivatives could become “Financial weapons of mass destruction;” a warning soon to become fact. They became a root cause of the global financial sector collapse.


In the midst of this Goldman Sachs got involved in a smarmy deal. The SEC says they peddled some scummy bundles of mortgage derivatives to pension fund managers, European banks, and other large “sophisticated” investors. Legally the case is said to be on shaky ground. But why would Goldman Sachs (and other banks) ever let it get onto legal ground?


We don’t know if the course they have been following is legal, but it is anything but ethical. Under Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) publically traded companies are required to offer those in their employ ethics training. It would be hard to imagine how anyone involved in this high flying flimflam could have considered any part of it ethical. Let alone how Goldman Sachs’ management could believe they fulfilled their SOX mandated ethics training obligation.


In a business built on trust and reputation, how could Goldman Sachs forget how long it took Sidney Weinberg to restore their reputation when it tanked in the 1920s? Or a famous quote from their largest shareholder Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”