Inside Story Americas
Is Wall Street beyond reform?
The high-profile exit of an investment banker has raised questions about the state of reform in the US financial sector.
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2012 11:21

It is true that Wall Street executives come and go. But it is the manner of the latest high-profile exit that has made many sit up and take notice.

In an open resignation letter in the New York Times, Greg Smith, the former Goldman Sachs executive, decried what he called the "toxic and destructive" working environment at the firm.

"What is so powerful about what [Smith] said is that it exactly confirms what all these other studies have found, what the 2010 senate hearing had found… and traced out exactly and precisely how Goldman Sachs was ripping off its clients."

- Marcus Stanley, an economics professor

Smith said that workers at the investment bank were focused on milking clients for all they can, and that staff often talked about "ripping clients off".

The damning resignation letter came just a day after so-called bank "stress tests" revealed that financial firms were generally in fine health following their brush with disaster.

Smith's comments have made many wonder if Goldman Sachs – and the industry as a whole – has learned any lessons from the 2008 crisis and changed its ways.

The investment bank was heavily penalised for selling toxic mortgages to investors leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. It also received money from the US government's subsequent multi-billion dollar bank bailout.

In his parting shot to Goldman Sachs in the New York Times, Smith said:

"The interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.

He went on to say: "It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as 'muppets', sometimes over internal e-mail."

"Goldman Sachs passed the stress test with flying colours just the day before Smith's letter whereas a regional bank like SunTrust is struggling with this… The big guys have more money to comply with the regulations, to find loopholes and other things."

- John Berlau, an economist

Meanwhile, a number of Goldman Sach's employees have gone on to influence the US monetary policy:

  • Robert Rubin became the treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, the former US president, after spending 26 years at Sachs as a board member and co-chairman.
  • Henry Paulson, a former chief executive at Sachs who started with the company in 1974, was treasury secretary under George W Bush.
  • Mark Patterson, a former Sachs lobbyist, was named the chief of staff for Timothy Geithner, the treasury secretary under Barack Obama.

Now the conservative-leaning SuperPAC American Future Fund is running ads against Obama, criticising the president for what the group is calling his hypocritical stance on Wall Street.

And as long as the US government is so reliant on the Wall Street firms it means to regulate, can meaningful reform occur? Has Wall Street become too big to reform? Or is there a need instead for a radical reordering of the global financial system?

Joining Shihab Rattansi on Inside Story Americas to discuss these questions are guests: John Berlau, an economist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Marcus Stanley from Americans for Financial Reform; and Felix Salmon, a financial journalist with Reuters.

Jefferson County is an example of Goldman Sachs taking unsophisticated investors, selling them derivatives products that they don't need and are quite harmful, pocketing a lot of money and then letting the investor lose lots of money… the worst it is for the client the more they make.

Felix Salmon, a Reuters financial reporter

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