On Wednesday, the New York Times published the resignation letter of Greg Smith, a (former) derivatives salesman at Goldman Sachs. Smith, a 12-year employee, says he’s leaving because the GS work environment has become “toxic and destructive.”
My first reaction: plus ça change…
In 1989, Michael Lewis, of later Moneyball fame, wrote Liar’s Poker, an expose of the culture of cutthroat competition and macho banality of Salomon Brothers while he was a bond salesman there. Salomon, you may recall, had to be rescued by Warren Buffett after top executives colluded to illegally manipulate prices in the US government bond market. What’s left of the firm now resides inside Citigroup.
Yes, Moneyball shows that Lewis is sometimes reluctant to let facts stand in the way of a good read. Nevertheless, I think Liar’s Poker is an important book. In fact, I’ve asked all the securities analysts and portfolio managers I’ve trained since its publication to read it.
Three points from the Lewis account still stand out to me:
–the strong internal pressure for salesmen to get unattractive, illiquid bonds off the company’s books by persuading some gullible customer to buy them
–a sketch of the growing dismay of a certain client as the realization dawns that he has been sold a toxic security that he can’t resell and which will get him fired when his bosses figure out what he’s done (why they don’t already know is beyond me)
–the feverish rush to unload dud bonds on a client the brokerage community figures is so unskilled that he’ll soon be fired. Like blood in the water to sharks.
Welcome to Wall Street.
an adversarial relationship
What the Michael Lewis book and the Greg Smith letter bring out most strongly, to my mind, is the simple truth that the relationship between broker and client is a commercial one where the interests of the two sides are not aligned.
–Every time you trade, you think you know more than the other party. You think any security you buy is undervalued and that the other side of the trade will give up future profits by selling it to you at today’s price. You expect anyone you sell to to lose money by taking your offer. You also expect the broker to act as the counterparty if he can;t find someone else. It’s like baseball. You take the field expecting to beat the other side. You’ll win; they’ll lose.
–Investment managers earn higher fees by having superior performance, which helps attract new assets; brokers get paid in direct relationship with the amount of trading the client does. Experience shows, however, that for most managers superior performance and the amount of trading are inversely related. So, what’s good for the manager isn’t particularly good for the broker, and vice versa.
In addition, each side markets itself to the other. That is, each tries to replace the cold commercial structure of the relationship with a warmer “like me, trust me” one. That’s partly because we’re all decent people. It’s partly so the other side will continue to do business with you after you’ve traded them into the dust. And it’s also partly because it’s a way of gaining a competitive advantage, of tilting the ratio of compensation to services in your favor. In my experience, brokers are much more successful in getting clients to deliver excess compensation than clients are in getting excess services without payment.
the business has changed
A generation ago, the principal business of investment banks was providing comprehensive financial services and advice to companies of all sizes–everything from working capital finance to strategy to mergers and acquisitions. For small- and medium-sized firms, its investment banker may well have held a seat on the board of directors.
Not any more. In today’s world, however, most firms have an in-house staff of financial professionals who do most of this.
At the same time as businesses based on building long-term relationships of trust have eroded, the trading business, which focuses on rapid-fire, reflex-action, individual transactions, has exploded in size and scope.
As the composition of company profits for brokers has changed, so too has the character of those who rise to positions of control. The traditional investment bankers, whose temperament is to focus on long-term relationships, are out. High skilled traders, who focus on short-term profits, are in.
playing hardball vs. cheating
Where to from here?
The huge profits that trading businesses have generated during the past decade are already spurring changes. Institutions are already shifting to electronic crossing networks, where fees are much smaller and where the activity won’t be seen by a broker’s proprietary trading desk. Retail investors are doing more business with discount brokers. They’re increasingly shifting, I think, to passive products like ETFs as well.
Institutions have long memories. In cases where they believe a broker has crossed the line between aggressively competing and cheating, they simply won’t do business with them anymore.
there’s something about Europe, too
Did it really take Greg Smith 12 years to figure out what brokers do for a living? …or was it his final year, in Europe, that changed his mind? Why is it that the losing end in all the toxic credit default swaps was a European bank?
business has changed away from long term repationships—now cos do for selves, change of control toward traders in brokerage firms