Speaking truth to power

GREG SMITH: I left because things had veered so far from what I actually believed was right that I could have just left and walked out and said nothing about it. But I would have felt that was not the right thing to do...

Anderson Cooper: Why would any Wall Street bank in the future ever hire you?

Greg Smith: I was not doing this in order to get hired at another Wall Street bank. I really thought this through and thought it would be a constructive thing to do. And while Wall Street doesn't like to be criticised, I think the criticism is warranted.

(Transcript from 60 Minutes, 21 October 2012)

I see nothing more than an opportunist here looking to take advantage of an anti-financial services environment to his own benefit. Period.

Angry? Yes I’m angry. What gets lost again are all of the honest people. Goldman Sachs is not the enemy. Financial Services is not the enemy. Let’s fix things – not try to make them worse and more divisive.

(Andrew Klausner, Forbes.com, 22 October 2012)

Conversation about the book has become a referendum on Greg Smith as a person...

Smith’s lack of perspective about his own abilities may have carried over into his judgment about an institution whose purpose is to profit on financial transactions.

(Bloomberg Businessweek, 22 October 2012)

Smith, by the way, remained happily employed at Goldman making as much as $500 000 in the years prior to the financial crisis – which I think we can all agree was a low point for ethical behaviour on Wall Street and at Goldman – but not the low point in tell-all Wall Street book sell-outs.

(Forbes.com, 21 October 2010)

Remember Greg Smith? He was the guy who put an op-ed in the New York Times called Why I’m Leaving Goldman Sachs earlier this year. He accused his employer of losing its moral compass in pursuit of profits.

I don’t know a thing about Greg Smith beyond what I’ve read in the media. The American financial press give potted bios that evidently find his provenance – and ping-pong – hilarious (“Smith... pulled himself up with hard work all the way from South Africa. With the same determination that led him to ping pong glory at the Maccabiah Games, he got a scholarship to go to America and Stanford University. He is smart enough to be able to tell us that he was a Rhodes Scholar finalist!” Forbes.com, 14 March 2012)

This rouses my ire on two scores: being a South African is neither funny nor contemptible, thank you very much... and table tennis is a serious sport (I had an uncle who was a champ).

In the interview I watched he came across as a young man who had a kind of moral epiphany, and acted with decent intentions.

But there’s been no independent investigation, so the facts are unknown: it’s entirely possible that he is what he’s being depicted as, a man who saw his career stalling and decided to aim for a book deal. (Companies like GS do business with vast sums of ‘public’ money – like pension funds – and have significant impact on the global economy, which would make an independent enquiry in the public interest, I feel.)

If his intentions are not honest, he must have the hide of something a lot tougher than a rhinoceros. The big guns have been rolled out against him, and as is so often the case with whistleblowers, it’s his character and work record that is the target.

I’d like to see an assessment of his just-released book (Why I Left Goldman Sachs, Grand Central) by someone who is not intimately involved in Wall Street, who hasn’t spent years cultivating contacts and becoming enmeshed in that world. (I think the use of the term ‘sell-out’ in that last quote above is a bit of a Freudian slip, don’t you? “You nasty little traitor, you.”)

Many financial journalists seem cynical about the fact that it took him all of 12 years to act on his principles. But if he’s 33 now, then he was 21 when he started working at GS – few of us are driven by moral principles in our twenties.  And it’s very hard to give up the good life on a principle, isn’t it?

Speaking truth to power so often turns out to be hardest on the truth-teller. You have to be prepared to be savaged, personally and professionally – and you’re always up against entities with vast resources and clout (governments, defence forces, huge corporate).

All of that is focused on you, frequently at the expense of the issue you raised. Which is unfortunate – as in this case, it’s often an issue that could do with airing.

There are a lot of people – a helluva lot – around the globe who won’t agree with Klausner’s assessment that ‘financial services is not the enemy’ at this precise time in world history. 

It will take a great deal of transparency (and change) to convince them that certain parts of the industry are truly honest. Whatever his real intentions, I like Smith’s stated desire to “fuel a public conversation about what went wrong ethically, and how to fix it” (Huffington Post, 22 October 2012).

I hope that we can have that conversation – about a whole industry worldwide, rather than just one company.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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