Somehow, even after all we’ve been through, I still don’t connect Wall Street types with “getting religion,” as our forbears used to say. Yet, here is Lloyd C. Blankfein, CEO of mighty Goldman Sachs, confounding expectations.
He gave a speech the other day to the Council of Institutional Investors that started with a mea culpa. “…much of the past year has been deeply humbling for my industry. We held ourselves up as the experts, and the loss of public confidence from failing to live up to the expectations that we created will take years to rebuild. Worse, decisions on compensation and other actions taken and not taken, particularly at banks that rapidly lost a lot of shareholder value, look self-serving and greedy in hindsight.”
Perhaps this is the place to mention that Blankfein received comp valued at nearly $43 million in 2008, according to the New York Times. This was down from almost $54 million in each of the two previous years. I don’t know about you, but if I were sitting on that kind of comp I’d probably find it easier to own up to past mistakes.
However, it’s also true that Goldman’s executive management team “elected not to receive a bonus in 2008, even though the firm produced a substantial profit,” as Blankfein stated. But this was due “in part” to the fact that “compensation continues to generate a lot of controversy and anger,” he said. “We recognize that having TARP money creates an important context for compensation.”
In any case what Blankfein did in his speech is state that evaluating the value a person creates and the compensation that goes with it “must be made on a multi-year basis to get a fuller picture of the effect of an individual’s decisions.”
He further said: “No one should get compensated with reference to only his or her own P&L. Compensation should encourage real teamwork and discourage selfish behavior, including excessive risk-taking, which hurts the longer-term interests of the firm and its shareholders.”
What about regulation? “For policymakers and regulators, it should be clear that self-regulation has its limits. At the very least, fixing a system-wide problem, elevating standards or driving the industry to a collective response requires effective central regulation and the convening power of regulators.”
Then he added that “all pools of capital that depend on the smooth functioning of the financial system, and are large enough to be a burden on it in a crisis, should be subject to some degree of regulation. Yes, that includes large hedge funds and private equity funds.”
This sounds good. Really good. And I find myself wanting to believe Blankfein, in part because of his background. He comes from Brooklyn, as do I, and grew up in the Linden Houses, or what we call “the projects” in NYC. His father was a postal worker. He wasn’t born into wealth, in other words. He worked his way up to it.
It may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m hoping that because of his background he has an inkling of how furious all “the little people” are at the outsized compensation that Wall Street plutocrats awarded themselves and which was based on something as fluffy as meringue.
But despite the nice-sounding words, it’s still the action that counts, isn’t it?
So, Lloyd, let’s consider this speech your first shot across the bow of your industry and its culture. Now’s the time to bring the legendary firepower of Goldman behind these reforms that you enumerated and which you said are needed “to repair our financial system and reinvigorate our regulatory structure.”
You’re from Brooklyn, so I know you know how to play hardball. Go to it.