Wall Street conventional wisdom holds that a sterling reputation is crucial to winning business and keeping clients. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. may be the exception, according to a new Bloomberg survey.
Fifty-four percent of respondents to the global poll of traders, investors and analysts conducted May 9-10 have an unfavorable opinion of the New York-based bank, more than double the negative rating for JPMorgan Chase & Co. Yet a month after a U.S. Senate report said Goldman Sachs misled clients, 78 percent of those surveyed said the accusations will either have no effect on the firm or will harm its reputation without driving away customers.
“Investors will continue to put their money with capable institutions, regardless of their history or morality,” said an e-mail from poll participant Christian Contino, 27, who works as a consultant for the investment-management section of the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development. The bank has “very capable spin doctors who will be able to downplay any negativity.”
Stephen Cohen, a spokesman for the company, declined to comment on the poll results and reactions.
Goldman Sachs, led by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein, survived the financial crisis, unlike some smaller rivals, and has been a target of criticism ever since. The bank, the fifth-biggest in the U.S. by assets, agreed to pay $550 million last year to settle a suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission that alleged Goldman Sachs misled buyers of a mortgage-linked investment the firm created in 2007.
The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Michigan Democrat Carl M. Levin, used Goldman Sachs as a case study in its two-year examination of the financial crisis. When the subcommittee released its 640-page report last month, Levin said that Goldman Sachs misled clients and Congress about the firm’s bets on the housing market.
“The testimony we gave was truthful and accurate and this is confirmed by the subcommittee’s own report,” Lucas van Praag, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, said at the time.
“It seems unlikely that Goldman Sachs has to expect further consequences,” said an e-mail from Daniel Horak, 26, a trader at Erste Sparinvest KAG in Vienna, Austria, who replied in the poll that he had a “mostly unfavorable” view of the firm and that he didn’t expect Goldman Sachs to lose customers.
Levin and Oklahoma Senator Thomas A. Coburn, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, formally referred their report to the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which are reviewing the findings.
Impact on Reputation
The company was viewed less favorably than other banks by the 1,263 poll respondents. While 54 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Goldman Sachs, 25 percent felt the same about JPMorgan, 49 percent for Citigroup Inc. and 48 percent for Bank of America Corp. Thirty-five percent had an unfavorable view of Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG, which was also singled out in the U.S. Senate subcommittee report.
Blankfein, 56, has tried to burnish Goldman Sachs’s image. After the SEC filed its lawsuit last year, he established a committee to study the firm’s business standards. The committee’s report in January made 39 recommendations, including changing financial disclosures and providing simpler explanations to clients about conflicts of interest.
Goldman Sachs also began an advertising campaign in September that emphasizes the firm’s role in job creation and alternative energy.
“We have to regain the trust of the public, we have no choice,” Blankfein said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria that aired on CNN on May 2, 2010, according to a transcript. “We can’t survive without people thinking well of us,” he said, because “our business is a confidence business.”
The firm’s shares dropped $5.13, or 3.5 percent, to $142.75 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, their lowest closing price since Sept. 2. The price remains below the $184.27 close on April 15, 2010, the day before the SEC filed its lawsuit. Richard Bove, an analyst at Rochdale Securities LLC, recommended today that investors sell Goldman Sachs shares, citing increased pressure on the U.S. Justice Department to bring criminal charges against the firm.
Thirty-six percent of respondents said they were “generally bullish” on Goldman Sachs stock six months from now, while 32 percent were “generally bearish.” The rest had no opinion. That divided sentiment is about where it was in June 2010.
The company’s profit slid 38 percent last year as revenue tumbled. Goldman Sachs ranks third this year among advisers on global takeovers after coming in second during 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“Our shareholders, our clients, have been very, very supportive,” Blankfein said in the CNN interview. “They know the essence of who we are, and frankly I think we still enjoy a reputation with those -- a good reputation with those key constituent groups.”
Goldman Sachs was 25th, two notches below JPMorgan Chase, in an annual ranking of the world’s most admired companies by Fortune magazine. The results are based on a survey of top executives and directors from Fortune 1000 companies, Global 50 companies and other major non-U.S. companies, as well as financial analysts, between October and December, according to the Hay Group, which conducts the survey.
Goldman Sachs’s connections with government officials were cited by some respondents to the Bloomberg survey as a reason the firm is unlikely to be affected by the Senate report.
“The regulatory capture by the likes of Goldman Sachs is a done deal -- it is an open secret that GS alum spread through the tentacles of public office,” said Arijit Banik, 42, a senior manager in economics, pensions and hedging for RBC Dexia in Toronto, in an e-mail. The firm “remains an inexorable cog in the machinery of campaign financing in the U.S. electoral system, where money talks.”
Goldman Sachs and its employees donated $31.4 million to U.S. political parties between 1989 and 2010, more than any other financial institution and the fourth-highest amount of any organization, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group.
The UN fund’s Contino, who like 32 percent of poll respondents said he had a favorable view of Goldman Sachs, was also among the 42 percent who think that Blankfein will remain chairman a year from now. Twenty-seven percent didn’t think Blankfein would still have the job in a year and 31 percent had no opinion.
“Lloyd Blankfein has done a great job over the past five years,” Contino said. “If there has to be a fall guy, it won’t be him.”
Main Street Ire
Noah Shapiro, director of risk management at Optim Energy LLC in Irving, Texas, was one of the poll respondents who said Blankfein won’t be chairman in a year.
“Goldman has significantly drawn the ire of Main Street as being the poster child of the inexorable greed that fomented the credit crisis,” Shapiro, 34, said. “Blankfein will need to fall on his sword as not only the head of Goldman Sachs, but also as a chief luminary on the Street, to blot away the stain of manipulative financial engineering.”
The quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll of investors, traders and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
“Opinions on Goldman Sachs are the same the world around, with very little difference across the U.S., Europe or Asia,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co.