March 16, 2012
The Good, Bad and Ugly of Capitalism
By JOE NOCERA NY Times
On Wednesday, Howard Schultz, the chairman and chief executive of Starbucks, will take the podium at his company’s annual meeting and talk about the importance of morality in business.
Yes, morality. I don’t know that he’ll use that exact word. But there can be little doubt that in recent years, especially, Schultz has been practicing a kind of moral capitalism. Profitability is important, he believes, but so is treating customers, employees and coffee growers fairly. Recently, Schultz has defined Starbucks’s mission even more broadly, creating programs that have nothing at all to do with selling coffee but are aimed at helping the country recover from the Great Recession.
In the speech, Schultz plans to make a direct link between Starbucks’s record profits and this larger societal role the company has embraced. He will make the case that companies that earn the country’s trust will ultimately be rewarded with a higher stock price. “The value of your company is driven by your company’s values,” he plans to say.
I bring up Schultz and Starbucks because this week we saw a different kind of American capitalism on display — the “rip your eyeballs out” capitalism of Goldman Sachs. In the corporate equivalent of the shot heard round the world, Greg Smith, a former Goldman executive, wrote an Op-Ed article in The Times as he was walking out the door in which he described a corporate culture that values only one thing: making as much money as possible, by whatever means necessary. According to Smith, Goldman views clients as pigeons to be plucked rather than customers to be valued. Goldman traders vie to see how much profit they can make at the expense of their clients, even if it means selling them products that are sure to “blow up” eventually. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” Smith wrote.
In the wake of Smith’s article, plenty of people raced to Goldman’s defense. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire mayor, whose company sells Goldman expensive computer terminals, went to Goldman Sachs’s headquarters in a show of support. The editors of his eponymous firm published an editorial that mercilessly mocked Smith. They and others pointed out that Goldman clients are big boys who can take care of themselves. Even some clients agreed. “You better not turn your back on them,” one Goldman customer told The Financial Times. Yet, he added, “They are also highly competent.”
But there’s a reason Smith’s article has struck such a chord. It is the same reason that Goldman Sachs, despite having come through the financial crisis largely unscathed, has become the target of such astonishing venom, described as a vampire squid and the like. The reason is that the kind of amoral, eat-what-you-kill capitalism that Goldman represents is one that most Americans instinctively find repugnant. It confirms the suspicions many people have that Wall Street has become a place where sleazy practices are the norm, and where generating profits in ways that are detrimental to society is the ticket to a successful career and a multimillion-dollar bonus.
Goldman bundled terrible subprime mortgages that helped bring about the financial crisis. Smelling trouble, it unloaded its worst mortgage bonds by cramming them down the throats of its clients. It secretly allowed a short-seller, John Paulson, to pick some especially toxic mortgage bonds that were bundled and sold to Goldman clients — with Paulson profiting by taking the “short” side of the trade. Just recently, Goldman had to admit that one of its investment bankers had acted as a merger adviser to the El Paso Corporation while holding stock in Kinder Morgan, which was trying to acquire El Paso. It would be hard to imagine a more blatant conflict — yet no one at Goldman bothered to tell El Paso.
These practices may not be illegal, but can you really say they represent the values that we want to see on Wall Street or in our corporations? I can’t.
And Goldman shouldn’t either. What has been amazing is that, despite three years of nonstop criticism — including Congressional hearings and settlements with the government — Goldman has not changed one iota. That is another reason Smith’s article resonated. It confirmed that suspicion as well. Goldman’s response to every controversy these past three years has been to bury them in a blizzard of public relations. And this has been its response to the Smith article, releasing, for instance, a companywide e-mail from Lloyd Blankfein, its chief executive, insisting that Goldman does, too, care about clients. Consistently, Goldman’s attitude has been: This, too, shall pass.
So far, though, it hasn’t. And maybe, just maybe, it won’t. Maybe the time has come for Blankfein to watch what Howard Schultz is doing at Starbucks. Sometimes, the best way to do well really is to do good.