Goldman roiled by op-ed loses $2.2 billion for shareholders

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. saw $2.15 billion of its market value wiped out after an employee assailed Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein’s management and the firm’s treatment of clients, sparking debate across Wall Street.

The shares dropped 3.4 percent in New York trading yesterday, the third-biggest decline in the 81-company Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index, after London-based Greg Smith made the accusations in a New York Times op-ed piece.

Smith, who also wrote that he was quitting after 12 years at the company, blamed Blankfein, 57, and President Gary D. Cohn, 51, for a “decline in the firm’s moral fiber.” They responded in a memo to current and former employees, saying that Smith’s assertions don’t reflect the firm’s values, culture or “how the vast majority of people at Goldman Sachs think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, 84, whose “Volcker rule” would limit banks like New York-based Goldman Sachs from making bets with their own money, called Smith’s article “a radical, strong” piece. “I’m afraid it’s a business that leads to a lot of conflicts of interest,” Volcker said at a conference in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic magazine.

Goldman Sachs slid $4.17 to $120.37 yesterday, leaving the shares still up 33 percent this year. The stock advanced 0.5 percent to $120.98 at 9:33 a.m. in New York today.

Goldman Sachs Disagrees

David Wells, a spokesman for Goldman Sachs in New York, declined to comment beyond the contents of the memo and an earlier e-mailed statement in which the firm said it disagrees with the views expressed in the op-ed.

Executives at Goldman Sachs haven’t changed their behavior even after the firm paid $550 million to settle a fraud lawsuit with the Securities and Exchange Commission and was accused by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of misleading clients, Smith wrote. The company published a report in January 2011 with 39 recommendations on how to improve its business practices and client focus.

“Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets,’ sometimes over internal e-mail,” Smith wrote. “It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you.”

Darth Vader

The article was e-mailed across Wall Street. One employee at Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch division, a competitor to Goldman Sachs, said his team was told not to send copies to clients. Parodies such as “Why I am leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader” on thedailymash.co.uk and the borowitzreport.com’s “A Response from Goldman Sachs” also circulated.

“It does hurt them,” said Stephane Rambosson, managing partner at executive search firm Veni Partners in London and a former Citigroup Inc. banker. “The perception of the firm has gone down, and a lot of the winners of tomorrow are sitting back and thinking, ‘Do I want to be with Goldman?’”

There’s little evidence that the firm’s popularity with clients has been hurt by the SEC lawsuit, the Senate’s criticism or a recent ruling by Delaware Chancery Court Judge Leo Strine, who faulted Goldman Sachs’s handling of a conflict of interest. The bank won more business than any other in advising companies on takeovers and equity offerings last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Some clients of Goldman Sachs’s sales and trading department, the business in which Smith worked, said they are always cautious in dealings with Wall Street banks, understanding that their interests can diverge.

‘Prostitution in Vegas’

“The argument that Goldman has become increasingly profit- driven, sometimes at the expense of clients’ best interests, and that some employees use vulgar and disrespectful language, is hardly news,” Whitney Tilson, founder of hedge fund T2 Partners LLC, wrote in an e-mailed commentary. “What’s the next ‘shocking’ headline: ‘Prostitution in Vegas!?’”

Smith was an executive director in London, a title equal to vice president in New York. The firm employs almost 12,000 vice presidents, and most said in a recent internal survey that “the firm provides exceptional service” to clients, Blankfein and Cohn said in the memo. Smith, who sold U.S. equity derivatives to clients in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.

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