May the Lloyd be with you

That’s how my friend Jeff described the most recent flap over a banker allegedly using religion to defend the industry.

If you haven’t caught it, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was quoted in the Sunday London Times as saying “we have a social purpose,” in referring to the banking industry. What caught everyone’s eye was the headline: “I’m doing ‘God’s work’. Meet Mr Goldman Sachs,” something sure to inflame already raw feelings against bankers worldwide. And this comes after John Varley (the CEO of the soon-to-be-considered-vampire-squid of Britain when it shows record profits) invoked religion in talking of banking – in an inappropriate defence of British banks at church.

Quite frankly, Blankfein’s comments are not what I would consider good PR for the banking industry or Goldmans in light of the recent flap over Goldmans’ Lord Griffiths’ inflammatory comments on how Britons must:

tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all.

Remember, this is the same company pejoratively labelled Government Sachs and a vampire squid.

But, what did Lloyd Blankfein actually say? Here’s the quote from the Times.

Luckily for him and his firm, he’s a damn good salesman. He starts with a little humility. He understands that "people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape" at bankers’ actions. Goldman played its part in the meltdown that almost destroyed the global financial system. It, like most other banks, lent too much money, made its first quarterly loss for more than a decade last year and ended up taking bail-out cash from Washington. "I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer," he says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. "We’re very important," he says, abandoning self-flagellation. "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."

Do you see anything in this quote about God’s work? I clicked on this article expecting to see something outrageous of the Lord Griffiths variety. I don’t. So, why is the headline pointing to these statements as ‘God’s Work?’ I think the headline is reckless and misleading. Its sole purpose is to inflame anti-Goldman sentiment. The language of the article is construed to cast Blankfein and Goldman in a negative light. This is not what I consider the best of journalism in the least.

So, let’s look at the actual merits of what was said.

  • “people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape” – I’m glad you realize this. But paying record bonuses doesn’t sound like you understand the gravity of the situation or how pissed off people are.
  • “I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer” – exactly. So you should be as meek as a mouse right now.
  • “We’re very important" – poor choice of words, my friend. See the previous statement.
  • "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." – YES! That’s the bloody point here. I see this as an accurate statement of the social purpose of investment banking.
  • "We have a social purpose." – In fact, you do.

Later, in the same article comes the money quote:

An impish grin spreads across Blankfein’s face. Call him a fat cat who mocks the public. Call him wicked. Call him what you will. He is, he says, just a banker "doing God’s work"

This looks to be a very damning quote, doesn’t it? Three little words. What was the context here? I’d like to see this quote contextualized like the paragraph I deconstructed above.

So, how do I see this issue?  Investment banking does indeed have a social purpose. In fact, it is the one stated quite well by none other than Lloyd Blankfein. Whether bankers are fulfilling this purpose and how much they should earn for doing so are wholly different questions (see Bookstaber’s question “Why do bankers make so much money?”). But, trying to turn this statement into a polemic against banking is despicable.

As for Blankfein’s other statements, it does not seem from what has been written that he is demonstrating the necessary contrition or humility in this particular situation which is going to cast him in a favourable light. Those three words could make him infamous. Perhaps he thought he could speak on the record in his own voice and explain away the bailout followed by the record profits and bonuses. If so, he’s deluding himself – and this piece of biased journalism and the dozens of pieces in multiple languages sheepishly picking up on the ‘God’s work’ part show why.

May the Lloyd be with you. And also with you.

Sample sources

Goldman-Sachs-Chef: "Banken verrichten Gottes Werk" – Spiegel (Germany)

Banker mit Gottes Segen – tagesanzeiger (Switzerland)

Goldman Sachs boss says banks do "God’s work" – Reuters

Topman Goldman: banken doen werk van God – NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands)

Goldman Sachs boss: ‘bankers do God’s work’ – Telegraph

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