Things have been pretty chipper on Wall Street and with some other segments of the U.S. economy lately. The technology-heavy NASDAQ composite index closed above 3,000 on March 13 for the first time since 2000, pushing the broad market to levels last seen in June 2008, about four months before Lehman Brothers and the worldwide financial meltdown and crisis, triggering the Great Recession.
The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment insurance in recent weeks has also been hovering around four-year lows, while Apple stock surged last week to trade around $600 a share. Elsewhere, the Greek government this month convinced most of its private bondholders to “voluntarily” accept a “haircut” in a debt reduction deal that left the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and individual European nations that have lent Greece money and contributed to its bailout fund happier, at least for the time being.
Still, we would be prudent to recall some of what happened almost four years ago in light of allegations March 14 about Goldman Sachs, another U.S. international investment banker, and one much larger than Lehman Brothers.
The allegations concern its ethics more than its balance sheet – at the moment. But the two are inextricably linked. Just ask Michael McCain, chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest meat company, whose packaged meat killed 20 people in a nationwide listeriosis outbreak in 2008. McCain did something novel. He told the truth and he took personal responsibility. He thereby saved the company in the midst of the most serious crisis in its 100-year history. Likewise, Connie Tamoto, manager of corporate communications for The North West Company in Winnipeg, told us in a straightforward way March 15 certain frozen beef products had been pulled from Giant Tiger, Northern and NorthMart grocery shelves in a potential E. coli contamination product recall. Ditto for Craig Ware, director of corporate affairs for Western Canada for Loblaw in Calgary, which did the same at Extra Foods.
As we noted in this space on Jan. 21, 2009, “Bloomberg L.P., one of the world’s leading English-language financial news services, based in New York City, ran a remarkable story a few days ago totalling up the single-day job losses announced last Friday worldwide. “At least 21,000 jobs were targeted for elimination yesterday as employers from Hertz Global Holdings Inc. to Advanced Micro Devices Inc. grappled with recession-choked demand. More than 20 companies said they were cutting jobs, ranging from Amonil SA, Romania’s second-biggest fertilizer maker, to Fiat SpA’s Magneti Marelli auto-parts division. Hertz, the second-largest U.S. rental-car company, said it will cut more than 4,000 jobs, as businesses and consumers slow travel because of the global recession.”
Almost no economist saw it coming and none will likely see the next financial train wreck clearly until it arrives.
In 2008 and 2009, we were writing regularly in this space about de-leveraging, sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, credit default swaps, bailouts, and General Motors shares trading at prices they had last seen in December 1942, with an eye, of course, on Vale. On March 3, 2009 Vale eliminated 900 jobs from its global workforce of 14,000, with 423 of them coming from its Canadian subsidiary. But the company only cut 24 management and other non-union staff jobs here.
So when Greg Smith, a 12-year executive director and vice-president at Goldman Sachs in London, resigned March 14, it reignited widespread suspicions that the culture of Wall Street has changed little since 2008. “Not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients,” Smith wrote. “It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all … it makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.”
Sour grapes from a departing employee? Perhaps – except for the fact Judge Leo Strine, chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery, a non-jury trial court that serves as Delaware's court of original and exclusive equity jurisdiction, and adjudicates a wide variety of cases involving trusts, real property, guardianships, civil rights, and commercial litigation, leaving Strine recognized as one of the most expert jurists in the United States when it comes to corporate law, said much the same in a Feb. 29 ruling involving Goldman Sachs.
Matt Taibbi, a Rolling Stone reporter famously labeled Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid” in an April 5, 2010 piece headlined, “The Great American Bubble Machine.” It was also widely nicknamed “Government Sachs” in 2008 during the financial crisis, including by the New York Times, given that its alumni in government included U.S. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, Joshua B. Bolten, President George Bush’s chief of staff, Stephen Friedman, chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and Neel Kashkari, who ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program for banks in 2008 and 2009.
“What we do about history matters,” observes Gerda Lerner, 91, professor emeritus in the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the founders of women’s studies in the United States. “The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it.’