The Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit against Goldman Sachs strikes deeply at the issue of trust in the capital markets. Both the firm and the markets as a whole suffered yet another blow in the SEC suit. And it will not be the last.
My Monday-morning question on this latest Wall Street scandal: If you managed billions of dollars for a big pension fund or cash-rich Asian or Middle Eastern government, what’s your reaction the next time a Goldman Sachs institutional rep comes in with a deal that can’t miss? Attractive yield, triple-A rating, assets assembled by the smartest guys on Wall Street, selected just for you?
Well, you will think twice. You’ll remember caveat emptor. You will wonder what toxic dregs the packagers of this deal have chosen to sell to you – and whether they’ve already lined up short sellers to bet against you. Maybe the shorts actually designed the deal. You will think about i-bankers’ commissions and bonuses.
You will not trust.
This is the upshot of the financial crisis, particularly the episodes when someone has failed to disclose what later proved important – when transparency has been lacking and people we assumed were trustworthy proved not to be.
The “Heard on the Street” column in today’s Wall Street Journal makes this point about trust waning in the marketplace. It goes on to note that, beyond the details of the 2007 CDO sale, Goldman Sachs did not disclose the SEC subpoenas in August 2008 or the July 2009 Wells notice of a potential SEC enforcement action. Were these items not material, not worthy of disclosing to Goldman Sachs shareholders? When the suit became public Friday, shareholders lost $12 billion.
I won’t try to dissect the controversy over who knew what about the original CDO. Goldman says it did nothing wrong, the investors were sophisticated and should have known another client was betting on the failure of those securities. Maybe caveat emptor is always the rule. Maybe Goldman is just like everyone else, hustling to make a buck (or a billion).
What I will say is that the financial crisis – and the ongoing collapse of trust in capital markets – should drive every company to rethink what it values.
In investor relations, we understand how valuable it is for a company to have earned the confidence of the capital markets. Trust is a long time coming – built by doing what you say, being open, disclosing problems, addressing issues head-on, underpromising and overdelivering, and doing it over and over – for years.
Trust is lost in a moment.
To be clear, the SEC isn’t the one that destroyed trust in this case. Goldman Sachs, if in fact it assembled the junk of the market for hedge funds that were betting against that junk – and then peddled those deals as jewels – destroyed trust.
The pundits think the SEC’s slap at Goldman Sachs will add momentum to the push in Congress for tougher regulation of Wall Street. No doubt. Ever since the market’s collapse in 2008, “transparency” has become the popular buzzword.
In my experience, trust isn’t legislated. Transparency doesn’t come about because lawyers cite chapter and verse of some law, and companies say well, OK. The laws cited in the SEC complaint against Goldman have been on the books all along.
Rather, trust grows out of an impulse for honesty among people making decisions. In investor communication, trust is built upon CEOs, CFOs and IROs asking what information matters, what do investors want to know? What do we know that the investors need to know in order to make informed decisions? And acting upon it.
Every company going into the capital markets now lives with the loss of trust created by failures of transparency over the years. We must rebuild, step by step.
The job of IR is, above all, to provide the transparency that leads to that trust.
What’s your take on Goldman Sachs, transparency – or regulatory reform?