A few stupid emails do not an industry conspiracy make
Hands up everyone who never sent an email which, if made public, would cause themselves and their employer massive embarrassment.
The particularly modern form of humiliation has the added bonus of many of them being recorded electronically, putting them beyond dispute. It’s not someone’s recollection of events - it’s Microsoft’s.
Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs is the latest to cop it, with emails from executives talking about “shitty” products they were selling with one hand and betting against with the other. The most sensational are the emails from Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre to his girlfriend referring to “Frankenstein” products invented via “intellectual masturbation” being sold to widows and orphans. Not much room here for the traditional defence of being taken out of context.
Even with Wall Street’s reputation for capitalist brutality the guys testifying before the US Senate committee investigating the role of investment banks in the subprime crisis have the hides of a rhino.
“I firmly believe that my conduct was correct,” Fabulous Fab told the committee overnight.
Like I said, rhino.
Then there’s his boss, Lloyd Blankfein, the Wall Street executive from central casting who has been vigorously defending the company, which was once famously described in Rolling Stone as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
The core of the allegation against Goldman Sachs is that they were selling risky products to people while also “going short” on those same products - betting they would lose value, in which case they would profit. Essentially they were betting their own customers would lose money.
This has all started a hand-wringing debate from predictable quarters about the ethics of banking, as if we have always expected that bankers go about their business day to day living by some strict moral code.
Let’s be clear. Wall Street and especially its surviving behemoth, Goldman Sachs, has a lot to answer for. The industry needs to take a hard look at itself for its deranged behaviour in the years before the global financial crisis. And public inquiries like the current hearings are key to getting to the bottom of it.
It appears that Goldman in particular was selling products which it knew were so high risk that they were willing to bet they would lose money.
But most of us would admit we wouldn’t smell of roses if our private conversations with friends and colleagues were suddenly dragged into the open.
It’s no secret that journalists say some horrendous things in the course of their work.
But what does a surgeon say about his patients while they’re cut open on the table?
And you can bet some astounding things have been said about clients by barristers, or about constituents by politicians.
The US military has been on the receiving end of this recently too, with whistleblowing site Wikileaks publishing a video of a helicopter gun attack against suspected insurgents in Baghdad which killed two journalists and injured two children.
The incident had been extensively reported on and the subject of investigations before, but the emergence of the video showed the ugly reality of modern warfare. “Ha, ha, ha - I hit ‘em,” said one crew member. “Look at those dead bastards,” said another.
Not to equate Goldman’s activity with warfare but pulling a couple of quotes from any big messy situation and focusing on them as being representative of a wider problem is a bit like looking at the sun in the sky and saying it’s summer.
The danger is it will take focus off getting to the bottom of precisely why finance houses were so exposed when the US housing market collapsed and triggered an unprecedented global economic shockwave. There are more important lessons to be learned than the one about the dangers of putting something in an email that you don’t want anyone to see.
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