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January 5, 2010

Golden Opportunity

By Spear's

Spear’s contributing editor John Arlidge on his Sunday Times Magazine Goldman Sachs exclusive, the most-read article about the Wall Street titan
AS I STEPPED aboard ‘the banker express’, BA001 from London’s City airport to New York, in September, I had little idea I was starting a story that would end up the ‘most-read’ on the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, would be the subject of Maureen Dowd’s must-read column on the op-ed page of the New York Times and a lead item on Have I Got News For You.

They say celebrity sells. Well, celebrity bankers sell double. Ask Lloyd Blankfein. The Goldman Sachs boss has had more photos and column inches devoted to him in the past few weeks than any Wall Street banker ever, thanks to his wry comment in the Sunday Times that bankers do ‘God’s work’.

It was back in July when Sarah Baxter, the new editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, and I discussed the possibility of doing a feature on Goldman Sachs. At first, I said it could not be done. The bank was too conservative, too secretive. My own requests to talk to Goldman hitherto had been met with words to the effect of ‘do eff off.’ I was so sure it was a fool’s errand, I almost didn’t bother to go to meet the bank’s urbane PR man, Lucas van Praag, in Goldman’s art deco offices on Fleet Street. But my luck was in. Van Praag agreed ‘to think about it’.

Negotiations followed over the next two months in London, New York, Cape Cod and Abu Dhabi. Then, one day in September, I was suddenly in, and the first person I met at 85 Broad Street, Goldman’s headquarters, was Blankfein himself. He is funny, engaging and likeable. He pokes fun at himself and his bank’s reputation for ruthlessness. Once, when an employee walked out of the lift nursing a broken ankle, he pointed to the ankle, turned to a colleague and asked: ‘Did he have that when he came in?’

I also like Blankfein, of course, because he invoked God. What was it Alastair Campbell said to Tony Blair when the former prime minister wanted to get all spiritual? Ah, yes: ‘We don’t do God.’ Campbell understood what Blankfein and his team of super-brains are learning — so far the hard way. There’s an ‘in-the-know’ audience which speaks your language and understands your foibles and, yes, gives you the benefit of the doubt when you say something you probably shouldn’t.

For Goldman, this world includes Wall Street, the City, and most of the specialist financial press. And then there is the general public, who don’t speak your language, are a sceptical bunch, and, when it comes to banks, are downright enraged.

AFTER THE PUBLICLY-FUNDED bail-out of the financial system and a $10 billion loan to Goldman from the US government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, Goldman has no choice but to address this new audience and it will probably have to do so from now on, whether it likes it or not. To this crowd, any lines about ‘social purpose’, and the merest whiff of divinity, is guaranteed to get them, in Blankfein’s own words, ‘mad, pissed off and bent out of shape’.

Blankfein and Co need to learn some new lines — and fast. Any day now the papers will be full of stories about ‘Goldman’s bumper bonuses’. The hunt will be on for the fat cats who have trousered packages that make them richer than Poland. What will Goldman say then? Not ‘blessed are the dealmakers’, for sure.

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The funny thing is, Goldman has a good story to tell. It consistently makes more money than any other investment bank, has survived the credit crunch better than any other, and pays wagonloads of tax. Instead of sitting in their offices, offering homilies to the sanctity and importance of the global financial system — a system that most people view as thoroughly discredited — Goldmanites should come back down to earth.

Goldman has helped to grow businesses that consumers see every day, use and like — HSBC, Ocado, GAP, J Crew, Eurotunnel, TomTom and even Branston pickle. They helped to bring us Big Brother, which we all secretly watched and enjoyed. Goldman is never going to be loved. But if it can learn to speak high street, instead of Wall Street, it might just be respected.  

To read more about the cult of Goldman Sachs, see William Cash’s interview with Nicolas Sarkis

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