Best in Class: Goldman's Humility Is a Strength

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Everybody seems to hate Goldman Sachs ( GS) these days.

In the space of just three days, from July 26 to 28, the bank was singled out by David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, as an example of super-generous employee health care plans that might be taxed. It was the subject of a highly critical cover story in New York magazine; it was lampooned in a Bloomberg column by Michael Lewis; it was blamed on CNBC by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind., Vt.) for driving up the price of oil, and it was the subject of a letter to the Federal Reserve from three members of Congress who wanted to know why it was allowed to postpone certain reporting requirements related to how it calculates risk.

Nonetheless, by the most important standard on Wall Street -- share price -- Goldman is an unqualified success. Among the largest U.S. banks, only JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) has performed comparably since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection last September. Both banks have essentially recouped their losses since that time, while once-proud institutions like Citigroup ( C), Bank of America ( BAC) and Wells Fargo ( WFC) still struggle to remove the stigma of being partly owned by U.S. taxpayers.

Over a five-year time frame, Goldman leaves even JPMorgan in the dust. Goldman has doubled its shareholders' money, while shares in Jamie Dimon's bank are worth roughly what they were when he joined it as president in mid-2004.

It is strange to say it, but one of the main secrets to Goldman's success is its humility. There are undoubtedly countless private examples of Goldman executives being anything but humble, but the institution is built in such a way that it discourages self-interested behavior. A 2004 article in The Wall Street Journal argued that former Goldman executive Kwame Jackson failed to win Donald Trump's hit television show "The Apprentice," because Goldman had taught him not to be a braggart.

This culture of humility includes an emphasis on public service, according to Charles Ellis, author of The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs. Ellis says new Goldman recruits are encouraged right away to be philanthropic, and retiring executives are urged to become active in government.

The sheer number of former Goldman executives in important government posts has provoked not just conspiracy theories, but well-reasoned, fact-based attacks on the company. Goldman takes issue with many of these facts. Probably the biggest complaint it has is the oft-repeated accusation that it would have lost $12.9 billion if the federal government had not bailed it out by rescuing the then-collapsing insurance giant American International Group ( AIG) last fall. Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally says $4.8 billion of this total was "marketable securities," such as Treasury notes and highly-rated corporate bonds that Goldman held as collateral. In other words, if AIG had failed, Goldman would have been able to sell these securities for $4.8 billion. The arguments related to how much of the remaining $8.1 billion Goldman might have recouped if AIG had failed -- both pro- and anti-Goldman -- are largely hypothetical, and so difficult to prove either way.

Goldman's culture also means being realistic about the assets it holds on its books. Goldman is much more rigorous than other large financial companies, like Citigroup or General Electric ( GE), when it comes to marking its assets to market. And, if a dispute over how to value an asset arises between a trader and an executive assigned to verify asset prices, the firm's practices dictate that the latter executive automatically wins, DuVally says.

Goldman is a firm run by traders, and trading profits are the major contributor to Wall Street earnings these days. But there is more to being successful on Wall Street than being a good trader, an idea that seems to be embodied in Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Blankfein is a likable, low-key guy. A profile of him in The Wall Street Journal noted an incident early in his career when he took the phone out of the hand of an enraged colleague who was yelling at a client. Another Journal story about the weekend of Lehman Brothers' collapse shows him providing bracing perspective to a frantic Goldman Sachs aide whose nerves were unraveling.

By contrast, the former traders who ran one-time Goldman rivals Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns come across as considerably less polished. A 2007 profile of former Lehman boss Dick Fuld, known as "the gorilla," described him getting in a fight with another father at his son's hockey game. An infamous profile of Bear's Jimmy Cayne after the company's collapse and sale to JPMorgan described him smoking pot and playing golf in Bear's final days, and a recent New Yorker article argues Cayne's arrogance was what brought Bear down.

With unemployment near 10%, it is hard to muster much sympathy for a secretive, powerful bank that is raking in billions over the bodies of their defeated rivals. But that's capitalism, folks. Goldman shouldn't have to apologize for doing it better than most.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

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