transparency

Will Goldman deliver on glasnost?

January 11, 2011: 12:13 PM ET

You may get an eyeful of the new, open Goldman Sachs, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll like what you see.

Goldman (GS) on Tuesday released a 63-page report from its business standards committee. The panel was convened in the spring, after an examination of Goldman's bubble-era dealings led to public floggings at the hands of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Opening up?

The committee's report gave the firm a chance to "engage in a thorough self-assessment," CEO Lloyd Blankfein (right) said in a video statement Tuesday. He said the report concluded Goldman needs to re-establish its "fundamental commitment to our clients and the primacy of their interests."

Among the key takeaways of the report is that Goldman must be more transparent. The report uses the term "transparency" 19 times, not including page headers.

One result is the firm is changing its business segment reporting, reflecting "the increased importance of providing greater transparency with respect to the firm's revenues from client execution activities."

That all sounds reasonable, but cynics can hardly overlook the fact that the segment that got nuked in this redesign – known as Trading and Principal Investments – had come to account for the lion's share of Goldman's revenue in recent years.

Over the past decade or so, trading revenue rose steadily from just over a third of revenue at Goldman to a staggering 75% in the market rebound year of 2009.

Goldman insisted most of the trading took place on behalf of its beloved clients, and that the firm remained fully engaged in the business of raising money for job-creating businesses. But skeptics drew the lesson that Goldman was merely the highest-stakes table at the gold-plated Wall Street casino.

That isn't exactly the message the firm is trying to sell at a time when it is fighting a rearguard action to justify its outlandish compensation and the tens of billions of dollars, since repaid, that it received in federal bailouts in 2008 and 2009.

In any case, the new setup conveniently emphasizes Goldman's selfless dedication to doing right by others. Fully 52% of revenue in the third quarter is attributed to the new Institutional Client Services segment. When Goldman reported its third-quarter numbers in October, 72% of revenue was under Trading and Principal Investments.

"It remains to be seen if all they're doing is changing some formatting," said Jeffrey Kutler, who is editor-in-chief of Risk ­Professional magazine. "What they really need to address is how they prove that they're acting on behalf of clients."

To be sure, Kutler says the firm is sending the right signals on that front. The report was written by Gerald Corrigan, a Goldman partner who is a former Fed official and a widely respected financial industry veteran, and Michael Evans, who is seen as a rising star.

But the new, open Goldman has a lot of ground to make up. The firm's critics were outraged last year when it came to light that the firm hadn't disclosed to shareholders a Wells notice it got from the SEC staff on the investigation that led to the $550 million Abacus settlement.

Goldman and its apologists argue the firm had no duty to disclose that letter, which outlined the agency's plan to pursue a civil suit against the firm. In a firm truly devoted to doing the right thing – the Goldman report mentions "ethics" six times – wouldn't that be a disclosable item?

No idea. Goldman may be embracing transparency, but it didn't immediately respond to a request to discuss that question.

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