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Goldman Sachs and the Vatican: Two Cultures of Infallibility

What does the world's most successful financial firm need to learn from the travails of the Catholic Church?

Takeaways


  • It is simply inconceivable that a firm with the breadth and depth of Goldman's dealings in the markets did not leave behind a lot of broken china.
  • Ultimately, it is all a function of an overbearing internal corporate culture. If you put yourself on the pedestal this much, you are bound to come crashing down.
  • From the perspective of Goldman's crisis managers, the recent path of the Catholic Church is probably the most nightmarish thing to think about.
  • Goldman Sachs and the Vatican share an unceasing belief in the doctrine of infallibility.
  • What Goldman, in preparing its legal defenses, must realize is that the Vatican, too, had tried to hush things up.

As self-revealing evidence, for starters, look no further than Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein's now infamous remark in a November 2009 interview that his firm, while much maligned by its critics as the root of all evil in finance today, was really doing "God's work."

Now, it is also true that the Vatican, unlike the oh-so-venerable investment bank, has not been accused of fraud by the SEC for its malfeasances and malpractices.

But after years, even decades, of categorical denials about any wrongdoings inside its holy organization, it is crystal clear that all of those denials were to no avail — and actually made matters much worse.

Not only has the Catholic Church had to contend with plenty of lawsuits — and subsequent negative judgments and payouts — but, as a result of it all, the entire organization is now listless and adrift, even shocked.

From the perspective of Goldman's crisis managers, the recent path of the Catholic Church is probably the most nightmarish thing to think about — assuming their imagination and sense of seriousness reaches this far.

Look at the long list of parallels: None, of course, is more powerful — and disastrous — than Goldman's and the Vatican's unceasing belief in the doctrine of infallibility.

The rot, one says, starts at the top — and in the age of democracy and participatory learning, no organization can successfully hold onto the belief that, as far as dealings with the outside world are concerned, its staff members are really incorrigible.

I am not suggesting that there isn't plenty of rigorous debate about the organizations’ direction and business (or spiritual) practices — but it occurs strictly in the inner sanctum.

The instrument of doubt plays a role in both organizational learning cultures. However, it is viewed solely as a method of rigorous inquisition to come to a decision internally, which — once made — is upheld externally with a united front. One for all, all for one.

With regard to interactions with the outside, such a frame of mind can quickly result in presenting a fiercely clannish, if not secretive, front. That unquestioned commitment to the cause, 24x7x365, surely breeds a strong internal culture, but it also makes the organization as a whole ripe for systemic denial. In short, wrongdoing simply cannot occur because we are perfect, aren't we?

What Goldman, in preparing its legal defenses, must realize is that the Vatican, too, had tried to hush things up. It simply could not happen here, it argued. But the harder and longer it tried, the more pushback there was among the victims.

It is simply inconceivable that a firm with the breadth and depth of Goldman's dealings in the markets did not leave behind a lot of broken china.

And it is equally inconceivable that the front of infallibility so ardently maintained by Mr. Blankfein in his public pronouncements ("If we had failed, we would be the first to admit it…") does not make the firm an even riper target.

In one sense, though, Mr. Blankfein was right, sort of: Goldman may not be doing "God's work." But as the top operator in the hyper-complex world of finance, it is certainly in the "God business" — which, by any measure, is a very complex operation involving many disciplines, from the cultural to the spiritual to the social and financial.

The second applicable lesson for Goldman which the Vatican's troubles foreshadow is this: While child molestation and sexual abuse are definitely qualitatively different charges than manipulating financial markets, the ultimate fallout of denial on one's reputation, financial well-being and inner morale may well be the same.

It all starts with the inner logic of the real temptation — "overlooking" the respective crime in question. Regarding the internal culture of the two organizations, there are stunning parallels.

Both cultures are rooted in an intense sense of loyalty to the "company." Both firms' staff members have a strong sense of mission, even though one is very much focused on the immaterial, while the other is very material-minded.

Selection into the ranks of upper management is generally very much merit-based, although it happens in a manner that is totally non-transparent to outsiders. As a result, the selectees' devotion to the organization's cause is unparalleled compared to their peers in the respective "industries."

For all those qualities, high potential and performance, the evidence seems overwhelming that both Goldman and the Vatican, inside their high walls, suffer from a serious organizational birth defect, which is at the root of their respective troubles today.

The archaic, anti-modern and perhaps anti-human vow of celibacy for the Vatican finds its equivalent in the out-of-this-world God-like self-perception of many senior Goldman staffers.

They clearly feel as anointed — and selected — inside the financial world of today as were the prominent clergy in the Middle Ages and into the early modern era. Appointment to "the firm" came — and comes (in Goldman's case) — with immense social status and access to immense economic wealth.

True, in the case of the Catholic Church's senior leaders, that wealth was, in effect, "rented" and temporary — and definitely not transferable to one's heirs (hence the requirement for celibacy!). But one could live on the Church's "dime" in a splendor that would make even many a modern hedge fund manager go pale with envy.

Ultimately, it is all a function of an overbearing internal corporate culture. If you put yourself on the pedestal this much, if you promote a sense among the staff that they are the anointed ones, such zeal is bound to come crashing down sooner or later.

In fact, once you are no longer considered untouchable, the whole litany of past transgressions will come to haunt you. Outsiders, previously oppressed and hunted, will come out of the woodwork and contribute to taking you down for all those past sins.

The list of stunning parallels, by the way, also includes a "separated at birth" moment. In fact, you can blame it all on Bavaria. Bavaria? You heard right. Bavaria, of course, is the region of Germany where the current Pope, Benedict XVI, hails from, where he earned his initial stripes in the church before launching on his meteoric rise in the halls of the Vatican.

Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, is the birth child of two immigrants from Germany: Bavarian Marcus Goldman and his son-in-law, Samuel Sachs.

In conclusion, in the age of democracy and reason, no culture rooted in a doctrine of infallibility will survive. They must adapt. In both Goldman's and the Vatican's case, the lawsuits are the last wake-up call.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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