If March 4, 1933, and February 11, 2009, marked the nadirs of public confidence in Wall Street, then the years 1928 and 1999 marked the zeniths, when Goldman Sachs sold shares to the public for the only two times in its history. In December 1928, the partners of Goldman Sachs sold shares in a subsidiary called Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation–for its day, a complex, highly leveraged instrument with many layers that made transparency all but impossible. By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, the shares were nearly worthless. For the next 70 years, burned by that experience and FDR’s excoriation in 1933, the firm’s partners retreated to their roots as a private partnership, using their own personal capital with only modest leverage to advance their role as a financial intermediary.
By 1999, Goldman’s reputation had recovered to its previous zenith–to the point that a public offering again was possible. Its partners had debated the merits of such a change for years, and, even when the decision was made to go forward, the decision was reached only after vigorous debate and much disagreement. In favor of going public were those partners who saw a need for a larger capital base to allow the firm to compete in the increasingly globalized economy with the larger players both in the U.S. and overseas. Furthermore, once a public market was established for its shares, Goldman would have a currency other than cash with which to acquire other businesses and grow into financial services it could not afford to enter as a private partnership. On the other side of the argument were those partners who were worried about the impact that transition to a public firm would have on the firm’s culture. Heretofore, the firm had been known for its low ego and gang-tackling ethos, with aggressive personalities kept in check by the partnership potential that was strongly linked to both productivity and cultural fit.
What neither the firm’s partners nor outside observers were able to foresee was the resulting change in the firm’s risk tolerance…
For the pointer I thank John Phillips.