FYI, Whitney Tilson's Investment Thesis On Goldman Sachs Has Not Changed In Light Of Times Op-Ed (Update)

Having said that, T2 Partners will be "monitoring" the situation. The op ed in today’s New York Times by retiring Goldman Sachs Executive Director Greg Smith is the talk of Wall Street. We think we know Goldman well, as the company has been our prime broker for the past seven years and Goldman (both stock and call options) is one of our largest positions, so we wanted to add our comments. Our direct experience as a client of Goldman has been universally positive. The many people we have dealt with there have all been exceptionally talented and high-grade, and never once have we had a negative experience in which we felt that they took advantage of us or didn’t do what they said they would do. That said, we are not naïve. In all of our dealings with Wall Street firms, we assume that they are looking out for their own bottom lines, not ours. And we are certainly aware that the old, gentlemanly culture in which integrity and a customer-first attitude generally prevailed is long gone – not just at Goldman, but across all of Wall Street – and, in fact, across the entire financial industry (the reasons for this and what should be done about it are the subject for another day). When we think about investing in any company – especially a financial one, which is heavily regulated, leveraged, and particularly difficult for an outsider to analyze – we factor into our investment equation our assessment of the company’s culture and values, and, if we have any concerns, what the potential associated risks are, such as unexpected losses and regulatory action. In light of our view of the moral decay across the U.S. financial sector, we aggressively haircut our estimates of intrinsic value in the sector – some companies more so than others. But at some price, of course, any stock is a buy, and last August and September we felt that the negativity surrounding the financial sector was way overdone and hence made a big – and, so far, very profitable – bet on Goldman and a number of other U.S. financial firms. With the run-up in Goldman’s stock – after falling below $90 as recently as December, it’s now over $120, just above tangible book value of $119.72 as of 12/31/11 – we’ve been debating whether to trim or exit our position, so today’s op ed is timely. But is it relevant to our investment thesis? We think probably not, for two reasons: 1) The argument that Goldman has become increasingly profit driven, sometimes at the expense of clients’ best interests, and that some employees use vulgar and disrespectful language is hardly news. What’s the next “shocking” headline: “Prostitution in Vegas!”? 2) We highly doubt that Goldman is as truly corrupt as Smith makes it out to be. Goldman has more than 30,000 employees (including nearly 12,000 vice presidents, of which Mr. Smith is one) and has gone through wrenching changes in the past year, including savage cuts to bonuses and extensive layoffs, so it doesn’t surprise us that there are many disgruntled employees, especially those who are leaving. Is Smith one of them? It’s hard to tell, but here’s an email sent to me this morning by a former partner at Goldman (who generally agrees that the firm’s culture is not what it once was): There are a couple of things out of place. 1) This guy has been at firm for 12 years and is only a VP…a piss ant of sorts. He should have been an MD-light by now, so clearly he has been running in place for some time. 2) He was in U.S. equity derivatives in London…sort of like equities in Dallas…more confirmation he is a lightweight. Somewhere along the line he has had sand kicked in his face…and is not as good as he thinks he is. That happens to a lot of high achievers there. In summary, we think it’s likely that Goldman does the right thing for its clients the vast majority of the time – but not as certainly as it used to in the old days. Times have changed and the trend is unfortunate, but it is not unique to Goldman. In fact, we believe that Goldman still has a better culture and is more ethical than most of its competitors – though this is a very low bar to be sure. Our investment thesis on Goldman is simple: when all the dust settles, it will remain the premier investment banking franchise in the world – and, if so, will be worth a substantial premium to tangible book value. Smith’s column is a warning flag that we’ll be monitoring closely, but we believe our investment thesis remains intact and the stock is still cheap, so we’re not selling.
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Having said that, T2 Partners will be "monitoring" the situation.

Our comments on "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs"

The op ed in today’s New York Times by retiring Goldman Sachs Executive Director Greg Smith is the talk of Wall Street. We think we know Goldman well, as the company has been our prime broker for the past seven years and Goldman (both stock and call options) is one of our largest positions, so we wanted to add our comments.

Our direct experience as a client of Goldman has been universally positive. The many people we have dealt with there have all been exceptionally talented and high-grade, and never once have we had a negative experience in which we felt that they took advantage of us or didn’t do what they said they would do.

That said, we are not naïve. In all of our dealings with Wall Street firms, we assume that they are looking out for their own bottom lines, not ours. And we are certainly aware that the old, gentlemanly culture in which integrity and a customer-first attitude generally prevailed is long gone – not just at Goldman, but across all of Wall Street – and, in fact, across the entire financial industry (the reasons for this and what should be done about it are the subject for another day).

When we think about investing in any company – especially a financial one, which is heavily regulated, leveraged, and particularly difficult for an outsider to analyze – we factor into our investment equation our assessment of the company’s culture and values, and, if we have any concerns, what the potential associated risks are, such as unexpected losses and regulatory action. In light of our view of the moral decay across the U.S. financial sector, we aggressively haircut our estimates of intrinsic value in the sector – some companies more so than others. But at some price, of course, any stock is a buy, and last August and September we felt that the negativity surrounding the financial sector was way overdone and hence made a big – and, so far, very profitable – bet on Goldman and a number of other U.S. financial firms.

With the run-up in Goldman’s stock – after falling below $90 as recently as December, it’s now over $120, just above tangible book value of $119.72 as of 12/31/11 – we’ve been debating whether to trim or exit our position, so today’s op ed is timely. But is it relevant to our investment thesis? We think probably not, for two reasons:

1) The argument that Goldman has become increasingly profit driven, sometimes at the expense of clients’ best interests, and that some employees use vulgar and disrespectful language is hardly news. What’s the next “shocking” headline: “Prostitution in Vegas!”?

2) We highly doubt that Goldman is as truly corrupt as Smith makes it out to be. Goldman has more than 30,000 employees (including nearly 12,000 vice presidents, of which Mr. Smith is one) and has gone through wrenching changes in the past year, including savage cuts to bonuses and extensive layoffs, so it doesn’t surprise us that there are many disgruntled employees, especially those who are leaving. Is Smith one of them? It’s hard to tell, but here’s an email sent to me this morning by a former partner at Goldman (who generally agrees that the firm’s culture is not what it once was):

There are a couple of things out of place. 1) This guy has been at firm for 12 years and is only a VP…a piss ant of sorts. He should have been an MD-light by now, so clearly he has been running in place for some time. 2) He was in U.S. equity derivatives in London…sort of like equities in Dallas…more confirmation he is a lightweight. Somewhere along the line he has had sand kicked in his face…and is not as good as he thinks he is. That happens to a lot of high achievers there.

In summary, we think it’s likely that Goldman does the right thing for its clients the vast majority of the time – but not as certainly as it used to in the old days. Times have changed and the trend is unfortunate, but it is not unique to Goldman. In fact, we believe that Goldman still has a better culture and is more ethical than most of its competitors – though this is a very low bar to be sure.

Our investment thesis on Goldman is simple: when all the dust settles, it will remain the premier investment banking franchise in the world – and, if so, will be worth a substantial premium to tangible book value. Smith’s column is a warning flag that we’ll be monitoring closely, but we believe our investment thesis remains intact and the stock is still cheap, so we’re not selling.

UPDATE: He goes on:

A few additional thoughts, upon further reflection: we think Greg Smith’s op ed will ultimately prove to be a good thing for Goldman Sachs and, to a lesser extent, the investment banking industry. Here’s why: every company and industry has a certain percentage of people who regularly do the wrong thing, especially when it results in making a quick buck. Our long experience in the hedge fund and investment banking industries leaves us with no doubt that such people are overrepresented in the financial sector, where there are ample opportunities to make a lot of money quickly by screwing others.

There are plenty of such people at Goldman – we don’t think Greg Smith is making them up – but we are quite certain that he paints a grossly distorted picture of the firm: based on everything we know, the people and behavior he describes are not typical of the firm. But to the extent they exist at all, this is bad news both for shareholders like us, as well as the tens of thousands of hard-working, high-integrity employees at the firm.

To put some numbers around it (which we’re making up, but you get the idea), in the old days we’d guess that Goldman people did the right thing 99.9% of the time, which means the “ethical error rate” was a mere 10 basis points. Then, after the company went public and as sheer greed and insanity gripped the entire industry, Goldman probably slipped to only doing the right thing 95% of the time. This might sound okay, but it’s not – the 50x increase in the ethical error rate led to horrible consequences, both for the firm and our country, especially when the rest of the industry was doing similar things – or much worse. So where is Goldman today? We’d guess that it’s rebounded to 99%, a big improvement – but still a lot worse than it was in the old days.

We would like to see Goldman get back to 99.9%, and think that Smith’s op ed, however unfair, will help that happen. It has created a shock wave that is reverberating through Goldman – and, hopefully, the entire industry – that will likely remain in everyone’s mind for a long time to come, making it more likely that no-one at Goldman will go anywhere close to any ethical lines. In other words, Smith’s article was bad for the small number of people doing the wrong thing at Goldman, and very good for shareholders and the vast majority of Goldman employees.

Related

Goldman Sachs Can Fix This

A week ago today, a man named Greg Smith resigned from Goldman Sachs. As a sort of exit interview, Smith explained his reasons for departing the firm in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs." The equity derivatives VP wrote that Goldman had "veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say I identify with what it stands for." Smith went on to note that whereas the Goldman of today is "just about making money," the Goldman he knew as a young pup "revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients." It was a culture that made him "love working for the firm" and its absence had stripped him of "pride and belief" he once held in the place. While claiming that Goldman Sachs has become virtually unrecognizable from the institution founded by Marcus (Goldman) and Samuel (Sachs), which put clients ahead of its own interests, is hardly a new argument, there was something about Smith's words that gave readers a moment's pause. He was so deeply distraught over the differences between the Goldman of 2012 and the Goldman of 2000 (when he was hired) that suggested...more. That he'd seen things. Things that had made an imprint on his soul. Things that he couldn't forget. Things that he held up in his heart for how Goldman should be and things that made it all the more difficult to ignore when it failed to live up to that ideal. Things like this:

Whitney Tilson's "Blogging/Writing" Diet Not So Restrictive That He Can't Indulge In The Occasional 1,200-Word Product Review

June 22, 2012: To ensure that I can focus intensely on in-depth company and industry analysis, I will adopt a much lower public profile and let my investment returns speak for themselves. Specifically, I will dramatically reduce my television appearances, interviews with the media, blogging/writing, and public speaking, both in the investment and philanthropic realms. I also plan to write letters to you quarterly rather than monthly (our bookkeeper will, course, continue to send you monthly statements). July 23, 2012: From: Whitney Tilson Date: Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 5:43 PM Subject: My favorite gadgets: laptop, phone, cameras, printers I’m a total gadget fiend, usually upgrading my laptop, phone, pocket camera, and digital SLR camera to the latest models at least once a year. In the past month, I’ve upgraded all four to newly released models and am so blown away that I wanted to share my experience (plus two printer recommendations). In order of amazingness: 1) My new laptop: the PC world FINALLY has slim, light, high-res-screen, quick-boot laptops (called ultrabooks) to rival the Macbook Air. I just bought the best of the lot, the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A. It’s light as a feather, boots in a few seconds, and has an AMAZINGLY high-res 13.3” screen (I don’t miss the 17” screen on my old laptop one bit). Here’s a good review of it: www.pcworld.com/article/255921/handson_asus_zenbook_prime_ux31a.html It’s only $1,080 on Amazon (more if you want a faster chip or 256GB of flash memory; I find 128GB is fine for a secondary travel computer): www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00863L2PK/tilsoncapitalpar 2) My new smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S III, which just became available on Verizon. A couple of years ago, I added an iPhone to my Blackberry because I couldn’t give up the keyboard and found it impossible to type on the iPhone, but I didn’t like schlepping around two devices so when Verizon came out with Android phones with 30% bigger screens (plus 4G, which is MUCH faster), I junked both the Blackberry (good riddance! I had to use one in Europe last week and HATED every minute of it; until you switch, you have no idea of how awful Blackberries are) and the iPhone for the HTC Thunderbolt. No regrets, but the Thunderbolt is thick and bulky, the screen is nowhere near as good as the new iPhones, and the battery lasted maybe 1/3 of a day, so I always had to carry a spare. Thus, it was with great joy that I switched last week to the Samsung, which fixes all three of these problems: it’s super slim and light (while maintaining the large screen), the resolution appears to me to be just as good as the iPhone’s retina display, and the battery lasts most of a day with normal usage (still not great, but much better). In my opinion, this phone is much superior to the iPhone, but if you like your iPhone I wouldn’t switch until we see what the new iPhone 5 looks like. It’s rumored to be out this fall and have a bigger screen. If it’s also 4G on Verizon AND can work overseas (none of the current Verizon Android 4G phones can), then I might switch back to the iPhone. I also wouldn’t switch away from the iPhone unless you’re reasonably technologically savvy – the ecosystem isn’t quite as seamless (for example, it was quite a pain to transfer my music, esp my playlists, from iTunes on my computer to my new phone). 3) I have three kids and take zillions of photos, so I’ve become an amateur digital photo junkie. I find that I need two cameras (given that I hate the crummy photos that camera phones take): a super-small pocket one to take with me everywhere (for 90%+ of photos) and a big digital SLR camera for special occasions when small cameras just don’t cut it (weddings, bar mitzvahs, action sports, etc.). Among pocket cameras, I’ve been a very happy user for at least two years of the Canon PowerShot S90, then S95, and most recently the S100, but the new Sony DSC RX-100 blows every other pocket camera out of the water (if you’re willing to pay an extra $300). It’s maybe 5-10% bigger than the S100, but still fits easily in a pocket – and the results BLEW my mind. I thought I was using a full-size SLR: no shutter lag, amazing many-frames-per-second action shots, brilliant pictures in low light without a flash, etc. Below is the review by the NYT’s David Pogue, who concludes: This is an ideal second camera for professionals. And it’s a great primary camera for any amateur who wants to take professional-looking photos without having to carry a camera bag. Of course, $650 is crazy expensive. You can buy a full-blown S.L.R. for that much. But every time you transfer a batch of its pictures to your computer, you’ll understand why you spent that money. You’ll click through them, astonished at how often it’s successful in stopping time, capturing the emotion of a scene, enshrining a memory or an expression you never want to forget. You’ll appreciate that the RX100 has single-handedly smashed the rule that said, “You need a big camera for pro-quality photos.” And if you care at all about your photography, you’ll thank Sony for giving the camera industry a good hard shove into the future. The quality of the camera is reflected in its price, however: the cheapest I could find it on the internet is $605 here: www.provantage.com/sony-dscrx100-b~7SNYG07U.htm. If that’s too expensive for you, go with the Canon S100 for $335 here: http://bestpricephoto.com/h/product_info.php/canon-powershot-s100-digital-camera-p-20660 4) I also recently upgraded my digital SLR from the Nikon D5100 to the D7000, which is the highest end amateur camera in the Nikon line. The D5100 was buggy so I was pleased to be rid of it. The key with both of these cameras is to get the Nikkor 18-200mm lens – it’s 11x with digital image stabilization built in. It’s the only lens you need, so just buy the camera body plus this lens. The best price I found for the D7000 is $889 at: http://bestpricephoto.com/h/product_info.php/nikon-d7000-162-mp-digital-slr-camera-body-p-19926. The best price on the lens is $847 at: www.buydig.com/shop/product.aspx?sku=NK18200G2 PS—I use and recommend the free Google photo software, Picasa (www.picasa.com), for cropping, editing, getting rid of red-eye, emailing photos (with the photos embedded, not attached), etc. Last but not least, printers: 1) If you want to print photos, I highly recommend a specialized photo printer rather than using an all-in-one inkjet – the quality difference is HUGE. I haven’t upgraded mine in a while, but if I were to buy one, I’d just buy the latest model of my current one (the 4500), the Canon iP4920, which is a mere $80 (they get you on the paper and ink – don’t try generics): www.buydig.com/shop/product.aspx?sku=CNIP4920 2) Complementing my photo printer in my home office is my color laser, the Brother MFC-9560CDW Multifunction Printer for $590 at: www.nextwarehouse.com/item/?999165. It’s a great scanner, copier, fax machine, and prints fast in color and B&W IN DUPLEX (two-sided), which is a must-have for me.

Goldman Sachs Beats Throngs Of College Kids Off With A Stick

Are you among the people who mistakenly believe working for Goldman Sachs has lost its luster? That the youth of America no longer spend nights dreaming about what it'd be like to bask in the glow of Lloyd Blankfein? That a guy who couldn't tie his shoes 'til he was 22 was able to ruin the picture they had their minds of what it would be like to one day, if they worked really hard, have Gary Cohn hike up one leg, plant his foot on a their desk, his thigh close to their face, and ask how markets were doing? Then you don't have a clue. Goldman’s program has grown so big that the firm has to break their start date into two groups. This week welcomed the lucky few selected for “revenue” businesses, like investment banking and trading. Next week brings “services” workers, COO Gary Cohn said at a conference Thursday. Vampire squids, Greg Smith and Delaware judges can’t keep the applicants away. “Our application pool this year was greater than it ever has been,” Cohn said. Goldman Sachs Still Hot With The Youths [Deal Journal] Related: Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn Likes To Speak To Employees On A Grundle-To-Face Basis