Last week's headline-grabbing developments at Goldman Sachs (GS) -- including the very public resignation of a disgruntled employee -- came at a moment when the storied investment bank seems to be making a concerted effort to ingratiate itself with Main Street.
Despite the to-do, the public's real issue with Goldman Sachs wasn't addressed at all.
In Case You're Just Tuning In ...
On Wednesday, a Goldman employee -- Greg Smith, executive director and head of the firm's equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa -- resigned with a flourish. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Smith told off his former employer, accusing the firm of seeking only to make money off its clients.
"I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients," Smith wrote. "It's purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them."
Smith went on to say that he no longer felt he could take part in Goldman Sachs' recruiting activities, "I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work."
The Firm's Response ... Amid a Recent Makeover Attempt
Goldman responded the same morning with a rather formal and chilly internal memo, which read, "The assertions made by this individual that do not reflect our values, our culture and how the vast majority of people at Goldman Sachs think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients."
Indeed, Goldman seems lately to have been making a concerted effort to portray its values and cultures in a positive light. CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently appeared in commercials supporting gay marriage in New York state, a move that may be intended to ingratiate himself and the firm among those concerned with equal rights for gay Americans.
Goldman has also been running ads lately about its 10,000 Women Initiative, now a joint venture with the State Department, entailing "a $100 million, five-year worldwide campaign to drive economic growth by providing 10,000 women a business and management education as well as access to capital, networks and mentors," according to a Goldman press release issued March 8.
The Real Elephant in the Room
None of this -- not Greg Smith's public resignation over client and culture issues, nor Blankfein's efforts on behalf of gay marriage rights, nor even Goldman's support for women's entrepreneurship in the developing world -- begins to address the real elephant in the room.
Who actually believed -- before Smith's opinion piece was published -- that Goldman Sachs is more focused on serving its clients than on making money? Who really is surprised by these suggestions that Goldman Sachs cares a whole lot about profits?
A Harris Interactive poll from last month showed that 83% of Americans have a negative impression of the financial services industry. And Goldman Sachs is one of the most despised financial services companies of all, ranking just behind AIG. That's because during the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs became virtually synonymous with the high-stakes risk-taking that resulted in the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The real issue is the bailouts.
America's Memo to Goldman
Imagine if the American people were to issue a memo to Goldman Sachs. It would probably read like this:
Attention Mr. Blankfein and assorted cronies:
We don't care about your infighting or your recruiting efforts. Your philanthropic efforts may be nice, but they aren't the big deal here.
How about you stop taking so much risk that we -- the public -- have to bail you out when your bets go bad? That's what we really want from you and the rest of Wall Street. And we don't think it's too much to ask.
Motley Fool contributor Catherine Baab-Muguira has no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned here. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Goldman Sachs.