Banker, Malema share their discontent

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Malema111012 AFP Former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

I have been following with interest the storm that has been unleashed by the New York Times (NYT) op-ed piece written by former Goldman Sachs employee, Greg Smith. This opinion piece has made the news around the world. What is intriguing for me is that Smith is a South African. The NYT piece reminded me of Julius Malema’s travails within the ANC.

This is a type of letter that Malema might have written if he was academically inclined, but he has spent his brawn over the last few months to do what Smith has done in his piece. This might at first sight seem like an unjust comparison of an investment banker with a renegade young politician, but it is not.

There are three parallels between Smith and Malema: their discontent over the leadership of their respective organisations; the public manner in expressing their discontent; and the cost to their organisations in the aftermath of their rants.

Smith is lamenting the erosion of integrity within Goldman Sachs and longs for those days where the culture of the firm dictated that the client comes first. He writes: “When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive, Lloyd C Blankfein, and the president, Gary D Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fibre represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.”

Malema’s speeches and public pronouncements about the ANC leadership are not very different from Smith’s about Goldman Sachs. Malema is in hot water for saying that Thabo Mbeki was better than President Jacob Zuma among other things.

The second parallel is that both Smith and Malema made their feelings known in a public manner that is embarrassing to their organisations. Smith first waited for the bonuses to be paid before making his move in the NYT piece, this probably helps with a sense of securities for the next few months, while he is searching for a job. Malema is allegedly using the tender system in Limpopo to make sure he has something to fall back on should he leave the ANC. So the sense of security can give one the chutzpah to make these public statements, however short-lived and ephemeral that security is.

What is clear is that both Goldman Sachs and the ANC are embarrassed by the rantings of their people.

The third parallel is that there was an erosion of value for both Goldman Sachs and the ANC from the public statements of Smith and Malema respectively. Goldman Sachs lost about $2.2 billion (R16.8bn) worth of market capitalisation. South Africa has lost considerably from Malema’s public statements.

The country’s credit rating outlook from Moody’s has declined to negative based on the ratings agency’s assessment of the politics within the ANC. Moody’s is claiming that the “political commitment to low budget deficits and the ability to keep within current debt targets could be undermined by popular pressures and rising internal strains within the ANC and its labour union allies”.

Furthermore investment within the mining sector has decreased considerably due to the uncertainty brought by the ANC Youth League’s call for the nationalisation of the mines. The cost to the country is the increased interest payments that the government has to pay due to higher interest informed by the rating. The other opportunity cost is the investments that could have created jobs are lost to other competing countries.

So what does the future hold for Smith and Malema?

No other Wall Street company will hire Smith easily because what happened to Goldman Sachs can also happen to them. Working for the US federal government can be an option for Smith, as some politicians like what he wrote as a vindication of their stance on investment banking in general. As a last resort, Smith might start a non-profit organisation that encourages a putting-the-client-first philosophy. So he is not doomed for standing up for his principals.

Malema might find it difficult to continue in ANC politics if the suspension from the ANC holds. However, he may also start a grassroots organisation that fights for economic freedom in our lifetimes.

The messages communicated by both Smith and Malema resonate with most people, however, the manner of delivering their message could have been different.


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