Goldman shooting its messenger may bring good news

February 2, 2012

By Antony Currie

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Wall Street has lost one of its most entertaining characters. Goldman Sachs is dispensing with Lucas van Praag, its silver-tongued PR boss after 12 years. His colorful ripostes to the press often turned a tin ear to public sentiment. But they also reflected Goldman’s culture. Hiring a new mouthpiece could signal more changes are on the way.

Van Praag’s erudite and cutting put-downs were unusual enough in an industry that prefers to gripe anonymously. But it was especially surprising they emanated from the notoriously tight-lipped Goldman. It’s not the institution most would have expected to publicly describe some coverage of the firm as “effluent,” deride reporters as “psychic” or commentary as “a chimera produced by a febrile mind.” Financial journalists will need to wait a good long while before scribbling down such on-the-record gems again.

Nevertheless, van Praag’s utterances fit well with the haughty manner in which Goldman dismissed virtually all criticism of its role in the financial crisis. And the fact its chief flak made a habit of his withering remarks suggests he had the full support of his fellow partners at the firm.

He was less heard from over the past year, however, coinciding with the Goldman internal review that established a business standards committee. That in itself implies the firm realized it and its spokesman may have gone too far, or astray, in its own defense. But the attacks have died down too, notwithstanding the indirect assaults that have become part of the presidential campaign. And the Justice Department may be about to conclude an investigation into the bank and its executives without bringing any charges.

If so, personnel moves like this one are easier to make without looking weak. Goldman still needs to convince shareholders that it can be a money machine again. And its image remains tarnished enough for Republican Newt Gingrich to use the firm’s name as a slur. But by shooting its messenger, Goldman seems to be signaling that it thinks the worst news is at last behind it.

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