Along with an early taste of summer-like weather, the coming corporate annual meeting season ushers in a fresh round of publicity stunts from sundry parties who aim to puff up their careers by knocking down those of financial professionals.
That's a source of worry for some corporate lenders and investment bankers, who fear public pressure might lead high-profile corporate clients to divert some business to less controversial institutions. The potential damage was illustrated last month when the Treasury Department opted against relying on Goldman Sachs to help the government sell its remaining shares of Citigroup.
The continued onslaught spells good news for the rather small segment of professionals with finance industry experience who deal with news media and public affairs. The hostile scrutiny magnifies banks' need to hire well-connected media relations and government relations talent. Ironically, the biggest beneficiaries may be members of the news media. Politico reported Thursday that Goldman Sachs hired long-time New York Times Washington reporter Stephen Labaton (who took a buyout from the paper last November) as a full-time consultant on regulatory and legal issues. In March, Citi hired New York City Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler to head its global public affairs team, reporting directly to CEO Vikram Pandit.
They'll have their hands full. Conventional wisdom says the industry has beaten back the most damaging features of financial reform legislation. But as long as overwhelming majorities of the populace are bent on punishing bankers en masse, the risk of punitive legislation will remain. Meanwhile, here's what the pitchfork squad is cooking up right now:
- The national AFL-CIO is planning a mass march against Wall Street on April 29. More than 10,000 demonstrators will "flood subways and buses and will clog downtown," Politico reports, citing labor federation President Richard Trumka. They demand Congress pass "a financial-transactions tax, and higher taxes on private-equity and hedge funds."
- An AFL-CIO flier blasts Wall Street for "handing out $145 billion in 2009 executive pay and bonuses." Knowing where that number came from, make no mistake: whether you're an HR generalist, an operations clerk or even an hourly worker ineligible for a bonus, labor leaders and most of the news media (who regularly parrot wording similar to the quoted phrase) have you squarely in their sights as an evil Wall Street "executive."
- Not to be outdone, the 2.2 million member Service Employees International Union - which publicly broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005 - is staging mass rallies to "try to disrupt" shareholders' meetings of Wells Fargo in San Francisco on April 27 and Bank of America in Charlotte on April 28.
- Doing their part to maintain the sizzling 5.6 percent GDP growth the U.S. recorded in 2009's final quarter, publishers are busily cranking out new works that recycle the ever-reliable "blame the bankers" sales formula. They run the gamut from the recent reform manifesto 13 Bankers, to Wednesday's CBS News investigative series on Goldman Sachs, to a Huffington Post campaign urging businesses and consumers to "Move Your Money" from big banks to community institutions, to Rolling Stone's very belated discovery of corruption in the municipal debt markets.
The past few quarterly earnings seasons inspired similar rhetorical exercises. Now, however, there are indications that being targeted can tangibly damage an institution's sales - with consequences for your paycheck.
Will Image-Conscious Corporate Clients Shun Goldman?
The clearest example is Goldman missing out on the Treasury's sale of its 7.7 billion Citigroup shares over the rest of this year. Morgan Stanley won the nod to advise Treasury on that deal, which will be the largest share offering in history. Inside Goldman, the setback reinforced some senior executives' view that the firm's image problems will repel clients. "These executives worried that prospective investment-banking clients concerned about their association with the firm will simply hire other players rather than face the fallout of working with Goldman," Fox News' Charles Gasaparino reported.
Big banks are also feeling the heat on campuses. In February, Brown University President Ruth Simmons yielded to pressure to give up the Goldman board seat she's held for a decade. Another top-tier institution tells me more top students are shunning Wall Street for corporations such as Procter & Gamble. When that happened a year ago, it was simple self-interest: other industries, such as health care, were then seen as having far better prospects than banks (they were also doing more campus interviewing and hiring). But now that banks are making money again, the obstacle is reputation.
Of course, there could be a silver lining there: Smaller or lower-quality campus applicant pools might mean incrementally greater opportunities for professionals seeking advancement in the industry.