Goldman Clawbacks Are More Stunning Than $5 Billion Penalty

Brian Chappatta
·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There are certain things investors have come to expect when a large financial institution gets caught up in wrongdoing. Top leaders will apologize and say the conduct was unacceptable, adding that they’re fully cooperating with the relevant investigators. The institution will likely pay a settlement that’s in the billions of dollars, but it won’t cause lasting harm to its business.

It looked as if Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was following that same template for its role in the plundering of Malaysia’s 1MDB investment fund. It agreed to pay a large fine and even pleaded guilty for the first time in the bank’s history through a small Malaysian unit, but it was still poised to come out largely unscathed:

The parent company avoided conviction in a deal known as a deferred-prosecution agreement, according to a court proceeding in Brooklyn, New York, on Thursday. That designation is a win for Goldman Sachs, because a conviction might have risked losing some institutional clients that are restricted from working with financial firms with criminal records.

The bank will pay more than $2.3 billion in the plea deal, U.S. prosecutor Alixandra Smith said, the largest penalty in U.S. history for a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In all, Goldman’s penalties will exceed $5 billion globally.

Then came the more surprising news: Goldman will cut or claw back $174 million in pay for a dozen top current and former executives, including Chief Executive Officer David Solomon and his predecessor, Lloyd Blankfein. Almost half of that total, $76 million, comes from three individuals that the bank said were implicated in the criminal scheme: Tim Leissner, Roger Ng and Andrea Vella. Here’s how Dow Jones interpreted the decision:

The financial moves — a combination of clawbacks for departed executives and pay cuts for current ones — are a concession to shareholders who will shoulder the financial cost of the scandal and employees whose own bonuses this year are likely to shrink because of it.

They also are an admission of sorts that the crux of the government's case against Goldman, that it failed to properly oversee its senior bankers and fostered a win-at-all-cost culture, has some merit.

It’s easy enough to interpret this move cynically: a largely symbolic gesture that helps the bank save face with the public, whose scars from the financial crisis still linger even after more than a decade. Docking its executives’ pay takes at least some of the focus away from the fact that Goldman pleaded guilty to having a role in a scheme that diverted billions of dollars raised for economic development in Malaysia into high-end art and real estate, a super yacht and the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” There’s absolutely no way to cast that in a good light on its own.

But cutting pay for Solomon, who received $27.5 million for 2019, is at least a step in the right direction. The bank had noted previously that Solomon’s equity awards from 2018 could be subject to clawbacks if the results of the investigation “would have impacted” the board’s pay decisions for any senior executives. Still, anything to that effect seemed unlikely given Goldman had long taken the position that a rogue employee was responsible for the wrongdoing.

Perhaps the 1MDB scandal was just so egregious that it’ll prove to be a one-off event of holding Wall Street’s top leaders accountable for wrongdoing during their watch. But just in the past month, it has become clear that Wall Street is cracking down across the board. On Oct. 14, Bloomberg News’s Hannah Levitt was the first to report that Wells Fargo & Co. had fired more than 100 employees suspected of improperly collecting coronavirus relief funds, an important step as CEO Charlie Scharf seeks to bring the bank back from rock bottom after years of scandals. And just this week, two of Morgan Stanley’s most senior commodities executives left after compliance breaches linked to WhatsApp and other electronic forms of communication.

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Elisa Martinuzzi viewed the Morgan Stanley departures as evidence that big investment banks might have been less effective in policing staff behavior during the recent work-from-home era. It’s hard not to look at Goldman’s 1MDB scandal against this backdrop and wonder what else might come out about financial institutions across the world when looking back at the potentially more lax Covid-19 period.

For now, Goldman is taking its share of body blows. It can afford to, of course, after a quarter in which net income almost doubled from the same period in 2019 to $3.62 billion. But forcing its top executives to share the pain, even if it’s also something they can ultimately easily manage, is still a welcome dose of accountability. The 1MDB scandal surely won’t be the last to rock Wall Street. But imagine if it were the start of making CEOs answer for their firms’ mistakes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brian Chappatta is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering debt markets. He previously covered bonds for Bloomberg News. He is also a CFA charterholder.

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