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A Civil War at Goldman?

gun and money
gun and money

"Was Greg Smith really a lone gunman?"

That's the way one of my Wall Street sources put a question that quite a few raised today: was the now famous Op-Ed by the former Goldman Sachs executive really the work of one guy or did it reveal a deeper divide at the firm?

Goldman has tried its best to portray Smith as a loner. In an internal memo today, the firm explained that most of its employees report that they are happy.

But more than one of my sources on Wall Street think that Smith may have been encouraged to take up arms against the management of Goldman by others still at the firm.

Bob Teitelman at the Deal seems to subscribe to this theory:

In fact, Smith's broadside appears to be so well-planned, executed and targeted at top leadership, albeit in distancing, neo-Churchillian prose -- "When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm's culture on their watch" -- that it raises the possibility that there is more here than just one pissed-off midlevel executive. Is there a struggle for leadership going on within Goldman, not unlike the partnership factions that developed in the '90s over whether to go public or not? In some ways, you can discern similar fault lines in Smith's exit column: relationship versus transactional, intermediary versus principal, banker versus trader, integrity versus self-dealing. The bankers, of course, lost that war in the late '90s, and Goldman morphed into a gargantuan trading machine and a firm that seemed to have a genius for appearing on every side of a transaction. At the very least, Smith is pinning the blame on Blankfein and heir apparent Cohn (who have absorbed any number of other blows) and, significantly, calling on the board to step in, which may well mean that it should make a change at the top: "I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors."

This is an intriguing theory. But right now, that's all it is.

Follow John on Twitter. (Market and financial news, adventures in New York City, plus whatever is on his mind.) You can email him at john.carney@nbcuni.com.

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