Macaskill on markets: Sideways – 'No comment' from Goldman and Metro

By:
Jon Macaskill
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The main charge against Goldman Sachs by the US Senate committee investigating commodity market practices was that the bank effectively controlled actions by its metals warehouse subsidiary, Metro International, that created a bottleneck in aluminum supply, and that Goldman could have profited from associated trades in its securities arm.

The committee did not find evidence that Chinese Walls between the warehouse firm and Goldman’s traders were breached, but it noted that a new board of directors installed after the purchase of Metro in 2010 consisted entirely of Goldman employees, including executives from its commodities group.

Greg Agran, current co-head of commodities at Goldman was one of the initial directors of Metro after its acquisition, before stepping down a year later. Jacques Gabillon, the head of Goldman’s commodity principal investments group, remains on the Metro board as Goldman pursues a sale of the warehouse unit.

A more surprising figure as a current director at Metro is Jake Siewert, Goldman’s global head of communications and the man who succeeded veteran PR manager Lucas van Praag as the public defender of Goldman’s reputation.

Van Praag was widely credited with burnishing Goldman’s mystique as it rode the boom that ended in the credit crisis of 2008. He was made a partner in 2006, much to the surprise of many Goldman staffers fighting their way up the revenue-generating totem pole, and was rumoured to have scored a $10 million annual bonus at one point, though that number might have come from extrapolating an average partner payout that included levels for big profit producers.

Envy and hope

The partnership appointment and talk of a hefty bonus caused envy among van Praag’s PR peers on Wall Street, but also fuelled hopes that he could single-handedly boost compensation for all senior communications managers.

After Goldman’s near-death experience in the 2008 crisis the firm seemed to bounce back better than its peers, but its reputation then plunged amid mounting accusations of duplicity and a $550 million settlement for misleading investors in 2010. Van Praag’s acerbic wit and sometimes high-handed manner began to seem like a liability and in early 2012 he left, to be replaced as global head of communications by Jake Siewert.

As a former Clinton White House press secretary, Siewert was viewed as more in tune with 'softer’ PR initiatives than van Praag and is widely credited, rightly or wrongly, with encouraging CEO Lloyd Blankfein to grow the neo-hipster beard that is seen as a bid to counteract Goldman’s image as a firm that tramples friends and foes alike underfoot.

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Macaskill on markets

Siewert actually has in-depth experience of the aluminum market place, having been head of communications and later vice-president for business development at Alcoa between 2001 and 2009, which partly explains why he was placed on the Metro board.

It is unclear if he exercised influence over Metro’s communications as the warehousing firm came under the spotlight for controversial deals that created major delays in aluminum delivery times.

Metro’s executives stonewalled fairly effectively in providing evidence to Senate investigators and at the recent public hearings. And the firm has an impressively uninformative website that simply lists the addresses and phone numbers of its offices and offers what appears to be a link to the London Metal Exchange, but actually turns out to be a generic one page description of the LME’s role in trading metals.

So maybe Siewert simply advised Metro to clam up and admit nothing. That would mark something of a return to the Goldman PR policy that prevailed before the firm went public in 1999. Forget social media, sometimes the best policy can be to lawyer-up and stick to an old-fashioned 'no comment’.