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(Chris Hondros/2008 Getty Images)
(Chris Hondros/2008 Getty Images)

TheStreet.com

Goldman's armour shows some cracks Add to ...

Goldman Sachs' shares have mostly been immune to the negative press coverage of the past year, but a recent story from Vanity Fair writer Bethany McLean may have done a little damage.

The stock was one of the hardest hit in a tough day for financial stocks Tuesday, the first trading day after Ms. McLean's article went live on the Vanity Fair site. Goldman's stock fell $2.03, or 1.20 per cent, on volume of nearly 13.5 million shares, well above the trailing three-month daily average volume of 9.7 million shares.

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Ms. McLean's article was notable because it includes stinging attacks from former senior Goldman executives, including "someone close to" John Thornton, a former chief operating officer at Goldman who, according to the article, was an "heir-apparent" to former Goldman boss Hank Paulson. The Vanity Fair article says Mr. Thornton was "discomfited by what he felt was a change at Goldman: a newfound obsession with making money first and foremost."

Mr. Thornton could not be reached for comment, and Lucas van Praag, Goldman Sachs' head of PR, responded with a one-word "no" when asked via e-mail if the Vanity Fair story was responsible for the selloff. Mr. van Praag did not respond to a follow-up email asking what he thought was responsible.

Mr. Thornton's comments, or those of the person "close to" him, may seem minor to the legions of Goldman haters on the Internet, but they are a big deal. Goldman has done a formidable job of maintaining loyalty among former executives, and the suggestion that Mr. Thornton, and others who aren't named, are breaking ranks may encourage others to do the same.

Disparaging comments by former Goldman executives may be the most damaging aspect of the story, but they aren't the only problems for Goldman. Ms. McLean (herself a former Goldman analyst) also does a fine job of organizing, presenting and elaborating upon other criticisms that are familiar to Goldman watchers.

For example, she points out that Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett's investment in Goldman was not strictly about his faith in the company. Mr. Buffett was also relying on the government taking certain steps to prevent a meltdown. In doing so, she presents a fresh argument to counter Goldman's frequent statements that it didn't need government support to survive.

Goldman bulls will argue that profits are the only thing that matters to the bank, and those, of course, are great. Still, the profits depend upon relationships, and while Ms. McLean quotes a money manager who says he does business with Goldman for the same reason he would let the mob pick up his trash, the metaphor may be troubling to some Goldman investors should they reflect that the mob isn't nearly as powerful as it used to be.

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