NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Reuters) - No Wall Street firm is set to do better under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump than Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
But the selection of several current and former Goldman bankers to high-profile positions in his administration could reignite flames of resentment against the bank, and the Wall Street elite it represents, which Trump himself fanned during his campaign.
Goldman’s shares have jumped by nearly a third since Trump’s Nov. 8 election victory, outpacing gains by rivals, as investors bet on a resurgence in trading stocks and bonds due to increased volatility, and the prospect of less onerous financial regulation.
But Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist and Steven Mnuchin as his nominee for Treasury secretary - both of them former Goldman bankers - has prompted an outcry from Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have pledged to resist Trump’s efforts to dismantle recent financial reforms.
Trump’s expected pick of Gary Cohn, Goldman’s second-in-command, to advise him on economic policy, has only made that chorus louder.
The proximity of so many Goldman executives to the seat of power could make sympathetic treatment of banks more likely, some critics have said. But at the same time, the public display of Goldman’s reach could stir up calls for renewed scrutiny just as Wall Street wants to see some restrictions imposed after the 2008 financial crisis eased.
“Goldman has spent the last couple of years doing their work quietly, but now they have the focus on them, which means people who weren’t interested in them last week, now are,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor focusing on investment banking at the University of Michigan.
“In the harsh spotlight, every wrinkle, scar and freckle shows.”
U.S. governments have a tradition of choosing former Goldman bankers for key positions, stretching back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But during the latest financial crisis, when Main Street bailed out Wall Street, Goldman’s connections within government and the profits it made selling toxic mortgage debt led Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi to call it “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”
Popular anger at Wall Street generally and Goldman in particular provided the backdrop to the Dodd-Frank post-crisis regulations, which made it much more expensive for banks to trade securities as they had before.
Following the financial crisis, Goldman acknowledged it needed to do more work to improve the firm’s image with ordinary people, current and former executives have said.
While Goldman - the leader in the lucrative business of advising on mergers and acquisitions - had previously thrived on keeping its head down, focusing on clients and shunning the media, it began to focus more closely on its reputation.
“We’ve withdrawn from some businesses and withdrawn from some opportunities out there in the world because we decided we shouldn’t do that type of business because the brand and the reputation was too valuable,” Cohn said in a 2014 interview with a Canadian newspaper.
Executives also started giving more interviews and the bank rolled out its first nationwide advertising campaigns aimed at regular people that emphasized its role in alternative energy and job creation.
Goldman’s engagement with Main Street has grown more important as the bank has entered consumer markets, launching an online lending business earlier this year, called Marcus, with video ads on Facebook, Hulu, Pandora and YouTube.
Despite efforts to revamp its image, Goldman has remained a byword for elitism, something that Trump tapped into during the election campaign, releasing a television ad that characterized Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein as part of a “global power structure” that had robbed America’s working class.
The bank’s association with Trump’s government may reignite feelings of anger that ad may have stirred up.
“If the decisions made by the Trump administration are seen as supporting the ‘old Wall Street’, that will bring the connection with Goldman to the forefront,” said Jim Marous, a financial industry strategist who works with banks on branding and marketing.
For now, investors do not appear to be worried. With its consumer operations just a small sliver of its overall business, they are confident that any negative publicity Goldman may suffer will be far outweighed by the positive benefits that will flow from having more bank-friendly regulations.
“Goldman will always be linked with politics, even if that goes away from time to time,” said Jerry Braakman, chief investment officer of First American Trust, which holds shares in Goldman Sachs. “Money and politics always go together.” (Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Bill Rigby)