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Goldman Sachs' (NYSE: GS ) PR flacks could use flak jackets right now. Today, the SEC announced that it was charging the bank with fraud relating to the marketing of a subprime security. However, I'd like to focus on yesterday's front-page report in the The Wall Street Journal that the government is investigating whether Rajat Gupta, a director at Goldman, shared inside information about the bank with Galleon hedge fund head Raj Rajaratnam, who's is at the heart of the government's largest insider-trading case since the 1980s. What's the potential impact for Goldman and its shareholders?
A "first" Goldman doesn't want
This latest development is certainly embarrassing for Goldman. While executives at prominent firms, including Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , Atheros Communications (Nasdaq: ATHR ) and Moody's (NYSE: MCO ) , have already been implicated in the massive insider trading ring, Goldman is the first investment bank to be linked to the scandal.
Furthermore, this comes at a time when the bank is trying to lay low and repair a reputation that has been savaged during the credit crisis. Because of enormous negative media coverage – some of it well-deserved – it's a good bet that much of the public believes this article's headline is self-evident, and that Goldman Sachs is insider trading. Nevertheless, among a constituency far more important to Goldman than the general public -- corporate executives -- the bank's reputation remains excellent.
Shareholders needn't be concerned
Even if the government did file charges against Gupta (which looks like a big "if" at this stage), the long-term fallout of this particular incident for Goldman will likely be very limited. Gupta is a director, not an employee. Last month, the bank announced he wouldn't stand for reelection this year.
All the same, Goldman knows full well that it will take a lot longer to repair its reputation with the public -- and more importantly, legislators -- in the wake of the credit crisis than it did to repair its balance sheet.
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