"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman." -- Justice Louis Brandeis
Vampire squid, meet sunlight
Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity." But in a new 63-page internal report, the huge and influential investment bank has now vowed to reveal more information about its money-making magic.
After an eight-month internal review conducted in the wake of government and public scrutiny after the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs will start offering up greater detail about its sales, starting with next week's fourth-quarter results.
The authors of the report even added a dash of potential humility to their introduction. "Our approach," they wrote, "must be: not just 'can we' undertake a given business activity, but 'should we.'"
Still, it's easy to forgive any skeptical or downright cynical responses to Goldman's pledge. I could easily argue that Goldman's headline-grabbing move owes more to the company's attempts to save face than to any real change of heart or culture.
Truth be told
Whatever the sentiment motivating Goldman's move, any shift toward corporate transparency is still a step in the right direction. We can only hope that other financial companies will likely follow Goldman's lead.
Last week, I discussed how the WikiLeaks controversy may have a silver lining: When politicians and corporations aren't transparent about issues that affect the public, others might force the issue and blow the whistle. Getting caught red-handed in the midst of dirty deeds could sink some stocks; Bank of America's
Transparency issues extend far beyond banks, of course. Johnson & Johnson's
Go toward the light
The Securities & Exchange Commission was first formed in the midst of the Great Depression. Filings like Form 10-Ks and Form 10-Qs were meant to give a full accounting of companies' business and numbers, so that investors could make informed decisions. The more information investors can access, the better their chance of finding sound long-term investments.
That's why shareholders need to do their part in demanding greater disclosure and transparency from corporations. Shareholder proposals can be instrumental in pushing companies to be more honest about their more questionable practices.
Last year, Target
In the coming year, many green investors will likely question energy companies on their environmental practices. BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster and subsequent Gulf oil spill have only given these activists more ammunition for their efforts.
Doing the right thing in the first place
All of the recent talk about transparency -- whether "forced" or voluntary -- may remind many corporate managers of an important rule of thumb. If you're doing something you wouldn't want the public to know about, something whose revelation would require tons of money in damage control to restore your reputation, perhaps you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.
Let's hope that Goldman Sachs' new push for transparency is sincere, and that it and other companies have begun to realize the expense and damage they suffer when nasty truths come to light. If big businesses can clean up their act voluntarily, they could spare themselves and their shareholders from countless future disasters.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.
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