Did Goldman plan tax furore?

It is always tempting to hit on conspiracy rather than cock-up as the key to what happens in public life.

Anthony Hilton: 'The real story last week was that the Goldman Sachs bankers stand to collect an average bonus of £250,000 each.'
Anthony Hilton: 'The real story last week was that the Goldman Sachs bankers stand to collect an average bonus of £250,000 each.'

Not only does conspiracy make for a better story but it also plays to our need to believe that those in charge know what they are doing, even when we don't approve of their actions.

The reality, however, is that while attempted conspiracy may be common, most don't succeed.

That is why the latest Goldman Sachs saga is so intriguing. The story broke in the Financial Times two weeks ago that the UK part of the business was thinking about delaying the payment of its staff bonuses until April, when the top rate of income tax will have come down to 45 per cent.

This immediately caused an outcry, playing as it did to the feeling that the banks still think they can behave with an arrogant disregard for what society regards as acceptable norms. Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King told MPs he found it 'depressing' that Goldman should consider such a move.

Goldman backed off pretty smartly as soon as it got a sense of the public outrage. It announced it would pay bonuses to its normal timetable.

And there the story rests. The public view was that the bank had been thoughtless, but it had moved fast to limit the damage, so the matter could be laid to rest.

That is in line with the view that such PR disasters are the result of a mistake - in this case that Goldman has a tin ear when it comes to sensing the public mood. That is what most people assume. But that ignores how unlikely it is that a firm of this sophistication could be that insensitive. Thus there is another view that the whole thing was planned by Goldman.

Why would the firm do this? Well, the real story last week was that while 99 per cent of the population is struggling, the Goldman bankers stand to collect an average bonus of £250,000 each. A media focus on this would have been a major embarrassment. But by creating an easily controllable storm in a tea cup over tax avoidance the bank diverted all attention from what could and should have been its major PR problem.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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