Thus far, the World Economic Forum in Davos has been relatively free of controversy. Unless you count Lloyd Blankfein’s beard.
Yes, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the much admired/feared/loathed Wall Street firm, is sporting a tight, whitish-gray thatch of facial hair. It’s not quite a beard, but it’s getting there.
Now, facial hair isn’t very big in finance. Most of the bearded Davos figures are academics. Think Paul Krugman of Princeton and The New York Times (salt and pepper), Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia (gray and white), Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (dark before the financial crisis, considerably lighter after the financial crisis), or Barry Eichengreen of the University of California (white).
Of course, there was a time when facial hair was de rigueur on Wall Street. J.P. Morgan had a mustache, and Jay Gould sported the type of bushy beard that would have fit right in with the Avett Brothers.
But in the modern era, Wall Street has been clean shaven. Why? Beards are messy. It is easy to get flecks of steak and cigar ash caught in them. It’s challenging to trim your beard on a Gulfstream V.
In today’s culture, male facial hair also signifies irony, hipsterism, an anti-big-bank ethos, a certain opposition to the culture at large. Beards are for going to Occupy Wall Street assemblies, not for Wall Street elite assemblies. On Park Avenue, beards are about as rare as readers of Jacobin.
Here is a short and comprehensive list of prominent Wall Street beards. Jon Corzine, one of Blankfein’s predecessors as CEO of Goldman Sachs, cultivated a beard throughout his career, and carried it with him to the Senate, to the New Jersey state house, and to MF Global, where his tenure as CEO ended in disaster. Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Dime Savings Bank and Time Warner, who had a short stint as chairman of Citigroup, had one. Paul Singer, the combative proprietor of hedge fund Elliott Associates, has a relatively bushy white beard. Singer is currently engaged in litigation with Argentina over the repayment of bonds and recently had one of Argentina’s boats seized in Ghana. Gary Parr, deputy chairman of the investment bank Lazard, rounds out the Wall Street Beard Caucus.
Above all, beards generally don’t scream intensity and profits. Indeed, for certain Type A’s, growing a beard can be a sign that you’re taking it easy, adopting a quasi-slacker lifestyle, giving up. Former vice president Al Gore famously dropped out of sight, grew a beard, and added a paunch after his dispiriting loss in the 2000 election.
That’s precisely why Blankfein’s facial growth caused feverish speculation. Is this a sign that Blankfein is going casual? That he’s preparing to leave the post he has occupied or so many years? That he’s thinking of taking up organic farming and the banjo?
Not really. Here in Davos, Blankfein swept through the Congress Center with the same purposeful stride as all the other CEOs. He appeared on public panels and did a CNBC interview. Goldman has held a series of meetings and dinners with clients. Jake Siewert, Goldman’s fleece-wearing spokesman, gave me what he hopes will be the final word on Blankfein’s newfound hirsuteness. “Sometimes, a beard is just a beard.”