Goldman Sachs, Wall Street's last leading private partnership, today starts talks about whether to end a 130-year-old tradition by agreeing to an initial public offering (IPO). For the company's 190 partners a 'yes' vote to sell a stake to the public could mean a one-off windfall of up to US$200 million each. That is a tidy sum even for bankers whose annual bonus can run from $8 million to $10 million. It is the seventh time since 1970 that partners at the elite company have considered subjecting themselves to the public scrutiny necessary before a share float. Those who claim to know the company say that this time most of the opposition has been sidelined. A decision is expected on Sunday as to whether the firm will go ahead with an offering. By then the main focus could be on how much of the company the partners want to see slip into public hands. The IPO proposal, drawn up by Goldman's bankers, values the firm at $30 billion. This is at the high end of Wall Street's estimates which range from about $25 billion. Last Monday, chairman Jon Corzine told employees on a taped telephone message that the company was doing 'extremely well'. For some partners, the present success and robust United States markets mean this is a golden opportunity to launch an offering. A Goldman employee said: 'We would be doing this at a time of great strength.' But there are more reasons for going public than the huge cash incentives for partners. It would provide a chance to stabilise the company's capital structure and replace partners' capital with equity. This is important in a period of rapid consolidation across the financial services industry. Stock swaps have been the means for the majority of bank and brokerage takeovers. This has left Goldman at a huge disadvantage. The firm is estimated to have about $6.3 billion in partners' capital but this might not be enough to buy a large investment bank or unit trust company. The vast sums involved for takeovers mean that partners can no longer simply club together and dip into their reinvested bonuses to fund deals. Some analysts argue that for Goldman to retain its position among the ranks of Wall Street's finest it must build up its war chest. Rivals such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Merrill Lynch have displayed a healthy appetite for strategic acquisitions and have seen their bottom lines swollen by record profits. Equity partners of the Wall Street rivals have also seen their generous pay packets inflated by the gains on their stock options. Morgan Stanley's stock has increased more than seven-fold since it went public in 1986. A Goldman partnership is claimed to be the dream of every starry-eyed Ivy League MBA graduate seeking a career on Wall Street. An investment banker from a rival house said: 'Goldman's pedigree is very pure. People who join, join early and stay there. The company is hugely influential in the world's capital markets and its partners are looked up to just because of the volume of business they do. 'People covet their role. It's not so much that they are brighter but the work environment is extremely intense, almost to a person the intensity is extreme. They also have a corporate culture that is very finely tuned and well understood.' But an increasing number of employees need more than a promise of a partnership if they are not going to be lured by headhunters. The IPO would have to include incentives for the company's 210 managing directors, who do not have equity participation, and lower-level vice-presidents. Junior partners, who have small stakes in the company, might also be resentful that they might not do as well as more senior partners. It is an issue that has bitterly divided the ranks in previous debates about going public. But there are dangers in a public offering for a white-shoe investment bank that has drawn strength and prestige from its low profile. In a period of rapid consolidation in the financial services industry there is the risk that by placing a big stake in the market, Goldman could become a target for a predator. That is why when a decision is made in the next day or so, only a minority of shares might be on offer to shareholders.