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Goldman and the Smell of Guilt

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The Wall Street bonus season is fast approaching and so is the anxiety level among the financial industry's CEOs. Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein is in the biggest tizzy. Just a few days after telling a newspaper reporter he was doing "God's work" at Goldman Sachs by trading stocks and bonds and keeping the markets liquefied, he has now apologized for risk-taking that nearly tanked the firm last year. More than that, he has now confirmed a story I broke weeks back about how Goldman was planning a large charitable contribution as a way to make $20 billion in bonus money, earned mostly from the government guarantees that Goldman still feasts off of, seem a bit less obnoxious. Goldman is putting aside a whopping $500 million -- the largest such donation in company history -- to help small businesses

I wondered if it ever dawned on Blankfein or his partner in this charity binge Warren Buffett -- also a Goldman shareholder -- that this money may not be theirs to do as they please. Such a major donation like this one, I am told by one prominent Wall Street CEO, should have been approved by all shareholders, blessing from the Oracle of Omaha notwithstanding.

Buffett, of course, is a legendary leftie so I understand where he's coming from; Blankfein, less so, which makes me all the more suspicious. The firm will use the money to provide educational aid and funding for 10,000 small companies. These are among the hard hit victims of the banking crisis because they can't get loans and financing to expand and in many cases survive.

But that doesn't mean any of this is right. The last thing shareholders need is such overt do-gooderism. If Goldman isn't the evil empire some in the media proclaim it to be -- populating government with its former foot soldiers who then craft economic policy to advance the firm's agenda -- then there's no need to spend shareholder money, at least not so much of it, on charity. And what say did the rank and file shareholder have in such a major cash layout? None, which should spark plenty of debate among shareholder rights advocates even if their saintly Mr. Buffett is throwing his full support behind the measure.

All of which brings me back to Lloyd Blankfein, who has spent the past four months trying to figure out how he can justify accumulating an expected $20 million in bonus money that will be handed out to his flock of bankers and traders in the coming weeks. The bonus bonanza comes just a year after Goldman was ready to go under with the rest of the Wall Street risk-takers. And were it not for extraordinary measures to prop up entities like AIG, which insured Goldman's risky assets and designated Goldman a commercial bank (meaning it was protected by the Fed) on top of a $10 billion loan, Goldman would now be in Lehman Land.

Yet it survived because of the government (translation: The American Taxpayer), and now as it maintains many of those same perks, Goldman has become immensely profitable and is building a war chest of bonus money mirroring pre-financial crisis levels. It is an odd circumstance that the home of the free market -- Wall Street -- makes money feasting off of government protections, but that's what's going on across the financial business as bonus pools begin to swell with profits. Goldman just does it better than any of its peers. That's why you're hearing Blankfein making so many dopey statements of late -- everything from his ridiculous claim Goldman wasn't bailed out, that its exposure to AIG was minimal, to some of his recent whoppers, like he doing God's Work whenever he trades a stock or completes an investment banking deal.

I put his mea culpa and this charity thing in the same category. I don't need Blankfein to apologize for risk taking, I just want him to do it with house money, not the taxpayers', and rescind his firm's Too Big To Fail status and convert into a privately held hedge fund or something along those lines. Small businesses really don't need a handout from Blankfein and Buffett to survive and prosper so they can begin hiring people as unemployment approaches 10.5%; they need lower taxes and a better business environment from a president both men and many of their counterparts on Wall Street helped elect with huge donations of the non-charitable kind.

To be sure, Blankfein and Goldman are not as evil as their critics make them out to be. The firm wasn't at the center of the financial crisis; its risk taking was large but not as systemically evil and threatening to the health of the financial system as that of Citigroup, or Merrill Lynch, as I show in my book about the financial crisis, The Sellout. And yes, while the firm does have in place its partners in key decision-making government jobs (former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, the former Goldman CEO, was the man behind last year's bailout of the firm after he let Lehman fall into bankruptcy) I can make a case that other firms have just as much stroke in Washington. Why else would mega banks JP Morgan and Citigroup remain intact even as Obama economic adviser Paul Volcker calls for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act, which would force both firms to break up? It's because the President listens more to JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon than just about anyone working at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter any of his own economic team.

But it takes more than being less bad (and less of a political animal) than your counterparts to be considered a good CEO. Somehow I just can't imagine former GE CEO Jack Welch twisting himself in knots trying to rationalize what CEOs are supposed to do, which is to make money. And what CEO would attempt to buy off public outrage about handing out billions in bonus money, if such outrage isn't justified in the first place?

For all these reasons I am recommending two things: Mr. Oracle should use his considerable clout to release taxpayers from their Goldman Sachs subsidy and make the firm a hedge fund or something different than a government protected "bank." Second, I think it's about time for Lloyd Blankfein to step down and resign as CEO of Goldman, and really start doing God's work by sparing the rest of us the stupidity of listening to his excuses.