The only thing worse than Goldman Sachs amassing close to $20 billion in bonus money for its executives based on various government subsidies and bailout measures is listening to senior executives there trying to explain it all away. The spin job has been coming from an unlikely source: The normally media shy Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein has been making the rounds lately, talking to selective reporters, including William Cohan, who recently wrote a book about the fall of Bear Stearns and now has the firm's complete cooperation as to write something on Goldman Sachs, the most prestigious of the Wall Street firms, even if it needed a bailout to survive last year's financial crisis..
Cohan's Bear book, the first of many financial crisis tomes (including my own) wasn't exactly a puff piece, but trading access for information is a time honored journalistic practice, and it's human nature to be nicer to someone who gives you information. So presumably we'll all find out from Cohan how, in the throes of the financial crisis, Goldman really didn't need the $10 billion in bailout money it received from the federal government as its stock cratered; that it was forced to take the cash from then-Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman CEO) Hank Paulson, or how despite its exposure to troubled insurance giant AIG, Goldman was miraculously "hedged," against losses, meaning that the fed's AIG's bailout last year didn't really help Goldman survive last year's panic. No, Goldman survived because it was built for survival.
Forget the absurdity of such claims, Blankfein has been on a roll of late, repeating them time and again, not just presumably to Cohan, but to a growing number of credulous journalists who will stomach just about anything to get a few minutes with the CEO of the Great Goldman Sachs, even if its greatness was put to the test last year.
Blankfein's spinning is reaching epic proportions. Several recent stories about Goldman have cast the firm as the Great Satan of the securities markets, or as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi put it, the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." No longer is Blankfein simply trying tell the world Goldman isn't the root of all evil; rather, old Lloyd is informing us all that Goldman is a source of goodness in the world. The exact quote, from the Times of London has Blankfein professing that as CEO of the vampire squid he's actually "doing God's work," simply by doing what banks get paid to do: Raising money for clients and investing in businesses.
Oh really, Lloyd? My brother is a doctor who works in the intensive care unit of an inner city hospital; he could have a cushy lucrative practice here in New York, but he likes helping people, and yet he has never once told me he's doing God's work even after he explained one afternoon how he had just saved a homeless man's life by massaging his heart.
Believe it or not, I happen not to fall into the camp of Goldman haters, where people believe the firm is behind every scandal and conspiracy and may have even created the swine flu virus so it could corner the market for drug stocks. (Though Goldman and several other firms did seem to have no problem obtaining for their employees the swine-flu vaccine, which is in short supply.) Indeed, as I show in my new book The Sellout, when it came to risk-taking over the last 30 years on Wall Street, Goldman did it better than any other firm on the Street. The folly that was found at a firm like Bear Stearns, with its CEO caring more about playing bridge and golf (and allegedly smoking marijuana) than tending to the firm's balance sheet, would never happen at Goldman Sachs.
But there is something truly unsettling about the new message coming from the firm, honed I hear from a phalanx of image consultants who are literally trying to re-write history as the firm gets ready to dole out its enormous bonus pool. And that's what all this spinning is about. For the record Goldman Sachs didn't take down the financial system last year -- Citigroup, Merrill, Lehman or Bear are much more responsible for that. And for the record every firm spins -- its called public relations, and Goldman will need all the PR it can muster as it decides in the coming weeks how much of the $20 billion it will hand out to its executives. My sources at Goldman say Blankfein won't be stingy because he needs to prevent top producers from bolting to hedge funds and private equity.
What makes Goldman so contemptible is that its level of spin has almost no basis in reality. We are supposed to believe Goldman wasn't bailed out; it didn't need the government's money when big investors where yanking funds from the firm and its stock was plummeting and now the firm is doing "God's work," even as government bureaucrats continue to subsidize how the firm makes most of its money -- through risk taking and bond trading, all on the backs of the US taxpayer.
Goldman, in case you haven't heard, has been classified as a commercial bank, meaning it can borrow cheaply to finance its risk taking, and can borrow from the Federal Reserve in a pinch. That's why it's amassing such massive profits. And yet not a penny of its massive bonus pool will be lent out to funding-starved small businesses. Think about that: The Federal Government run by the most Liberal Administration in years, is subsidizing big business at the expense to small business.
How did this bizarre scenario develop? Who knows, but it should come as no surprise that Wall Street -- Goldman in particular -- funneled far more money to president Obama than it did to his Republican challenger, John McCain. Maybe that's why the president has been eerily silent on the Goldman Sachs subsidy, even as Lloyd Blankfein tells the world he's doing "God's work."