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The Greening of Goldman Sachs

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The US economic turnaround may not be complete. The AIG turnaround may not be complete. The GM turnaround may not be complete. But Goldman Sachs is back.

"A Swift Return to Lofty Profits" proclaimed in the New York Times, as Goldman Sachs reported that it earned $3.44 billion in the second quarter, and is preparing its largest bonus payout in history. And without doubt, those lofty bonuses are well earned.

Consider how effectively Goldman has navigated the roiling waters of the global financial crisis. First, Goldman received a $10 billion injection of TARP funds to help it weather the market turmoil. Next, it swiftly converted itself into a commercial bank and member of the Federal Reserve system, gaining access to low or zero cost capital at the Fed Discount window and access to federally guaranteed borrowing through the FDIC Temporary Liquidity Guaranty Program. Finally, it garnered a $13 billion payout at one hundred cents on the dollar for its outstanding credit default swap contracts with AIG.

Now, we are told, Goldman's profitability stems from its trading prowess in global markets. Really? A $3.44 billion profit in the second quarter could be accounted for simply by a 25% run-up in the value of the CDS portfolio from its value when AIG stood as a bankrupt counterparty.

No, Goldman may have trading prowess, but that pales against its political prowess.

Thirty years ago, most of the major Wall Street investment banks were partnerships, and those with the greatest prestige and market power--Salomon Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley--eschewed retail brokerage in favor of institutional relationships and proprietary trading. Only Merrill Lynch prided itself on retail brokerage and being a member of the New York Stock Exchange.

Then, the world changed, as investment banking firms looked far and wide for new ways to strengthen their balance sheets and access new pools of capital. One by one, the old-line partnerships fell by the wayside, casting aside their culture and independence for the lure of other people's money. Salomon merged first with Phibro, and then was subsumed into the emerging Citibank colossus. Lehman was acquired by American Express. Morgan Stanley suffered the ignominy of merging into the Sears Roebuck/Dean Witter/Discover financial services company.

Only Goldman Sachs retained its culture and identity, even though it too tossed aside its partnership heritage in exchange for the lucre and capital offered through a public stock offering.

As one watches the evolution of Goldman, it is hard not to become a conspiracy theorist. After all, Goldman's rise from merely the top of the heap into the stratosphere has come after years of growing influence in Washington as one Goldman partner after another were appointed to senior positions in the Cabinet or White House--John Whitehead, Robert Rubin, Josh Bolten, Hank Paulson, to name a few--and tens of millions of dollars of political contributions found their way from Goldman Sachs into the campaign war chests of members of Congress, of Senators and Presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Perhaps the public interest and the private interest just happened to coincide with the passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act in 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Perhaps the conversion of Goldman Sachs--a non-depositary institution--into a commercial bank, with access to Fed Funds and the Discount window, and eligible for FDIC guarantees on its debt offerings was in the public interest. And perhaps the public interest was somehow served when Goldman and others jumped to the front of the line of AIG creditors and were made whole on their credit default swap contracts with a bankrupt counterparty.

Perhaps. But we must conclude--because we believe in truth, justice and the American way--that Robert Rubin, Josh Bolten and Hank Paulson influenced and guided public policy in ways that was truly in the public interest, and that there was no nefarious connection between all of those campaign dollars and the direction of our national policy in any manner that unduly benefited Goldman Sachs over the years.

Perhaps. But this year, appearances matter. And this is the year that has seen $10 billion of TARP money and $13 billion of AIG money and who knows what amount of additional Federal Reserve funds or federal guarantee benefits flow into the coffers of Goldman Sachs.

So perhaps, this year, Goldman Sachs employees should be content with the tripling in value of their stock--surely a direct result of all of the financial largesse that has flowed Goldman's way--and perhaps this is a year when $3.44 billion of Goldman Sachs profits should not turn into bonuses, without due consideration for how all of that was possible, and where that money came from.

From the rest of us.