Frankly, Goldman, What About the CDOs?

The Times misses the big question on Goldman

A lengthy New York Times piece on the heavy involvement of Goldman Sachs alumni in the government apparatus in charge of the financial crisis avoids altogether what to me is a pressing question: What was Goldman’s own contribution to all this?

Headlined “The Guys From Government Sachs,” the piece breaks some but not much new ground in exploring the pros, cons, and potential conflicts that might arise from the flurry of hires Hank Paulson has made to cope with the crisis, including that of Neel T. Kashkari, a thirty-five-year-old former Goldman investment banker to serve as point man on the government’s bailout.

I didn’t know that Ed Liddy, the new head of A.I.G., was a Goldman director, but then that’s not a secret either and I doubt it was decisive in the selection of the former chairman and CEO of Allstate to run the government’s new insurance company. Liddy has his own problems—the subject of another post—but they have nothing do with his being a Goldman director. (I’ll get you started on Liddy with this excellent report from Robert Hunter, the Consumer Federation’s insurance expert, on Allstate’s get-tough history on claims, as well as a story from last spring by the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune on the same subject, and a good 2006 BusinessWeek story for background.)

The Times piece raises the potential for conflicts of interest, a legitimate and obvious issue that has gotten some attention elsewhere. Strangely, though, Sunday’s piece leaves out the anecdote reported by the Times’s own Gretchen Morgenson on September 27, that presented the conflicts issue in its most glaring light: the meeting earlier that month between Paulson and Lloyd C. Blankfein, in which the former Goldman CEO and his successor discuss the fate of A.I.G.

As Morgenson wrote:

Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said.

Days later, federal officials, who had let Lehman die and initially balked at tossing a lifeline to A.I.G., ended up bailing out the insurer for $85 billion.

Again, it was already reported, so I can see why one wouldn’t want to rehash it. But in a lengthy discussion of Goldman’s potential conflicts, I’d say it merited a mention.

I’m also not nuts about the way the Sunday piece allows Goldman loyalists to respond to a charge that nobody in the piece is making: that the Paulson hires are part of a “conspiracy” or a “cabal” to exclude other bankers and/or enrich Goldman Sachs (an Audit funder). The emphasis is mine:

Not so fast, say Goldman’s supporters. They vehemently dismiss suggestions that Mr. Paulson’s team would elevate Goldman’s interests above those of other banks, homeowners and taxpayers. Such chatter, they say, is a paranoid theory peddled, almost always anonymously, by less successful rivals. Just add black helicopters, they joke.

Ha ha. Good one. Actually, no one in the piece raised anything like a conspiracy argument. The conflicts are so obvious that one doesn’t need any anonymous sources to raise them. They’re just there, as the Times notes: “Decisions that Mr. Paulson and other Goldman alumni make at Treasury directly affect the firm’s own fortunes.”

It’s true that Paulson, Kashkari, and others sold their Goldman shares, but you don’t have to be paranoid to wonder if they would help the firm that made them rich, where their friends still work, and to which they may one day return.

The Times piece continues:

“There is no conspiracy,” said Donald C. Langevoort, a law professor at Georgetown University. “Clearly if time were not a problem, you would have a committee of independent people vetting all of the potential conflicts, responding to questions whether someone ought to be involved with a particular aspect or project or not because of relationships with a former firm — but those things do take time and can’t be imposed in an emergency situation.”

This all says less about the Times, perhaps, than it does about the way Goldman’s wealth and power stoke over-the-top, wing-flapping hysteria in its defense among some sectors of the financial commentariat.

Check out this blowhard:

“There are people at Goldman Sachs making no money, living at hotels, trying to save the financial world,” said Jes Staley, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s asset management division. “To indict Goldman Sachs for the people helping out Washington is wrong.”

In hotels! Is there no end to the cruelty?! Sob. Sniffle. Thank you, Jes. Now go back and manage some assets in your division.

And of course, Goldman itself is blasé.

Goldman concurs. “We’re proud of our alumni, but frankly, when they work in the public sector, their presence is more of a negative than a positive for us in terms of winning business,” said Lucas Van Praag, a spokesman for Goldman. “There is no mileage for them in giving Goldman Sachs the corporate equivalent of most-favored-nation status.”

Frankly, Lucas, whatever you just said, because, frankly, it has no meaning.

But frankly, as long as we’re being frank, what about this issue:

They also question why Goldman, which with other firms may have helped fuel the financial crisis through the use of exotic securities, has such a strong hand in trying to resolve the problem.

That’s the most uncovered issue of the entire crisis, and it’s stuck inside an interior clause of a single sentence. I’ve written about it before. I’ll write about it again:

Readers need a better understanding of where Goldman fits into the creation of this toxic wasteland that is our global financial system—just as they need a better understanding of where all of Wall Street fits in. We need some accounting and accountability here, a look at the entire mortgage conveyor belt that stretched from Wall Street to Orange County to the Ameriquests of the world and back again. It’s that machine that brought us to this day.

So far, the best examination of this critical issue still belongs to This American Life. That’s a radio show. Who else will step up?

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.