Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman, declined to detail how badly hurt his firm might have been had A.I.G. collapsed two weeks ago. He disputed the calculation that Goldman had $20 billion worth of risk tied to A.I.G., saying the figure failed to account for collateral and hedges that Goldman deployed to reduce its risk.
Here’s Bloomberg’s account, in a basically laudatory, still interesting story on October 21 by Lisa Kassenaar and Christine Harper about how Goldman has survived:
This year, Goldman also saw trouble brewing in the insurance sector and began hedging its exposure to AIG, which had a notional value of about $20 billion as of mid-September, according to a person familiar with the strategy. The hedges included short positions on AIG and other insurance companies, as well as CDSs. Goldman wouldn’t have lost money if AIG had gone out of business, the person said, although the collapse would have caused wide- spread economic distress.
“Wouldn’t have lost money” means, to me, that Goldman’s net exposure was zero.
Michael DuVally, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, told me the firm’s exposure is hedged, collateralized and ultimately “not material” to the firm’s overall financial condition. That sounds awfully close to Bloomberg’s account, but materiality is an elastic enough concept that the Times’s version can’t be excluded entirely. It’s not zero. It’s not $20 billion.
Morgenson, by the way, stands by her story in a note to me. A Bloomberg spokeswoman did the same for the Bloomberg story. They can’t both be right.
I don’t know. I have a hunch Bloomberg’s zero is, but that’s just a guess.
And that’s the problem. The real point is, at this late hour, should we really be relying on guesses, anonymous sources, or a company spokesman’s word to know where Wall Street banks’ interest lie in the disposition of public funds to fill holes created by private companies?
Taxpayers, remember, now own AIG, and they own it precisely because of well-founded fears for the counterparties to the insurance contracts it clearly could not pay. There is no other reason. The U.S. Government accidentally got into the property/casualty business (and every other insurance line) only because of AIG’s unnamed counterparties who were exposed to some unknown degree of risk of losing some undisclosed amount of money that they willingly took on for their employees’ own excessive remuneration.
And taxpayers can’t even find out who these institutions are? They’re still squinting over news stories and parsing quotes from anonymous sources, none of whom has any real knowledge themselves? How’s that again?
This is not to mention the fact that taxpayers—you remember, those people with the stagnating median incomes for the last eight years—were forced to become unwilling shareholders in Goldman itself, along with eight other firms, only because no one else would do it on the same terms.
What we have here, Audit readers, is a classic transparency problem, without doubt. Whatever Goldman’s hedges were and whatever collateral it holds—down to the last security—should be disclosed for taxpayer inspection. Those are public records now.
At this point, the old business press/Wall Street rules—relying on anonymous sources to answer a basic question—should be thrown into a giant trash compactor.
The story of the battling sources shows how little we have learned and how deeply the Wall Street culture needs to change.
On the other hand, it also shows a way forward to restoring public confidence in the government, its bailout and the bailed out institutions:
Put it all online.