Which part of this is wrong, naive, or a conspiracy theory? Taibbi here is holding Goldman and Wall Street to its own past standards. That’s just journalism. And he is not out of bounds to suggest that these practices are problematic since we already know full well that they were. The history of the Tech Wreck is in the books. Its outlines are no longer a matter of serious dispute.
What’s the complaint then? That this is old news? That Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and CSFB were worse? So what?
Or take this passage about the current crisis and the Goldman role in issuing junk mortgage-backed debt:
By the peak of the housing boom in 2006, Goldman was underwriting $76.5 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities — a third of which were subprime — much of it to institutional investors like pensions and insurance companies. And in these massive issues of real estate were vast swamps of crap.
What is the argument here? That these securities were chicken salad?
Take one $494 million issue that year, GSAMP Trust 2006S3. Many of the mortgages belonged to second mortgage borrowers, and the average equity they had in their homes was 0.71 percent. Moreover, 58 percent of the loans included little or no documentation — no names of the borrowers, no addresses of the homes, just zip codes. Yet both of the major ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, rated 93 percent of the issue as investment grade. Moody’s projected that less than 10 percent of the loans would default. In reality, 18 percent of the mortgages were in default within 18 months. [Taibbi’s emphasis.]
Where are the errors in that passage? Is it wrong to suggest that this is problematic? If others were worse—this is an excuse?
Bloomberg’s Mark Pittman back in 2007 explored Goldman’s contribution to the mortgage mess while Hank Paulson ran it; The New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson was first to reveal Goldman’s stake in the AIG bailout; and Kate Kelly of the WSJ probed whether Goldman favored its shareholders over its clients in mortgage trading, But no one can argue with a straight face that the mainstream business press, which purports to cover Goldman 24/7, has mustered its considerable resources to directly address this institution’s role in the current crisis.
(For more, read this account by The Audit’s Elinore Longobardi of business press hagiography of Paulson last fall. The photos alone are worth a click.)
Taibbi’s critics make the same argument that Wall Street makes—that investors/borrowers/insurance policyholders etc. are responsible for what they buy. True, but is that really the end of the argument? If we were talking about cars or heart stents, would we say the same thing? If the argument is that pension funds and other CDO buyers are sophisticated players, that is true, but again, is that the end of the argument? What about the consequences for the rest of us?
And is it out-of-bounds to point out, as Taibbi does, that Goldman was selling securities that would explode at the same time it was betting against them? Many in the business press think so. I don’t.
That all said, “Bubble Machine” poses all sorts of problems from a journalism standpoint, and they aren’t small. Here’s how I see them:
One, the piece pushes language past the breaking point, as, for example, in the subhed:
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression - and they’re about to do it again.
“Contributed to,” “participated in, “profited from,” “been around at,” “—All these are words that could have been used in place of “engineered.” Rolling Stone didn’t go that way.
American Heritage Dictionary defines “engineer” as, “To plan, manage, and put through by skillful acts or contrivance; maneuver.” If that’s true of Goldman, or even Wall Street as whole, and these bubbles, it’s only in the broadest, most cosmic sense. The hyperbole hurts rather than helps.
As for “manipulation,” are bubbles the result of manipulations? And does exacerbating a bubble constitute manipulation? I don’t know, but the language is rough. Of course, Wall Street-backed predatory lending is rough, but this is where Taibbi leaves conventional investigative reporting behind.
But there’s something else to consider. As Taibbi’s piece forcefully reminds us, Goldman alumni, notably Rubin, Paulson, Ed Liddy (who is leaving AIG, mission accomplished), Goldman-influenced Tim Geithner, and others, have been all over the government’s policy and regulatory apparatus. Even assuming all acted in good faith as public servants, all are certainly fair game for robust attack for policy choices that either cost the country, benefited Goldman, or both. If decisions made by officials with whom you have a relationship that is less than arms-length end up benefiting you, someone’s going to take issue.