The events preceding Goldman Sachs’ new “blowout profits”

In May, a former top IMF official noted: "the finance industry has effectively captured our government."

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(Updated belowUpdate IIUpdate IIIUpdate IV)

Remember all of this — the $700 billion bank bailout, the AIG scandal, dark and scary threats of imminent global meltdown if there wasn’t full-scale capitulation by the citizenry to the immense transfer of public wealth to the private investment banking sector?  Such distant, hazy memories:  so many exciting celebrity deaths and riveting celebrity resignations ago.  If sequences of events like these don’t cause mass citizen outrage, then it’s hard to imagine what will:

The New York Times, September 19, 2008:

WASHINGTON — It was a room full of people who rarely hold their tongues. But as the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, laid out the potentially devastating ramifications of the financial crisis before congressional leaders on Thursday night, there was a stunned silence at first.

Mr. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. had made an urgent and unusual evening visit to Capitol Hill, and they were gathered around a conference table in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“When you listened to him describe it you gulped,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

As Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, put it Friday morning on the ABC program “Good Morning America,” the congressional leaders were told “that we’re literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally.”

Mr. Schumer added, “History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment.”

When Mr. Schumer described the meeting as “somber,” Mr. Dodd cut in. “Somber doesn’t begin to justify the words,” he said. “We have never heard language like this.”

“What you heard last evening,” he added, “is one of those rare moments, certainly rare in my experience here, is Democrats and Republicans deciding we need to work together quickly.”



ABC News, September 26, 2008:

The embattled Goldman Sachs investment banking firm and its employees have spent more than $43 million dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to cultivate friends and buy influence in Washington, D.C. since 1989, according to an ABC News analysis of campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

As a group, Goldman Sachs bankers have been the country’s top political campaign contributors this year and have given $29.5 million in contributions since 1989, according to the Center.

“They are almost in a class by themselves,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Their top executives are in a class that is way above the clout and name-dropping that most other American businesses can achieve,” says Krumholz.

The New York Times, September 27, 2008:

Two weeks ago, the nation’s most powerful regulators and bankers huddled in the Lower Manhattan fortress that is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, desperately trying to stave off disaster.

As the group, led by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., pondered the collapse of one of America’s oldest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, a more dangerous threat emerged: American International Group, the world’s largest insurer, was teetering. A.I.G. needed billions of dollars to right itself and had suddenly begged for help.

One of the Wall Street chief executives participating in the meeting was Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson’s former firm. Mr. Blankfein had particular reason for concern.

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.

MSNBC, October 3, 2008:

President Bush signed into law Friday a historic $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry, promising to move swiftly to use his sweeping new authority to unlock frozen credit markets to get the economy moving again. . . .

But Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said compromise was needed. He said that while he strongly opposed the Senate’s decision to pay for many of the tax breaks with debt, he could not forget everyday Americans at home who were struggling. “For their sake, we must act,” Hoyer said in a floor speech.

Wall St. Journal, October 6, 2008:

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is expected to tap Neel Kashkari, a key adviser on whom he has come to rely heavily during the financial crisis, to oversee Treasury’s $700 billion program to buy distressed assets from financial institutions, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Kashkari, 35 years old, a Treasury assistant secretary for international affairs and a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker, is expected to be named interim head of Treasury’s new Office of Financial Stability as early as Monday. The position confers substantial power on Mr. Kashkari. . . .

New York Times, December 13, 2008 — “A Champion of Wall Street Reaps Benefits”:

Senator Schumer plays an unrivaled role in Washington as beneficiary, advocate and overseer of an industry that is his hometown’s most important business.

An exceptional fund raiser — a “jackhammer,” someone who knows him says, for whom “‘no’ is the first step to ‘yes,’” — Mr. Schumer led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the last four years, raising a record $240 million while increasing donations from Wall Street by 50 percent.  That money helped the Democrats gain power in Congress, elevated Mr. Schumer’s standing in his party and increased the industry’s clout in the capital.

But in building support, he has embraced the industry’s free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis. . . . But Mr. Schumer, a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, repeatedly took other steps to protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules, a review of his record shows. Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees.

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

USA Today, January 27, 2009:

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner picked a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist as a top aide Tuesday, the same day he announced rules aimed at reducing the role of lobbyists in agency decisions.

Mark Patterson will serve as Geithner’s chief of staff at Treasury, which oversees the government’s $700 billion financial bailout program.

Reuters, March 16, 2009:

President Barack Obama’s nominee to oversee U.S. futures markets, who has confessed he should have done more to rein in exotic financial instruments that have battered global markets, was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday.

The approval of Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive, clears the way for a Senate vote putting him in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

He was approved by a roll-call vote.

Robert Reich, March 18, 2009:

We’ve also learned that much of the 170 billion has been used by AIG to pay off AIG’s putative obligations to other Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs. Goldman has maintained that it got no bailout money from the Treasury. But in fact it received some $13 billion through AIG. More troubling is that the original plan to bail out AIG was concocted at a meeting held last fall, run by then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson who, before becoming Teasury Secretary, had been CEO of Goldman Sachs. Also attending the meeting was Lloyd Blankenfein, the current CEO of Goldman Sachs. Also at the meeting: Tim Geithner, then head of the New York Fed.

Tom Edsall, The Huffington Post, April 2, 2009:

Decisions made during the final months of the Bush administration created an environment in which the most politically connected investment banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, not only flourished, but saw their competitors laid waste, with firms like Lehman in bankruptcy, and others, like Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, forced to merge in desperate hope of surviving.

Former federal bank regulator Bill Black, The Bill Moyers Show, April 3, 2009:

BLACK: The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson’s firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn’t want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.

Where Congress said, “We will not give you a single penny more unless we know who received the money.” And, you know, when he was Treasury Secretary, Paulson created a recommendation group to tell Treasury what they ought to do with AIG. And he put Goldman Sachs on it.

MOYERS: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.

BLACK: Massive stake. And even though he had just been CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming Treasury Secretary. Now, in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn’t be allowed in civilized society.

MOYERS: Yeah, like a conflict of interest, it seems.

BLACK: Massive conflict of interests.

MOYERS: So, how did he get away with it?

BLACK: I don’t know whether we’ve lost our capability of outrage. Or whether the cover up has been so successful that people just don’t have the facts to react to it. 

The Washington Post, April 4, 2009:

Lawrence H. Summers, one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, collected roughly $5.2 million in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw over the past year and was paid more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations. . . . Fees ranged from $45,000 for a Nov. 12 Merrill Lynch appearance to $135,000 for an April 16 visit to Goldman Sachs, according to his disclosure form.

New York Times, April 27, 2009:

An examination of Mr. Geithner’s five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.

Former IMF Chief Economist and current MIT Professor Simon Johnson, The Atlantic, May 2009:

THE ATLANTIC:  The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government — a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. . . . .

JOHNSON:  Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique — the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk — at least until the riots grow too large. . . .

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, this month:

Any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.

Paul Krugman, The New York Times, today:

At this point, however, the acute crisis has given way to a much more insidious threat. Most economic forecasters now expect gross domestic product to start growing soon, if it hasn’t already. But all the signs point to a “jobless recovery”: on average, forecasters surveyed by The Wall Street Journal believe that the unemployment rate will keep rising into next year, and that it will be as high at the end of 2010 as it is now.

Now, it’s bad enough to be jobless for a few weeks; it’s much worse being unemployed for months or years. Yet that’s exactly what will happen to millions of Americans if the average forecast is right — which means that many of the unemployed will lose their savings, their homes and more.

The New York Times, today:

Most of Wall Street, and America, is still waiting for an economic recovery. Then there is Goldman Sachs.

Up and down Wall Street, analysts and traders are buzzing that Goldman, which only recently paid back its government bailout money, will report blowout profits from trading on Tuesday.

Analysts predict the bank earned a profit of more than $2 billion in the March-June period, because of its trading prowess across world markets. If they are right, the bank’s rivals will once again be left to wonder exactly how Goldman, long the envy of Wall Street, could have rebounded so drastically only months after the nation’s financial industry was shaken to its foundations. . . .

Startling, too, is how much of its revenue Goldman is expected to share with its employees. Analysts estimate that the bank will set aside enough money to pay a total of $18 billion in compensation and benefits this year to its 28,000 employees, or more than $600,000 an employee. Top producers stand to earn millions.

Other than those individuals whose life purpose is to serve as reverent apologists and servile defenders for the most powerful financial elites, is there anyone who would be willing to claim with a straight face that the last event is unrelated to all the ones that preceded it?  Add to that all the Serious consensus-talk about how the country can’t afford health care reform and how Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be cut because they’re too expensive, and the picture couldn’t be clearer. 

Read the above-excerpted paragraph from Simon Johnson describing how, in his experience, fundamentally corrupt emerging-market nations respond to financial crises (“at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government. . . . Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms.  Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk — at least until the riots grow too large”). That “until” provision never seems to be triggered, which is why, as Johnson points out, the behavior continues unabated.

 

UPDATE: Several commenters add a crucial point:  back in September, the Federal Reserve allowed Goldman (and a few other surviving institutions) to convert from an investment bank into a bank holding company.  The Wall St. Journal claimed at the time that the move meant the firm would “come under the close supervision of national bank regulators, subjecting them to new capital requirements, additional oversight, and far less profitability than they have historically enjoyed.”  A mere nine months later, Goldman boasts of “blowout profits.”  So much for “less profitability.”  As for allegedly greater regulations and capital restrictions, they freely admitted from the start:  ”‘We don’t believe we’ll have to get out of any businesses,’ says Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman. Adds Morgan Stanley’s Mark Lake, ‘There will not be much in terms of divestitures’.”

But what the conversion did allow was access to lending from the Federal Reserve.  Since then, the Fed has increased its balance sheet by $2 trillion while steadfastly refusing to disclose the beneficiaries of that credit.  Thus, even aside from the bailout money it directly received and the billions in bailout money which it indirectly received (through AIG), Goldman has had access to massive amounts of Fed lending in order to fuel its bulging profits.  That unimaginably enormous (though entirely secret) lending is, in part, what is behind the Ron Paul-sponsored bill to audit the Fed — a bill that is now co-sponsored by a majority of House members from across the political spectrum (progressive, conservative and everything in between), yet which continues to be blocked by Congressional leaders from receiving a floor vote.

 

UPDATE II: I’ve been commenting on the Sotomayor hearing on Twitter — only because my sanity precludes my remaining silent as I watch this ludicrous spectacle.  Those interested can follow the feed, and read the commentaries from today, here.

 

UPDATE III: It’s worth recalling this bit of central truth, blurted out in April by the number two Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Dick Durbin:

And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.

That was nice and blunt.  That same week, it was announced that the newly-hired top lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, Michael Paese, was — immediately prior to his hiring — the top staffer to Rep. Barney Frank on the House Financial Services Committee chaired by Frank.  If one’s goal were to make all of this as blatant as possible, what else could one do besides what’s being done?

 

UPDATE IV: The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim has details on growing anger among Congressional Democrats at the refusal of the Treasury Department to provide even basic disclosure and transparency regarding the disposition of TARP funds.  Indeed, Geithner is simply refusing even to acknowledge their inquiries, and it looks as though the Democratic-led Congress will impose a legal deadline for him to do so.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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