Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Savvy Mr. Blankfein

by Dean Baker

Last week, when President Obama was asked about the $9 million bonus for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, he described Blankfein as a savvy businessman, adding that Americans don't begrudge people being rewarded for success. While the White House later qualified Obama's comment about Blankfein and his fellow bank executives, it's worth examining more closely some of the ways in which Blankfein and the Goldman gang were "savvy."

Perhaps the Goldman gang's best claim to savvy was in buying up hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgages and packaging them into mortgage backed securities, and more complex derivative instruments, and selling them all over the world. Blankfein and Goldman earned tens of billions of dollars on these deals. The great trick was that many of the loans put into these securities were issued by banks filling in phony information so that borrowers could get loans that they would not be able to repay. But this was not Goldman's concern. They made money on the packaging and the selling of the securities.

In fact, Goldman actually recognized that many of these loans would go bad. So they went to the insurance giant AIG and got them to issue credit default swaps against many of the securities it had created. In effect they were betting that their own securities were garbage. Now that is savvy. (It says something else about the highly paid executives at AIG.)

Goldman doesn't just confine its savvy to the US economy; it shares it with the rest of the world as well. According to the New York Times it worked closely with the Greek government over the last decade to help it conceal its budget deficit. The trick was to construct complex financial arrangements that appeared on the books as "swaps," even though they were in fact loans. Greece was adding billions of dollars to its debt, and thanks to the ingenuity of the Goldman crew, no one knew about it until now.

But Goldman's greatest triumph was to get the government to come to its rescue when the financial sector was melting down in the fall of 2008 as the housing bubble that they had helped to fuel began to collapse. The treasury secretary and former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson rushed to Congress and demanded $700 billion for the banks, no questions asked. He dragged along Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke for support, along with Timothy Geithner, then the important head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and now President Obama's Treasury secretary.

Read the rest here.

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