The Savvy Mr. Blankfein

Last week, when President Obama was asked about the $9 million dollar bonus for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, he described Mr. Blankfein as a savvy businessman, adding that Americans don’t begrudge people being rewarded for success. While Obama later qualified his comment about Mr. 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. Mr. 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 fraudulently, with the 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. Goldman did not care that the loans in their bundles might not be kosher.

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 U.S. 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. 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 Tim Geithner, then the important head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and now President Obama’s Treasury Secretary.

Using exaggerations and half-truths, this triumvirate convinced Congress that we would have a second Great Depression if it didn’t cough up the money immediately with no conditions. At that point Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and most of the other major banks were staring at bankruptcy. While this cascade of bank failures would have been bad news for the economy, there was no plausible scenario in which it would have led to a second Great Depression.

There was also no reason that Congress could not have put conditions on its money. For example, Congress could have dictated that as a condition of getting the money that bankers would get the same sort of paychecks as other workers, that they would get out of highly speculative activity, that the largest banks would be downsized and that the principle would be written down on bad mortgages. At that point, Congress could have told the bank honchos that they had to run around Wall Street naked with their underpants on their head. The bankers had no choice; their banks would crash and burn without government support.

But the savvy Mr. Blankfein and the other bankers got the money no questions asked. In fact, Goldman even got the government to pick up the bankrupt AIG’s debts. Thanks to the government’s intervention, Goldman got paid every penny on its bets with AIG. This came to $13 billion, enough money to pay for 4 million kid-years of health care under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

No one should doubt that Mr. Blankfein is a very savvy banker. Without his ingenuity Goldman Sachs would likely be out of business, its component divisions being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Instead it is making record profits and paying out record bonuses.

But unlike the successful ballplayers to whom President Obama compared Mr. Blankfein, Goldman’s success is inherently parasitic. It comes at the expense of taxpayers and the productive economy. Goldman and the other Wall Street banks are successful in the same way as the savvy Bernie Madoff was successful. It seems that President Obama must still decide whether he stands with the Wall Street banks or whether he stands with the workers and businesses who actually produce wealth.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.