FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Interrogation of Lloyd Blankfein

by MIKE WHITNEY

Tuesday’s hearings of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations laid the groundwork for future criminal prosecutions of Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein and his chief lieutenants whose reckless and self-serving actions helped to precipitate the financial crisis. Committee chairman Senator Carl Levin (a former prosecutor) adroitly managed the proceedings in a way that narrowed their scope and focused on four main areas of concern. Through persistent questioning, which bordered on hectoring, Levin was able to prove his central thesis:

1. That Goldman puts its own interests before those of its clients.

2. That Goldman knowingly misled it clients and sold them “crap” that it was betting against.

3. That Goldman made billions trading securities that pumped up the housing bubble.

4. That Goldman made money trading securities that triggered a market crash and led to the deepest recession in 80 years.

The hearings lasted for 8 hours and included interviews with seven Goldman executives. Every senator had the opportunity to make a statement and question the Goldman employees. But the day belonged to Carl Levin. Levin was well-prepared, articulate and relentless. He had a game-plan and he stuck to it. He peppered Goldman’s Blankfein with question after question like a prosecuting attorney cross-examining a witness. He never let up and never veered off topic. He knew what he wanted to achieve and he succeeded. Here’s a clip from his opening statement:

“The evidence shows that Goldman repeatedly put its own interests and profits ahead of the interests of its clients and our communities…..It profited by taking advantage of its clients’ reasonable expectation that it would not sell products that it didn’t want to succeed….

Goldman’s actions demonstrate that it often saw its clients not as valuable customers, but as objects for its own profit….Goldman documents make clear that in 2007 it was betting heavily against the housing market while it was selling investments in that market to its clients. It sold those clients high-risk mortgage-backed securities and CDOs that it wanted to get off its books in transactions that created a conflict of interest between Goldman’s bottom line and its clients’ interests.” (Senator Carl Levin’s opening statement for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations)

Levin’s entire statement is worth reading, but these two paragraphs distill his plan for exposing Goldman. He was determined to “go small” and repeat the same points over and over again. And it worked. From a purely strategic point of view, Levin’s battleplan was flawless. The Goldman execs never knew what hit them. They swaggered into the chamber thinking they’d breeze through the hearings and have a few laughs over cocktails afterwards, and left with their heads in their hands. They were outmatched and outmaneuvered.

Senator Carl Levin:

“These findings are deeply troubling. They show a Wall Street culture that, while it may once have focused on serving clients and promoting commerce, is now all too often simply self-serving. The ultimate harm here is not just to clients poorly served by their investment bank. It’s to all of us. The toxic mortgages and related instruments that these firms injected into our financial system have done incalculable harm to people who had never heard of a mortgage-backed security or a CDO, and who have no defenses against the harm such exotic Wall Street creations can cause….

These facts end the pretense that Goldman’s actions were part of its efforts to operate as a mere “market-maker,” bringing buyers and sellers together. These short positions didn’t represent customer service or necessary hedges against risks that Goldman incurred as it made a market for customers. They represented major bets that the mortgage securities market – a market Goldman helped create – was in for a major decline. Goldman continues to deny that it shorted the mortgage market for profit, despite the evidence…

The firm cannot successfully continue to portray itself as working on behalf of its clients if it was selling mortgage related products to those clients while it was betting its own money against those same products or the mortgage market as a whole. The scope of this conflict is reflected in an internal company email sent on May 17, 2007, discussing the collapse of two mortgage-related instruments, tied to WaMu-issued mortgages, that Goldman helped assemble and sell. The “bad news,” a Goldman employee says, is that the firm lost $2.5 million on the collapse. But the “good news,” he reports, is that the company had bet that the securities would collapse, and made $5 million on that bet. They lost money on the mortgage related products they still held, and of course the clients they sold these products to lost big time. But Goldman Sachs also made out big time in its bet against its own products and its own clients.” (Sen. Carl Levin)

Levin had all the facts at his fingertips and put them to good use. Goldman’s execs were on their heels from the start and never really regained their footing. Even worse, the hearings showed that Goldman cannot be trusted. Their reputation is in ruins. Levin proved that if Goldman has junk in its portfolio, it won’t hesitate to dump it on its clients and then pass around high-fives at the prop-desk. Here’s a typical exchange between Levin and the former head of Goldman’s mortgage department, Dan Sparks:

SEN. CARL LEVIN: June 22 is the date of this e-mail. “Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal.” How much of that “shitty deal” did you sell to your clients after June 22, 2007?

DAN SPARKS: Mr. Chairman, I don’t know the answer to that. But the price would have reflected levels that they wanted to invest…

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Oh, of course.

DAN SPARKS: … at that time.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: But you didn’t tell them you thought it was a shitty deal.

DAN SPARKS: Well, I didn’t say that.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Who did? Your people, internally. You knew it was a shitty deal, and that’s what your…

DAN SPARKS: I think the context, the message that I took from the e-mail from Mr. Montag, was that my performance on that deal wasn’t good.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: How about the fact that you sold hundreds of millions of that deal after your people knew it was a shitty deal? Does that bother you at all; you sold the customers something?

DAN SPARKS: I don’t recall selling hundreds of millions of that deal after that.

Levin was just as tough on Blankfein, reiterating the same question over and over again: “Is there not a conflict when you sell something to somebody, and then you bet against that same security, and you don’t disclose that to the person you’re selling it to? Do you see a problem?”

At first, Blankfein acted like he’d never considered the question before, as if “putting himself in his client’s shoes” was something that never even entered his mind. His look of utter bewilderment was revealing. Then he launched into the excuses, the evasions, and the elaborate, long-winded ruminations that one expects from schoolboys and hucksters. But Levin never gave and inch. He kept pushing until Blankfein finally gave up and responded.

“No,” he stammered, “In the context of market-making that’s not a conflict.”

Blankfein’s answer was a triumph for Levin, and he knew it. To the millions of people watching the sequence on TV, Blankfein’s denial was as good as an admission of guilt. It showed that Wall Street kingpins don’t share the same morals as everyone else. In fact, Blankfein seemed genuinely confused that morality would even be an issue. After all, it wasn’t for him.

Levin covered some old ground, pointing to Goldman’s dealings with Washington Mutual’s Long Beach unit which was a “conveyor belt” for garbage subprimes which frequently blew up just months after they were issued. It’s clear that Goldman knew the mortgages were junk that were “polluting the financial system”, but that made no difference. Goldman feels that it’s responsible to its shareholders alone, not the people who bailed it out.

All in all, it was a bad day for the holding company that’s come to embody everything that’s wrong with Wall Street. Goldman entered the hearings as the most successful financial institution in the country, and left with its reputation in tatters and its future uncertain. Its CEO came across as shifty and jesuitical while his executives seemed arrogant and uncooperative. At no point during the hearings did any of the Goldman throng look at ease with themselves or their answers. They remained rigid and sullen throughout. On top of that, they were unable to defend themselves against the main charge, that they don’t mind sticking it to their clients if it means a bigger slice of the pie for themselves.

The truth is, the Golden boys were handled quite capably by an elderly statesman who took them to the woodshed and gave them a good hiding. Levin’s stunning performance is likely to draw attention to the upcoming SEC proceedings and, hopefully, build momentum for more subpoenas, indictments, arrests, and long prison sentences.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state and cvan be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

More articles by:

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 22, 2017
Jason Hirthler
Invisible Empire Beneath the Radar, Above Suspicion
Ken Levy
Sorry, But It’s Entirely the Right’s Fault
John Laforge
Fukushima’s Radiation Will Poison Food “for Decades,” Study Finds
Ann Garrison
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and the UK’s Socialist Surge
Phillip Doe
Big Oil in the Rocky Mountain State: the Overwhelming Tawdriness of Government in Colorado
Howard Lisnoff
The Spiritual Death of Ongoing War
Stephen Cooper
Civilized, Constitution-Loving Californians Will Continue Capital Punishment Fight
Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla
Cuba Will Not Bow to Trump’s Threats
Ramzy Baroud
Israel vs. the United Nations: The Nikki Haley Doctrine
Tyler Wilch
The Political Theology of US Drone Warfare
Colin Todhunter
A Grain of Truth: RCEP and the Corporate Hijack of Indian Agriculture
Robert Koehler
When the Detainee is American…
Jeff Berg
Our No Trump Contract
Faiza Shaheen
London Fire Fuels Movement to Challenge Inequality in UK
Rob Seimetz
Sorry I Am Not Sorry: A Letter From Millennials to Baby Boomers
June 21, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
Resist This: the United States is at War With Syria
James Ridgeway
Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9-11
Diana Johnstone
The Single Party French State … as the Majority of Voters Abstain
Ted Rall
Democrats Want to Lose the 2020 Election
Kathy Kelly
“Would You Like a Drink of Water?” Please Ask a Yemeni Child
Russell Mokhiber
Sen. Joe Manchin Says “No” to Single-Payer, While Lindsay Graham Floats Single-Payer for Sick People
Ralph Nader
Closing Democracy’s Doors Until the People Open Them
Binoy Kampmark
Barclays in Hot Water: The Qatar Connection
Jesse Jackson
Trump Ratchets Up the Use of Guns, Bombs, Troops, and Insults
N.D. Jayaprakash
No More Con Games: Abolish Nuclear Weapons Now! (Part Four)
David Busch
The Kingdom of Pence–and His League of Flaming Demons–is Upon Us
Stephen Cooper
How John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” Helps Us Navigate Social Discord
Madis Senner
The Roots of America’s Identity and Our Political Divide are Buried Deep in the Land
June 20, 2017
Ajamu Baraka
The Body Count Rises in the U.S. War Against Black People
Gary Leupp
Russia’s Calm, But Firm, Response to the US Shooting Down a Syrian Fighter Jet
Maxim Nikolenko
Beating Oliver Stone: the Media’s Spin on the Putin Interviews
Michael J. Sainato
Philando Castile and the Self Righteous Cloak of White Privilege
John W. Whitehead
The Militarized Police State Opens Fire
Peter Crowley
The Groundhog Days of Terrorism
Norman Solomon
Behind the Media Surge Against Bernie Sanders
Pauline Murphy
Friedrich Engels: a Tourist In Ireland
David Swanson
The Unifying Force of War Abolition
Louisa Willcox
Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tom Udall Back Tribes in Grizzly Fight
John Stanton
Mass Incarceration, Prison Labor in the United States
Robert Fisk
Did Trump Denounce Qatar Over Failed Business Deals?
Medea Benjamin
America Will Regret Helping Saudi Arabia Bomb Yemen
Brian Addison
Los Angeles County Data Shows Startling Surge in Youth, Latino Homelessness
Native News Online
Betraying Indian Country: How Grizzly Delisting Exposes Trump and Zinke’s Assault on Tribal Sovereignty and Treaty Rights
Stephen Martin
A Tragic Inferno in London Reflects the Terrorism of the Global Free Market
Debadityo Sinha
Think Like a River
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail