Goldman Sachs May Be Doing "God's Work," But It Still Needed Taxpayer Help

Last Updated Nov 9, 2009 9:45 AM EST

In an interview with the London newspaper The Sunday Times this weekend, Goldman Sachs' (GS) chief executive Lloyd Blankfein pulled no punches when it came to his take on the bank's role in the global economic landscape. Goldman is "doing God's work," said Blankfein:
"We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It's a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."

... He insists we should be celebrating his bank's success, not condemning it. "Everybody should be, frankly, happy," he says.
While these comments undoubtedly make for a lively discussion in populist political circles, it is Blankfein's comments on the details of the various government bailout packages that are, in a sense, the most unnerving of all:
Blankfein dismisses any suggestion that Gold-man (sic) needed to be bailed out, and, by extension, rejects any notion that the firm is now profiting from public support. Sure, he took $10 billion from Washington's Troubled Asset Relief Program (Tarp). But the bank has since repaid the cash, with healthy interest -- 23%. Goldman also bene-fited (sic) from the federal bail-out of the huge US insurance firm AIG. Goldman had bought $20 billion worth of insurance from AIG and received billions of dollars -- perhaps as much as $13 billion -- when Washington pumped $90 billion into the stricken giant. But Blankfein insists Goldman was "hedged" against any AIG losses, in the best possible way -- with cash. So even if AIG had gone under, Goldman would not have suffered.
Whatever your opinion on the issue of Goldman's status as Almighty Creator in today's financial environment, it is hard to see that Blankfein isn't being a little flippant with the facts of history here. At the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Goldman was forced to raise $10 billion of fresh capital by selling a 15 percent stake in itself to Warren Buffett and other investors. (At $123 per share, the sale was completed around 30 percent cheaper than today's market price of $170 per share.)

Just days before the share sales -- which directly allowed Goldman to stay afloat -- the firm received around $12 billion in government aid. What is more, Blankfein was the only U.S. chief executive present at a September 2008 Federal Reserve meeting to discuss AIG's (AIG) $44.6 billion loan.


Presumably, if Goldman Sachs had been able to privately raise the initial $12 billion provided to it by the U.S. government, it would have done so. What seems much more likely is that the investors -- including Buffett -- who later agreed to commit an additional $10 billion only did so on the basis that the firm was reasonably supported by government aid. That way, they could be assured that their money was not merely serving as a stopgap to bankruptcy.

This point is all the more prescient in light of the recent bankruptcy filing of CIT Group (CIT), a small business lender. The whole reason share sales were not a viable capital raising option for CIT was because the government denied the firm's application for government aid earlier in the year.

No one wants to be left holding common stock when a company is headed for Chapter 11. While Goldman's near-bankruptcy experience was shorter-lived than for most financial firms, it cannot be denied that it did indeed once face the very real possibility of having to drag itself through the courts. Lloyd Blankfein ought to be honest about that, if only to show that he is aware of the real possibilities of systematic risk.
  • Daniel Harrison

    Daniel M. Harrison is a business journalist who has written for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Forbes.com.

    In 2007, Harrison initiated Asian market coverage for TheStreet.com, reporting from New York and Hong Kong. He also served for a while as Opening Bell Editor at the financial blog Dealbreaker.com. Harrison is the publisher, editor and writer of The Global Perspective, and you can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/bizjourno.

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