Who is Goldman Sachs? Wall Street's top investment bank, or a company that treats its clients like muppets in order to make as much profit as possible? And what does that mean for the rest of us?
Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm's United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, touched off a firestorm earlier this month when he quit the bank after writing a deeply critical opinion column in the New York Times in which he described the company as "toxic."
"The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for," wrote Smith. "I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years."
"I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients," added Smith. "It's purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them."
Goldman Sachs responded to Smith's resignation claiming that it did not "think (Smith's op-ed) reflect(s) the way we run our business" and stating that the company "will only be successful if our clients are successful."
Both Smith's letter and Goldman Sachs response reflect a deep-seated belief in the United States that the generation of wealth by the bank for their clients is a good thing that represents value for the rest of the world.
There is absolutely no doubt that the company is profitable. The 143-year-old bank reported $28.11 billion in income in 2011 and net profits of $4.442 billion. Nor do many clients appear to have canceled their accounts after reading Greg Smith's letter because Goldman Sachs was not earning them enough of a profit.
No, to understand who Goldman Sachs is and what the real problem is, one needs first to turn to Rolling Stone magazine, the flagship periodical of rock n'roll, to the writing of a journalist named Matt Taibbi, who coined a far greater slur on the company two years ago when he described it as a "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
While this may seem hyperbolic, the 9,867 word article goes into incredible detail to explain exactly what the company has done in the last century and a half. Taibbi, who is considered one of the top investigative journalists in the country and is also a brilliant and colorful writer, sums up what Goldman Sachs does in a few choice words:
"(Goldman)'s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere -- high gas prices, rising consumer credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts... The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth -- pure profit for rich individuals."
It wasn't always this way. Marcus Goldman, a German immigrant, and his son-in-law Samuel Sachs started the company in 1869 to lend money to small businesses in New York. Investors gave Goldman Sachs money because they trusted the bank to return a good profit.
But 60 years later, in 1929 just before the Wall Street crash, Goldman Sachs went "hogwild," according to Taibbi, with its loans. It lost the equivalent of $475 billion in today's dollars -- by running an investment scheme that economist John Kenneth Galbraith would later describe as a "gargantuan insanity."
The company learned its lesson -- by the time the 20th century ended, it had figured out how to make money from speculation without losing its own money. Taibbi explains what Goldman did to make money off the tech-bubble of the last 1990s, the real estate bubble of the last decade and the oil price spike in the last few years.
Indeed three months after Taibbi's article came out, Goldman Sachs paid out millions to make allegations of shady dealing go away. In 2010, the firm paid $300 million in fines to the U.S. Treasury and another $250 million to investors -- to settle charges of securities fraud linked to mortgage investments. The company did not admit wrongdoing.
What Taibbi did not mention, however, were a couple of Goldman's other little adventures -- notably in Greece and over food prices.
Back in 2001, Goldman Sachs cut a secret deal for the government of Greece so that it could join the Euro zone. The rule to become part of this exclusive club was that the prospective new member should not have a national debt that exceeded 60 percent of Gross Domestic Product and Greece was roughly two percent over.
Under the terms of this deal with Goldman Sachs, Greece qualified by taking out a loan that hid 2.8 billion Euros in debt, under terms that instantly made the Wall Street bank 600 million Euros in profit. In fact that single transaction brought in 12 percent of Goldman Sachs profit that year, according to a recent investigation published by Bloomberg news agency.
But Goldman did not want to take a risk that Greece would not pay it back. So just in case, it took out insurance by shorting the debt just in case.
"Like the (U.S.) municipalities, Greece is just another example of a poorly governed client that got taken apart," Satyajit Das, a financial expert, told Bloomberg. "Goldman is ruthless about ensuring that its interests aren't compromised -- it's part of the DNA of that organization."
Today, Greece owes $5.1 billion for the 2001 loan, almost double what it borrowed.
One has to ask, is Goldman Sachs really doing the right thing by its clients? And what does that have to do with Greg Smith? Well, the year 2001 is important, because that was the year that Greg Smith started out at Goldman Sachs when he left college, suggesting that the firm was hardly a paragon of virtue that Smith thought it was at the time.
If Goldman Sachs was wasting New York investors money in 1929, cheating Greece in 2001, is it really a huge surprise that it was treating its clients like muppets in 2012?
Today Greece has temporarily been pulled back from the edge of financial ruin, which is in some small part because of the profits made by Goldman Sachs. Many economists claim that Greek politicians are to blame, and there is some measure of truth to that.
Should anyone outside of Greece and the U.S. care about these greedy Wall Street bankers and their hapless clients? The answer is there's more: If we are to believe Fred Kaufman, a writer for Harper's Magazine, Goldman Sachs is also partly responsible for the sudden rise in food prices in the last decade.
In the July 2010 issue of the magazine, Kaufman describes the creation of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) which amalgamated the prices of 24 raw materials, from cattle to coffee and from energy to hogs in addition to providing 219 distinct index "tickers."
Starting in 2005, commodity brokers started to use the GCSI to speculate on the price of food, driving it to unprecedented levels. Between 2005 and 2008, the price of food around the world rose 80 percent. Kaufman notes that some commodities like hard red wheat quadrupled in price over this time period.
"Investment bankers have engineered an artificial upward pull on the price of grain futures. Today, bankers and traders sit at the top of the food chain -- the carnivores of the system, devouring everyone and everything below," writes Kaufman.
"Near the bottom toils the farmer... At the very bottom lies the consumer... (F)or the roughly 2-billion people across the world who spend more than 50 percent of their income on food, the effects have been staggering: 250 million people joined the ranks of the hungry in 2008, bringing the total of the world's "food insecure" to a peak of 1 billion -- a number never seen before."
GCSI was sold by Goldman Sachs to Standard & Poors, the storied Wall Street rating agency, in 2007 so it would be unfair to blame the bank for any food price spikes today, other than having dreamt up the system in the first place.
But honestly, Goldman Sachs is just one part of the puzzle. Ezra Klein noted acidly in the Washington Post that Standard & Poor's was another institution that did not simply fail to see the mortgage bubble. "They helped cause it," he wrote.
And the roll call of shame on Wall Street has hardly ended: This Friday, Rolling Stone will publish Matt Taibbi's latest article on Bank of America, titled "Too Crooked to Fail" in which he concludes that the century old institution is "a hypergluttonous ward of the state whose limitless fraud and criminal conspiracies we'll all be paying for until the end of time."
Was anyone on Wall Street ever different? "Leadership (at Goldman Sachs) used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing," wrote Greg Smith in his New York Times column. "Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence."
Taibbi, the Greek government and Kaufman would disagree that Goldman Sachs has fallen from grace because it was never staffed by angels in the first place. And for anyone who thinks that others on Wall Street have ever been above suspicion, I recommend reading books like Liar's Poker, Den of Thieves, and Barbarians at the Gate.
In closing, this column should be not be seen as a criticism of the average banker or the humble and honest tellers who keep money safe for ordinary citizens. But there comes a time when everyone needs to worry about what the Goldman Sachs of the world are up to. Not because they are making money for their clients or off their clients, but because they are making money from all of us. (Global India Newswire)
(Pratap Chatterjee is the executive director of the San Francisco-based CorpWatch. He is the author of Halliburton's Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized The Way America Makes War and Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation.)