Friday, July 31, 2009

Terra Incognita 94 part 1 Goldman Sachs' success

Terra Incognita
Issue 94

“Written to enlighten, guaranteed to offend”

A Publication of Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem, Israel


July 31, 2009

Punishing Success: Complaining about Goldman Sachs

Seth J. Frantzman

July 19, 2009

News reports of Goldman Sachs recent windfall in profits would make it seem that it was some sort of a gladiator who had received ill-gotten gains. One report called it part of a “narrowing concentration of financial power.” Robert Reich, a former Secretary of Labor labeled it one of the “last of survivors” as if it was some exotic dinosaur that had emerged from the dust of a meteor strike. In a way it had, earning $3.4 in its second quarter.
The well known economist and columnist Paul Krugman was critical. For him Goldman’s success is “bad for America” because its business model is based on the very things that supposedly brought on the financial crises of 2008. Goldman is accused of practicing “bad habits” which make another crises more likely. According to Krugman it was the financial firms that “directed vast quantities of capital into the construction of unsellable houses and empty shopping malls.” He made no mention of Fannie Mae and the U.S government’s role. And there is a bugbear behind it all, a “financial lobby” that is setting the stage for another disaster. This critique of Goldman’s profits and its payment of bonuses, estimated at $770,000 per employee, can be found on the political right as well where Glenn Beck has raked it over the coals for being in bed with the government and insinuated that it was involved in some corrupt deal with former treasury secretary (and formed Goldman executive) Hank Paulson.

But this scorn for Goldman should make us all take a step back. Why is Goldman being punished for success? Goldman Sachs made the correct choices before the financial disaster of 2008. It got rid of its exposure to sub-prime mortgages. Talking heads seem to forget that Hank Paulson forced the banks to take federal money and that several banks, such as Wells Fargo, didn’t want the money and would not have taken it without the government’s insistence that all financial institutions were ‘in this together’ as part of a way to reassure the markets. Goldman took its taxpayer bailout and promptly paid it back. It should be thanked for this not scourged. Unlike Goldman other American companies are a continued drain on the economy, such as AIG which has become a black hole of taxpayer bailouts. To date it has received $150 billion, by contrast Goldman received $12.9 billion.

America has an aversion to giant corporate monopolies and thus fears that Goldman may now be too big are valid. But the insinuation that its success, its profits and its bonuses are somehow ill-gotten and wrong represent a cultural disconnect that seems to applaud failure with a sort of schadenfreude. Would it be preferable if Goldman Sachs was still on the federal dole? Would it be preferable if it was still deep underwater in toxic sub-prime assets? Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio complained that out of work Americans have hurt feelings by seeing Goldman’s windfall. Douglas Elliot of the Brookings Institute claimed “it does not feel right that bankers should be making so much money.”
There was a time when Americans applauded success but the current crises seems to have made people secretly wish for failure because we should all be ‘in this together’. But we are not in this together and the success of Goldman will point the way to more corporate successes and less unemployment. It already employs 29,000 people, which we should applaud, rather than wishing that they be laid off.

Krugman blames Goldman for profiting when other banks failed; “Goldman made profits by playing the rest of us for suckers.” This is tantamount to saying that Toyota made ill-gotten profits by successfully understanding that building efficient reliable cars was better than building SUVs. Toyota didn’t make us suckers by taking GM’s market share. Toyota was successful in its business just as Goldman was successful in its. Goldman’s survival is similar to the seeming survival of Ford. Should we condemn Ford for not having failed like the rest of its industry? After all we want it to be ‘in this together’ with us?

While the idea of Goldman Sachs executives receiving millions in bonuses seems gratuitous when millions are out of work it is not logical to extend the appearance of impropriety to condemnation of the company because others are suffering. It is simply not true. The Goldman model has proved resilient and its brokers have proved far sighted. That is how fortunes are made and lost. In the wake of the 1929 crash a little known financial analyst named Benjamin Graham began to write a book on investing. That book, ‘Security Analysis’ became Warren Buffet’s central influence. Buffet today is not only fabulously wealthy but also a major employer of Americans. Learning from our mistakes and building wealth again so that America remains an economic power and source of inspiration should be a goal in the wake of this recession. Instead it appears some prefer that we point fingers at those who survived and profited and pull them down as well like a bunch of children at school jealously destroying a fellow student’s winning science project.

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