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Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

February 15th, 2010 7:29 PM

Obama and the 'savvy' bankers

In an interview, the US president described the Goldman Sachs CEO as 'savvy'. So how did he and his crew use their wisdom?

Last week, when President Obama was asked about the $9m dollar bonus for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, he described Blankfein as a savvy businessman, adding that Americans don't begrudge people being rewarded for success. While the White House later qualified Obama's comment about 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. 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 by 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.

In fact, Goldman actually recognised 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 US 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. The treasury secretary and former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson rushed to Congress and demanded $700bn for the banks, no questions asked. He dragged along Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke for support, along with Timothy Geithner, then the important head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and now President Obama's treasury secretary.

This triumvirate somehow managed to convince 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 paycheques 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 $13bn, enough money to pay for 4 million kid-years of healthcare under the Children's Health Insurance Program.

No one should doubt that 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 Blankfein, Goldman's success is inherently parasitic. It comes at the expense of taxpayers and the productive economy. President Obama must decide whether he stands with the Wall Street banks or whether he stands with the workers and businesses who actually produce wealth.

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