Not a fan of socialism? Me either. But, if the federal government has to backstop free market excesses with taxpayer dollars, how will it eventually unravel the veil, or tarp of intervention? Or should it? The answers are about to unfold before our eyes.
In the case of the government and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), a decision on whether Goldman can repay government bailout money and be freed to pay its employees whatever it wants, may determine the winners and losers coming out of this financial collapse, and what kind of government Americans will end up with.
In her extraordinary 1999 book, "Goldman Sachs the Culture of Success," Lisa Endlich vividly chronicles the "history, mystique and remarkable success of the world's premier investment bank." That same year, the storied partnership structure of Goldman was junked in a wildly successful initial public offering (IPO).
I still keep three pages of notes distilled from Endlich's book on how to create and foster a culture of success, a la the Goldman model. They now seem quaint in light of the winner-take-all at the expense of the shareholders mentality that eviscerated the old-school standards.
That's not to say that Goldman isn't still wildly successful. On Monday, Goldman pre-announced first quarter net income of $1.81 billion. Record net revenue of $6.56 billion from trading fixed income, currencies and commodities was offset by losses in stock trading, real estate, investment banking and money management. Nonetheless, earnings were almost twice analysts' expectations.
Yesterday (Tuesday), on the heels of its good performance, Goldman announced that it had priced a public offering of 40,650,407 shares of common stock at $123 per share. Goldman will be its own sole underwriter and total gross proceeds are expected to yield approximately $5 billion.
Ironically, $5 billion is what Goldman needs to pay back the U.S. government in order to escape the salary and bonus caps imposed on bailout recipients.
A brief history.
On the remarkable day of September 15, 2008 Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. announced its intention to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. On the same day, venerable investment bank Merrill Lynch disappeared into the waiting arms of Bank of America Corp. (BAC). Six short days later, on a Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Federal Reserve announced approval of expedited applications by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley (MS) to change their status from investment banks to bank holding companies. The rapid approval of their applications would, the Fed said, "provide increased funding support" allowing both banks to borrow directly and permanently from the Fed's Discount Window and its other capital liquidity enhancing facilities.
But that wouldn't be enough. As the crisis mounted, on Sept. 23, Goldman raised $5 billion from billionaire investor Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B). And with the storied investor now onboard, Goldman rushed to raise another $5.75 billion in a common stock offering.
On Oct. 14, with the mushrooming cloud of the crisis enveloping seemingly every major bank in the country, then-Treasury Secretary Henry M Paulson (formerly Goldman Sachs' Chairman and CEO) and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke summoned the nine largest bank chief executives to Washington where they were told that they would each take a piece of government capital. Only Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) is on record as saying it didn't need the money, but the handout was forced on it too. Goldman itself took $10 billion.
On Wall Street, and nowhere more so than at Goldman, it's about compensation. But recipients of bailout money are now facing the full disclosure of their executive compensation deals, as well as having to obtain nonbinding shareholder voting on compensation issues.
The Treasury is advocating a salary ceiling for recipient senior executives of $500,000 and any additional compensation to be paid in restricted stock that vests only when government funds have been entirely repaid. And there are restrictions on golden parachutes and threats that Congress will impose a 90% bonus tax.
It's enough to make Wall Street quake in its canyon.
With the public backlash against the taxpayer-funded bonuses paid to executives and traders at crippled firms, banks are desperate to return government bailout money so they can be freed from government salary and bonus oversight.
But unfortunately for many of these banks, oversight is mandated for any recipient of "exceptional assistance," which is defined as assistance of more than $5 billion.
No wonder Goldman wants to pay back $5 billion of the $10 billion it got.
I have nothing against the free market setting compensation benchmarks, or private companies paying successful executives whatever their shareholders vote to be acceptable. And I'm not singling out Goldman Sachs. But, nowhere else in the U.S. economy – or at the highest levels of government – is there anything like Goldman's visible and invisible hands at work. And they're working in the open and more insidiously, behind the scenes and through lobbyists, to make themselves a lot of money.
There is simply not enough space in any book, let alone any article, to list the power, placement and influence of current and former Goldman Sachs alumni pulling the levers of hedge funds, corporations, politicians and governments. If you want to enlighten yourself about what you don't know about these players, simply Google: "List Goldman Sachs alumni."
Goldman, as much as any investment bank, got its hands dirty in the subprime securities business and the credit default swap business. As to its influence and its claim to premier bank status, the first question that comes to my mind is: Would Goldman even exist today if Hank Paulson hadn't had Goldman's current CEO Lloyd Blankenfein in on meetings about saving American International Group Inc. (AIG)?
Out of the $185 billion that AIG received from taxpayers, Goldman got $12.5 billion for exposure it had to credit default swaps written by AIG. I've been told by some of my hedge fund and investment banking friends that Goldman deserved that money and that the entire counterparty structure related to almost every credit default swap was a risk.
But I like to point out that Goldman is only smarter than its peers because its trading desks are lighter on their feet. I remind them that Goldman stuffed the pipelines with toxic structured collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and then was nimble enough to cover themselves better by buying credit default swaps to hedge their exposure to their own toxic slime and institutions that are too-big-to-fail, exactly like AIG.
What happens now with Goldman Sachs will set the precedent for everything else that the government will do or allow in the future with bailout recipients and industries. Will Goldman be freed up to overpay its risk takers and to make greater wagers as it also seeks to become too-big-to-fail? Will impositions be made on the corporate level, industry level, systemic level? Will free markets be free to leverage taxpayers indefinitely?
The argument, most recently made in yesterday's Wall Street Journal op-ed page by Jonathan Macey, a law professor at Yale, that "demonetizing executive pay will also drive the best managers out of private companies and into hedge funds and other boutique investment firms" implies that there is a limited amount of talent available in America, which is a supposition that I find myopic, at best.
Besides, aren't these the same people that got us into this mess?
And while letting public companies be run by shareholders – as Macey suggests – is supposed to work in principle, shareholders have been marginalized by the same Wall Street system that protects the institutions whose stocks and bonds they sell, trade and profit from.
All eyes should be on the curious relationship between government and Goldman for clues as to what shape the landscape will take when we eventually exit this calamity.
I don't want our companies, our institutions or our economy socialized any more than Adam Smith would. But I do want to see the public tail wagging the dogs of Wall Street and government.
News and Related Story Links:
Wall Street Journal:
'Say on Pay' and Other Bad Ideas
Not Just a Price Floor, Treasury Programs May be a Stable Foundation for Economic Recovery
Stock Markets Move Past Gloom and Doom in Anticipation of the U.S. Economy's Recovery
About the Author
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.
He helped develop what has become known as the Volatility Index (VIX) - to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd's TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company's "listed" and OTC trading desks.
Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.
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