July 3, 2009
On giving Goldman a chance
(Response from Matt Taibbi:)
My Rolling Stone piece about Goldman Sachs hit the newsstands last week (unfortunately the piece is not yet up on the magazine’s web site, so I can’t link to it yet — but it is out in print), I started to get a lot of mail. Most of it was thoughtful and respectful criticism, although there was an amusingly large number of people writing in impassioned defense of their right, under our American system, to be ripped off by large impersonal financial companies.
“If my pension fund is buying [crap mortgages] from Goldman, and my pension fund loses lots of value, that’s not Goldman’s fault,” wrote one reader. “No one is forcing anyone to buy anything. The only thing Goldman is guilty of is making profits.”
I’m not even going to go there — the psychology of a human being who would take the time to actually write in a complaint like that is so bizarre that it would take more time than I have today to even begin discussing it. One other complaint that I will address quickly, though, is the notion that I didn’t tell Goldman’s side of the story.
“Not exactly a balanced approach,” complained one reader.
“You should take an ethics class. You have to give the other side a fair shot.”
Actually I did contact Goldman and gave the bank every opportunity to respond to the factual issues in the article. I’m bringing this up because their decision not to comment on any of those questions was actually pretty interesting.
We figured ahead of time that Goldman was probably not going to respond to many of the allegations in the article, since its MO in the past with regard to hostile journalists has usually either been to make bald denials or to simply avoid comment (that’s when they’re not using the carpet-bomb litigation technique, as in the case of GoldmanSachs666.com). So what I decided to do the first time I approached them was to send a short list of simple factual questions. If the bank decided to engage us and educate us as to its point of view on these simple questions, we would send more queries and expand the dialogue.
Given this, I tried to make that first list of questions as basic as possible.
I asked if Goldman would have turned a profit in Q1 2009 if it hadn’t orphaned the month of December 2008. Then I asked if Goldman had made changes to its underwriting standards during the internet boom years; if Goldman’s position was still that the steep rise in oil prices last year was due to normal changes in supply and demand; and if it could explain its 1991 request to the CFTC to have its subsidiary J. Aron classified as a physical hedger on the commodities market. Citing various sources, I also noted that some people had complained that its move to short the mortgage market in 2006 even as it was selling those same types of instruments proved that the bank knew the weakness of its mortgage products, and asked if the bank had an answer for that.
And I asked if the bank supported cap-and-trade legislation, and if it was fair to say (as we planned to in the piece) that the bank would capitalize financially if such legislation was passed.
I intentionally put a lot of yes/no questions on that list. If the underlying thinking behind any of those questions was faulty, it would have been easy enough for them to say so and to educate us as to the truth. Instead, here is the response that we got:
“Your questions are couched in such a way that presupposes the conclusions and suggests the people you spoke with have an agenda or do not fully understand the issues.”
You have to have swallowed half a lifetime of carefully-worded p.r. statements to see the message written between the lines here. That this is a non-denial denial is obvious, but what’s more notable here is that they didn’t stop with just a flat “no comment,” which they easily could have done.
No, they had to go a little further than that and — and this is pure Goldman, just outstanding stuff — make it clear that both I and my sources are simply not as smart as they are and don’t understand what we’re talking about. So the rough translation here is:
“No comment, but if you were as smart as us, you wouldn’t be asking these questions.”
So now word filters through that Goldman has issued yet another statement in response to the piece, this one by mouthpiece Lucas Van Praag (or Von Doom, as he apparently is often called). Again, the company does not take issue with any of the facts in the piece — not one. Here’s what he says (via Felix Salmon at Reuters):
"Taibbi’s bubble case doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny either. To give just two examples, even with the worst will in the world, the blame for creating the internet bubble cannot credibly be laid at our door, and we could hardly be described as having been a major player in the mortgage market, unlike so many of our current and former competitors.
"Taibbi’s article is a compilation of just about every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up about Goldman Sachs, but what real substance is there to support the theories?
"We reject the assertion that we are inflators of bubbles and profiteers in busts, and we are painfully conscious of the importance of being a force for good."
Okay, let’s look at that bit piece by piece.
Von Doom takes issue with the bubble argument by citing two “examples” of the case not holding water, the first being:
"… the blame for creating the internet bubble cannot credibly be laid at our door…"
I kept waiting for the “because…” clause here, but there wasn’t one. He just says so and leaves it at that. Now there is obviously some measure of hyperbole in solely blaming Goldman Sachs for something like the internet bubble, or any of the other recent Wall Street disasters, for that matter. But you’d have to be absolutely crazy (and you wouldn’t need “the worst will in the world,” either) not to accept the notion that Goldman shouldered a significant portion of the blame for the internet mess. They were, after all, the leading underwriter of internet IPOs during the internet boom years. In 1999, at the height of the boom, they underwrote 37 internet companies, most of which had little or no history and were losing money at the time of the launch. By late 1999 Goldman was underwriting one out of every five internet IPOs. They were repeatedly caught and punished for manipulating the prices of their IPOs, either via laddering or spinning. Van Evil doesn’t deny any of this, and just blithely says that one can’t credibly blame them for the internet bubble. I’m almost insulted by the lameness and half-assedness of that comeback, but that might be part of the point, to be insulting. He moves on:
"…and we could hardly be described as having been a major player in the mortgage market, unlike so many of our current and former competitors."
Again, not to beat this into the ground, but in 2006, at the height of the housing boom, Goldman underwrote over $75 billion in mortgages, over $59 billion of which were non-prime. That represented 7% of the entire market, which seems like a pretty “major” slice to me. It is true that they did not jump so completely ass-first into the market as Lehman and Bear did (note Von Doom’s bemused reference to “former competitors”), but if you read the piece, we noted why that doesn’t take them off the hook at all. Because while their “former competitors” (one of whom is clearly “former” in large part because a former Goldmanite, Hank Paulson, elected to save Goldman’s hide instead of Lehman’s) were dumb enough to hold their mortgage paper and be sunk by it, Goldman shorted their own crap, which means (and I know I’m repeating myself here) they knew that what they were selling was a loser. So while they maybe weren’t the biggest player, they were still a major player, and one can easily make the case that they were the most obnoxious player, given that they dove into this muck with their eyes wide open, unlike so many other idiots on Wall Street.
In the middle of this weirdly substanceless retort, Von Doom then goes on complain about the lack of substance in the article, makes the predictable charge that the piece was a compendium of invented conspiracy theories, then moves on to “reject” the notion that the company inflates bubbles and profits in busts (about that last part: I recommend checking out Goldman’s profit/bonus numbers in 2002, 2008, and 2009 to date. I’m not sure how they can refute the notion that they have profited during the recent financial calamities). Lastly, he says that the bank is “painfully conscious” of the importance of being a force for good, which I noted with amusement is not quite the same thing as saying that that bank is a force for good, or wants to be.
So to sum up, this all translates as:
“Taibbi’s bubble case doesn’t hold water. To use just two examples, Taibbi’s internet bubble case doesn’t hold water, and we didn’t sell as many mortgages as Lehman Brothers. Taibbi’s article is a compendium of every other story about Goldman that doesn’t hold water. We reject these theories that do not hold water, and are aware of the difference between right and wrong, making us legally sane according to the law.”
I’m aware that some people feel that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to “give both sides of the story” and be “even-handed” and “objective.” A person who believes that will naturally find serious flaws with any article like the one I wrote about Goldman. I personally don’t subscribe to that point of view. My feeling is that companies like Goldman Sachs have a virtual monopoly on mainstream-news public relations; for every one reporter like me, or like far more knowledgeable critics like Tyler Durden, there are a thousand hacks out there willing to pimp Goldman’s viewpoint on things in the front pages and ledes of the major news organizations. And there are probably another thousand poor working stiffs who are nudged into pushing the Goldman party line by their editors and superiors (how many political reporters with no experience reporting on financial issues have swallowed whole the news cliche about Goldman being the “smart guys” on Wall Street? A lot, for sure).
Goldman has its alumni pushing its views from the pulpit of the U.S. Treasury, the NYSE, the World Bank, and numerous other important posts; it also has former players fronting major TV shows. They have the ear of the president if they want it. Given all of this, I personally think it’s absurd to talk about the need for “balance” in every single magazine and news article. I understand that some people feel differently, but that’s my take on things.
Happy Independence Day!