BUBBLE #5 - RIGGING THE BAILOUT
After the oil bubble collapsed last fall, there was no new bubble to keep things humming - this time, the money seems to be really gone, like worldwide-depression gone. So the financial safari has moved elsewhere, and the big game in the hunt has become the only remaining pool of dumb, unguarded capital left to feed upon: taxpayer money. Here, in the biggest bailout in history, is where Goldman Sachs really started to flex its muscle.
It began in September of last year, when then-Treasury secretary Paulson made a momentous series of decisions. Although he had already engineered a rescue of Bear Stearns a few months before and helped bail out quasi-private lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Paulson elected to let Lehman Brothers - one of Goldman's last real competitors - collapse without intervention. ("Goldman's superhero status was left intact," says market analyst Eric Salzman, "and an investment-banking competitor, Lehman, goes away.") The very next day, Paulson greenlighted a massive, $85 billion bailout of AIG, which promptly turned around and repaid $13 billion it owed to Goldman. Thanks to the rescue effort, the bank ended up getting paid in full for its bad bets: By contrast, retired auto workers awaiting the Chrysler bailout will be lucky to receive 50 cents for every dollar they are owed.
Immediately after the AIG bailout, Paulson announced his federal bailout for the financial industry, a $700 billion plan called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and put a heretofore unknown 35-year-old Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari in charge of administering the funds. In order to qualify for bailout monies, Goldman announced that it would convert from an investment bank to a bankholding company, a move that allows it access not only to $10 billion in TARP funds, but to a whole galaxy of less conspicuous, publicly backed funding - most notably, lending from the discount window of the Federal Reserve. By the end of March, the Fed will have lent or guaranteed at least $8.7 trillion under a series of new bailout programs - and thanks to an obscure law allowing the Fed to block most congressional audits, both the amounts and the recipients of the monies remain almost entirely secret.
Converting to a bank-holding company has other benefits as well: Goldman's primary supervisor is now the New York Fed, whose chairman at the time of its announcement was Stephen Friedman, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Friedman was technically in violation of Federal Reserve policy by remaining on the board of Goldman even as he was supposedly regulating the bank; in order to rectify the problem, he applied for, and got, a conflict-of-interest waiver from the government. Friedman was also supposed to divest himself of his Goldman stock after Goldman became a bank-holding company, but thanks to the waiver, he was allowed to go out and buy 52,000 additional shares in his old bank, leaving him $3 million richer. Friedman stepped down in May, but the man now in charge of supervising Goldman - New York Fed president William Dudley - is yet another former Goldmanite.
The collective message of all this - the AIG bailout, the swift approval for its bank-holding conversion, the TARP funds - is that when it comes to Goldman Sachs, there isn't a free market at all. The government might let other players on the market die, but it simply will not allow Goldman to fail under any circumstances. Its edge in the market has suddenly become an open declaration of supreme privilege. "In the past it was an implicit advantage," says Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT and former official at the International Monetary Fund, who compares the bailout to the crony capitalism he has seen in Third World countries. "Now it's more of an explicit advantage."
Once the bailouts were in place, Goldman went right back to business as usual, dreaming up impossibly convoluted schemes to pick the American carcass clean of its loose capital. One of its first moves in the post-bailout era was to quietly push forward the calendar it uses to report its earnings, essentially wiping December 2008 - with its $1.3 billion in pretax losses - off the books. At the same time, the bank announced a highly suspicious $1.8 billion profit for the first quarter of 2009 - which apparently included a large chunk of money funneled to it by taxpayers via the AIG bailout. "They cooked those first-quarter results six ways from Sunday," says one hedge-fund manager. "They hid the losses in the orphan month and called the bailout money profit."
Two more numbers stand out from that stunning first-quarter turnaround. The bank paid out an astonishing $4.7 billion in bonuses and compensation in the first three months of this year, an 18 percent increase over the first quarter of 2008. It also raised $5 billion by issuing new shares almost immediately after releasing its first-quarter results. Taken together, the numbers show that Goldman essentially borrowed a $5 billion salary payout for its executives in the middle of the global economic crisis it helped cause, using half-baked accounting to reel in investors, just months after receiving billions in a taxpayer bailout.
Even more amazing, Goldman did it all right before the government announced the results of its new "stress test" for banks seeking to repay TARP money - suggesting that Goldman knew exactly what was coming. The government was trying to carefully orchestrate the repayments in an effort to prevent further trouble at banks that couldn't pay back the money right away. But Goldman blew off those concerns, brazenly flaunting its insider status. "They seemed to know everything that they needed to do before the stress test came out, unlike everyone else, who had to wait until after," says Michael Hecht, a managing director of JMP Securities. "The government came out and said, 'To pay back TARP, you have to issue debt of at least five years that is not insured by FDIC - which Goldman Sachs had already done, a week or two before."
And here's the real punch line. After playing an intimate role in four historic bubble catastrophes, after helping $5 trillion in wealth disappear from the NASDAQ, after pawning off thousands of toxic mortgages on pensioners and cities, after helping to drive the price of gas up to $4 a gallon and to push 100 million people around the world into hunger, after securing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars through a series of bailouts overseen by its former CEO, what did Goldman Sachs give back to the people of the United States in 2008?
Fourteen million dollars.
That is what the firm paid in taxes in 2008, an effective tax rate of exactly one, read it, one percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and benefits that same year and made a profit of more than $2 billion - yet it paid the Treasury less than a third of what it forked over to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million last year.
How is this possible? According to Goldman's annual report, the low taxes are due in large part to changes in the bank's "geographic earnings mix." In other words, the bank moved its money around so that most of its earnings took place in foreign countries with low tax rates. Thanks to our completely hosed corporate tax system, companies like Goldman can ship their revenues offshore and defer taxes on those revenues indefinitely, even while they claim deductions upfront on that same untaxed income. This is why any corporation with an at least occasionally sober accountant can usually find a way to zero out its taxes. A GAO report, in fact, found that between 1998 and 2005, roughly two-thirds of all corporations operating in the U.S. paid no taxes at all.
This should be a pitchfork-level outrage - but somehow, when Goldman released its post-bailout tax profile, hardly anyone said a word. One of the few to remark on the obscenity was Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. "With the right hand out begging for bailout money," he said, "the left is hiding it offshore."
BUBBLE #6 - GLOBAL WARMING
Fast-Forward to today. It's early June in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, a popular young politician whose leading private campaign donor was an investment bank called Goldman Sachs - its employees paid some $981,000 to his campaign - sits in the White House. Having seamlessly navigated the political minefield of the bailout era, Goldman is once again back to its old business, scouting out loopholes in a new government-created market with the aid of a new set of alumni occupying key government jobs.
AS ENVISIONED BY GOLDMAN, THE FIGHT TO STOP GLOBAL WARMING WILL BECOME A "CARBON MARKET" WORTH $1 TRILLION A YEAR.
Gone are Hank Paulson and Neel Kashkari; in their place are Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson and CFTC chief Gary Gensler, both former Goldmanites. (Gensler was the firm's co-head of finance) And instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits - a booming trillion-dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade.
The new carbon-credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won't even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.
Here's how it works: If the bill passes; there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy "allocations" or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billions worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.
The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the "cap" on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand-new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison's sake, the annual combined revenues of an electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.
Goldman wants this bill. The plan is (1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigm-shifting legislation, (2) make sure that they're the profit-making slice of that paradigm and (3) make sure the slice is a big slice. Goldman started pushing hard for cap-and-trade long ago, but things really ramped up last year when the firm spent $3.5 million to lobby climate issues. (One of their lobbyists at the time was none other than Patterson, now Treasury chief of staff.) Back in 2005, when Hank Paulson was chief of Goldman, he personally helped author the bank's environmental policy, a document that contains some surprising elements for a firm that in all other areas has been consistently opposed to any sort of government regulation. Paulson's report argued that "voluntary action alone cannot solve the climate-change problem." A few years later, the bank's carbon chief, Ken Newcombe, insisted that cap-and-trade alone won't be enough to fix the climate problem and called for further public investments in research and development. Which is convenient, considering that 'Goldman made early investments in wind power (it bought a subsidiary called Horizon Wind Energy), renewable diesel (it is an investor in a firm called Changing World Technologies) and solar power (it partnered with BP Solar), exactly the kind of deals that will prosper if the government forces energy producers to use cleaner energy. As Paulson said at the time, "We're not making those investments to lose money."
The bank owns a 10 percent stake in the Chicago Climate Exchange, where the carbon credits will be traded. Moreover, Goldman owns a minority stake in Blue Source LLC, a Utah-based firm that sells carbon credits of the type that will be in great demand if the bill passes. Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, who is intimately involved with the planning of cap-and-trade, started up a company called Generation Investment Management with three former bigwigs from Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, Mark Ferguson and Peter Harris. Their business? Investing in carbon offsets. There's also a $500 million Green Growth Fund set up by a Goldmanite to invest in green-tech ... the list goes on and on. Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot. Will this market be bigger than the energy-futures market?
"Oh, it'll dwarf it," says a former staffer on the House energy committee.
Well, you might say, who cares? If cap-and-trade succeeds, won't we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe - but cap-and-trade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax-collection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it's even collected.
"If it's going to be a tax, I would prefer that Washington set the tax and collect it," says Michael Masters, the hedge fund director who spoke out against oil-futures speculation. "But we're saying that Wall Street can set the tax, and Wall Street can collect the tax. That's the last thing in the world I want. It's just asinine."
Cap-and-trade is going to happen. Or, if it doesn't, something like it will. The moral is the same as for all the other bubbles that Goldman helped create, from 1929 to 2009. In almost every case, the very same bank that behaved recklessly for years, weighing down the system with toxic loans and predatory debt, and accomplishing nothing but massive bonuses for a few bosses, has been rewarded with mountains of virtually free money and government guarantees - while the actual victims in this mess, ordinary taxpayers, are the ones paying for it.
It's not always easy to accept the reality of what we now routinely allow these people to get away with; there's a kind of collective denial that kicks in when a country goes through what America has gone through lately, when a people lose as much prestige and status as we have in the past few years. You can't really register the fact that you're no longer a citizen of a thriving first-world democracy, that you're no longer above getting robbed in broad daylight, because like an amputee, you can still sort of feel things that are no longer there.
But this is it. This is the world we live in now. And in this world, some of us have to play by the rules, while others get a note from the principal excusing them from homework till the end of time, plus 10 billion free dollars in a paper bag to buy lunch. It's a gangster state, running on gangster economics, and even prices can't be trusted anymore; there are hidden taxes in every buck you pay. And maybe we can't stop it, but we should at least know where it's all going.