The Greatest Non-Apology of All Time
“While we regret that we participated in the market euphoria and failed to raise a responsible voice, we are proud of the way our firm managed the risk it assumed on behalf of our client before and during the financial crisis,” he said.
Anyone else out there find himself doubled over laughing after reading Goldman, Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein’s “apology” for his bank’s behavior leading up to the financial crisis? Has an act of contrition ever in history been more worthless and insincere? Even Gary Ridgway did a better job of sounding genuinely sorry at his sentencing hearing — and he was a guy who had sex with dead prostitutes because it was cheaper than paying live ones.
Looking at Blankfein’s one-sentence apology, I’m struck in particular by a couple of phrases:
While we regret that we participated in the market euphoria…
Really, Lloyd? You “participated” in the market euphoria? You didn’t, I don’t know, cause the market euphoria? By almost any measurement, Goldman was a central, leading player in the subprime housing bubble story. Just yesterday I was talking to Guy Cecala at Inside Mortgage Finance, the trade publication that tracks statistics in the mortgage lending industry. He said that at the height of the boom, in 2006, Goldman Sachs underwrote $76.5 billion in mortgage-backed securities, or 7% of the entire market. Of that $76.5 billion, $29.3 billion was subprime, which is bad enough — but another $29.8 billion was what’s called “Alt-A” paper. Alt-A mortgages are characterized, mainly, by crappy documentation and lack of equity: no income verification, no asset verification, little-to-no cash down. So while “only” 38% of the mortgage-backed securities Goldman underwrote were subprime, more than three-fourths of their securities were what is called “non-prime,” ie either subprime or Alt-A. “There’s a lot of crap in there too,” says Cecala.
Let’s be clear about what that meant. These crap/sham mortgages, a lot of them adjustable-rate deals with teaser rates that featured sudden rate hikes two or three years after closing, they would never have been possible had not someone devised a method for selling them off to secondary buyers. No local bank is going to keep millions of dollars worth of Alt-A mortgages on its books, because no sensible company lends out money to very risky customers and actually keeps those loans on its balance sheet.
So this system depended almost entirely on banks like Goldman finding ways to securitize these instruments, ie chop the mortgages up into little bits, repackage them as mortgage-backed securities like CDOs and CMOs, and sell them to unsuspecting customers on the secondary market, most of them large institutional buyers like pensions and insurance companies and workers’ unions, many of them foreigners. Most of those customers were snookered into buying this stuff because they had no idea what it was: in the case of pensions and unions particularly, a lot of these customers only bought this crap because the peculiar alchemy banks like Goldman used in devising their mortgage-backed securities made radioactive mortgages look like AAA-rated investments. (Or at least they were given these ratings by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, ratings agencies that were financially dependent upon the very banks they were supposed to be rating — but that’s another story).
So some Dutch teachers’ union that a year before was buying ultra-safe U.S. Treasury bonds in 2006 runs into a Goldman salesman who offers them a different, “just as safe” AAA-rated investment that, at the moment anyway, just happens to be earning a much higher return than treasuries. Next thing you know, a bunch of teachers in Holland are betting their retirement nest eggs on a bunch of meth addicted “homeowners” in Texas and Arizona.
This isn’t really commerce, but much more like organized crime: it was a gigantic fraud perpetrated on the economy that wouldn’t have been possible without accomplices in the ratings agencies and regulators willing to turn a blind eye. Imagine a meat company that bred ten billion rats, fattened them on trash and sewage, ground their bodies into chuck, and then sold it all as grade-A ground beef to McDonald’s and Burger King, right under the noses of the USDA: this is exactly the same thing, only with debt instead of food. We’re eating it, they’re counting the money.
Any way you slice it, Goldman was responsible for putting tens of billions of toxic mortgages on the market, resulting in mass foreclosures, mass depletion of retirement funds, and a monstrously over-leveraged financial system that we will now all be bailing out for the next half-century or so. All of this so that Goldman could make a few billion bucks acting as the middleman in all of these deadly transactions.
Anyway, I was also struck by this phrase:
…we are proud of the way our firm managed the risk for our clients…
First of all, generally speaking, when one apologizes for having done a bad thing (like for instance destroying the world economy), it is good form to wait at least until the end of the sentence to start bragging again.
Second of all, what is particularly obnoxious about this phrase is that Goldman is bragging about the fact that it actually made money while it was pumping the economy full of explosive leverage. While companies like Lehman and Bear were dumb enough to actually eat their own rat meat, Goldman knew what it was doing and was careful to bet against the same stuff it was selling, which makes its behavior many times worse than that of other banks, not better. I get into this more in a Rolling Stone piece coming out next week, but Goldman’s continual bragging about its mortgage hedges is one of the more obnoxious phenomena in the recent history of Wall Street, given that it was selling this shit by the ton during that same period.
Beyond that, Goldman’s “risk management” also involved buying massive hedges on its mortgage exposure from…drum roll please… AIG. In fact Goldman was AIGFP’s single largest customer; while the bank was busy flooding the world financial system with doomed mortgages, it was also busy piling bets on the back of the insurance behemoth — $20 billion worth, to be exact. And AIG’s death spiral was triggered not so much by its bets going sour, but by companies like Goldman that demanded that AIG put up cash to show its ability to pay. These collateral calls were what killed AIG last September, and Goldman was one of those creditors pulling the trigger: what makes this fact even more obnoxious is that ex-Goldmanite Henry Paulson then stepped in and green-lighted an $80 billion taxpayer bailout. Ultimately another ex-Goldmanite named Ed Liddy was put in charge of AIG, and Goldman ended up getting paid 100 cents on the dollar for its AIG debt.
So basically Goldman helped kill AIG, necessitating a federal bailout, after which time it got paid off handsomely for bets that it certainly would not have been paid off completely for had AIG simply been liquidated. And again, AIG probably does not have a market to sell its CDS insurance to firms like Goldman, if firms like Goldman had not cooked up this insane scheme to underwrite billions upon billions of toxic debt and sell it off to secondary buyers as safe investments. Moreover AIG would not have even had this business of selling CDS insurance had not a bunch of ex-Goldman guys, in particular Bob Rubin, quietly pushed to deregulate the derivatives market back at the end of the Clinton administration.
So when Goldman says it is proud that it “managed the risk” for its clients, what it’s really saying is, “We’re proud that we kept the extreme crapness of our mortgage securities secret from everyone but our clients, and fobbed off the nightmare leverage they created on dumbass AIG and all the pensioners and teachers and other idiots who bought this stuff. Go fuck yourselves and suck on our yachts.”
There’s a much larger story about all of this coming out in the magazine next week, but in the meantime… hey, Lloyd, thanks for the apology. It makes us all feel a lot better.