I got a lot of letters from folks this week about an online column for Forbes written by a self-proclaimed Ayn Rand devotee named Harry Binswanger (if that's a nom de plume, it's not bad, although I might have gone for "Harry Kingbanger" or "Harry Wandwanker"). The piece had the entertainingly provocative title, "Give Back? Yes, It's Time for the 99% to Give Back to the 1%" and contained a number of innovatively slavish proposals to aid the beleaguered and misunderstood rich, including a not-kidding-at-all plan to exempt anyone who makes over a million dollars from income taxes.
This article is so ridiculous that normally it would be beneath commentary, but there's a passage in there I just couldn't let go:
Imagine the effect on our culture, particularly on the young, if the kind of fame and adulation bathing Lady Gaga attached to the more notable achievements of say, Warren Buffett. Or if the moral praise showered on Mother Teresa went to someone like Lloyd Blankfein, who, in guiding Goldman Sachs toward billions in profits, has done infinitely more for mankind. (Since profit is the market value of the product minus the market value of factors used, profit represents the value created.)
Instead, we live in a culture where Goldman Sachs is smeared as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity. . ."
What a world we live in, where Mother Teresa wins more moral praise than Lloyd Blankfein! Who can bear living in a society where such a thing is possible? Quel horreur!
It reads like an Onion piece, just hilarious stuff. I mean, Jesus, even Lloyd Blankfein himself didn't go so far as to take the "God's work" thing 100% seriously, and here's this jackass saying, without irony, that the Goldman CEO literally out-God-slaps Mother Teresa.
The thing is, for all its excesses, Mr. Catyanker's piece does reflect an attitude you see pretty often among Rand devotees and Road To Serfdom acolytes. Five whole years have passed since the crash, and there are still huge pockets of these Fountainhead junkies who genuinely believe that the Blankfeins of the world are reviled because they're bankers and they're rich, and not because they're the heads of unprosecutable organized crime syndicates who make their money through mass fraud, manipulation and the shameless burgling of public treasure. In this case you have a guy who writes for Forbes, a business publication,and apparently he isn't acquainted even casually with any of the roughly 10,000 corruption cases involving Blankfein's bank.
That's hard to pull off. There are Japanese soldiers still holed up in Pacific atolls, waiting for the final surrender order, who've probably heard more about things like the Abacus case than Mr. Binswanger apparently has. In the comments section, someone cheekily asked Binswanger to enlighten them as to how Goldman makes its money. This is what he had to say in response:
On how Goldman Sachs makes money, I repeat what I said in the post: they invest – i.e., channel savings to their most productive uses. If they make a profit it means they bet right: they funded value-creating enterprises; if they make a loss it means they bet wrong: the venture they funded used up more in value than was produced.
Binswanger clearly knows nothing at all about Goldman other than that it's nominally a bank, and his answer is just a parade of Randian clichés here about how successful banks make money. Asked the same question twenty years ago about a different bank, his answer would have been exactly the same. This would be like someone asking me about A-Rod's steroid use and me answering with a bunch of Bernard Malamud quotes about the sacred art of hitting.
Just for yuks, let's fill Binswanger in on some of the ways Goldman has made its money over the years. This is just the stuff they've been caught for, by the way.
• Way back in 1999, several eras of corruption ago, Goldman serially engaged in manipulation of the IPO markets, including illegal tactics like "spinning" and "laddering," where insiders and top bank clients would be allowed to buy shares in new companies at severely discounted prices, sometimes in return for investment banking business or for promises that those insiders would jump back into the bidding later to jack up the price artificially. In a famous case involving eToys, Goldman paid a $7.5 million settlement for allowing insiders to buy shares at $20, far below the $75 shares the company traded on opening day. The secret discounts might have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. The firm went bankrupt in short order, by the way.
• In the infamous "Abacus" case, Goldman teamed up with a hedge-fund billionaire named John Paulson to create a born-to-lose portfolio of mortgage derviatives, which were then marketed by Goldman to a pair of sucker European banks, IKB and ABN-Amro. When the instruments crashed, Paulson made bank on bets he made against his own loser portfolio. Goldman's peculiar role was in "renting the platform," i.e. allowing IKB and ABN-Amro to think that neutral Goldman, not a hedge funder like Paulson massively betting against the product, had created the portfolio. Goldman only made $15 million in the deal that ended up causing over a billion in losses, meaning this wasn't even just about money – they were just trying to curry favor with a hedge fund client out to screw a bunch of Euros. They were fined $550 million.
• In the even more absurd Hudson deal, Goldman unloaded a billion-plus sized chunk of toxic mortgage-backed crap on Morgan Stanley during a time when Lloyd "Mother Teresa" Blankfein was telling his minions to unload as much of the firm's 'cats and dogs' as possible, ie. its soon-to-explode subprime holdings. In its marketing materials, Goldman represented to Morgan Stanley that its interests were aligned with Morgan, because Goldman owned a $6 million slice of the Hudson deal. It didn't disclose that it had a $2 billion bet against it. Morgan Stanley, which was subsequently bailed out by taxpayers like Harry Binswanger, lost $960 million.
• Goldman bought a series of aluminum warehouses and has apparently been serially delaying the delivery of aluminum in order to artificially inflate the price. Even Binswanger might have heard of this one. The CFTC sent a wave of subpoenas on this score just last month.
• Goldman paid a fine to the SEC in 2010 after it was caught breaking rules governing short-selling on at least 385 occasions – it is currently embroiled in numerous lawsuits that similarly allege that Goldman has engaged in widespread "naked" short selling, a kind of stock counterfeiting that artificially depresses the prices of companies by flooding the market with phantom shares.
• Earlier this year, Goldman and Chase agreed to pay a combined $557 million to settle government claims that the banks and/or their mortgage servicing arms engaged in wholesale abuses in the real estate markets, including (but not limited to) robosigning, the practice of mass-producing fictitious, perjured affidavits for the courts for the purposes of foreclosing on homeowners.
• A VP in Goldman's Boston office was nabbed making improper contributions to the former state Treasurer in Massachusetts, during a time when Goldman was underwriting $9 billion in state bonds. Goldman paid a $14.4 million fine in the pay-for-play scandal.
• In what one former SEC official described to me as "an open-and-shut case of anticompetitive behavior," Goldman took a $3 million payment from J.P. Morgan Chase to bow out of the bidding for a toxic interest rate swap deal Chase wanted to stick to the citizens of Jefferson County, Alabama. Goldman got the payment, a Chase banker joked, "for taking no risk." Chase ended up funneling money to the County Commissioner, who signed off on a deadly deal that put the citizens of the Birmingham, Alabama area into billions of debt (and ultimately bankruptcy), in what is still considered the largest regional financial disaster in American history.
• In 2009, a Goldman programmer named Sergey Aleynikov left his office in possession of a code that contained Goldman's high-frequency trading algorithms. Goldman promptly called the FBI – which up until that point had done exactly zero to prevent crime on Wall Street – to help Mother Teresa's bank recapture its valuable trading code. In court, a federal prosecutor admitted that the code Aleynikov had in his possession could, "in the wrong hands," be used to manipulate markets. Aleynikov just pulled an eight-year sentence. Goldman, incidentally, has gone entire quarters without posting a single day of trading loss – in Q1 2010, the bank made at least $25 million every single day, somehow never once betting wrong in 63 trading days. Imagine that! What foresight! What skill! One can see how Mr. Binswanger could believe that the bank's CEO should be exempt from income taxes.
I could go on – Goldman has been wrapped up in virtually every kind of scandal known to investment banking (and even more that they invented) and was recently at the center of a mysterious and near-catastrophic computer-trading disaster that could have caused massive social damage (more on that in a column coming soon).
The bank is also a truly courageous pioneer in the area of securing completely underserved public bailouts, including the collection of nearly $17 billion in public money for speculative trades with bailed-out AIG and the outrageous receipt of a Commercial Bank Holding Company charter in late September of 2008, allowing it to borrow billions in lifesaving money from the Federal Reserve discount window at a time when Goldman execs were already selling their beach houses for cash in anticipation of the firm's collapse. Surely even Mr. Binswanger is able to see that Goldman is not, in fact, a commercial bank, and that giving it a commercial bank hat to wear while standing on line to the Fed's discount window is pure welfare, as inappropriate as LeBron James collecting a federal disability check.
If he can't see that, he might perhaps at least see the rank absurdity of then-Treasurer Henry Paulson – a former Goldman CEO – instituting a ban on short-selling of financial stocks at the behest of Goldman and other banks in that same late 2008 period, a 100% anticapitalist, government interventionist maneuver that served no social purpose other than to protect the share prices of undeserving banks like Goldman from investors who quite sensibly wanted to wager on the dying companies' downfalls.
Harry Binswanger is a nut on a lot of issues, the kind of guy who thinks that people who bust their asses all day cleaning Haz-Mat sites or changing diapers or fighting fires are parasites, and that the only "producers" who genuinely earn their compensation are people who come up with entrepreneurial ideas – like for instance renting the Goldman name to a hedge-fund pirate so that a pair of European banks won't know they're buying a product designed to implode. This is the kind of activity that earns you a spot on Rand's famed "pyramid of ability."
There are a lot of people who believe in this worldview, and I'm not going to bother debating it here – if you can read an Ayn Rand book and not see through it as the comically pretentious horseshit that it is, nothing I or anyone else says is likely to change your mind.
However, it is worth pointing out that people like Binswanger are so stupid that they can't even see that the best argument against a company like Goldman is a libertarian argument, that Ayn Rand herself would denounce the company if she were alive and able to pull her head out of one of her thousand-line paragraphs long enough to pay attention. Goldman is a company that in a pure free capitalist system would definitely have been bust in 2008 had it not leeched parasitically off the taxpayer – through the AIG bailout, through its totally improper Fed loans, through the life-saving short ban, and most importantly, through the impression all of these moves left across the markets that the firm was state-supported and would never be allowed to go under.
So even forgetting the fact that this company on a good day makes its money rigging metals prices, stage-managing IPOs to help insiders, falsifying documents, selling phony mortgages to institutional investors while betting against their own product and engaging in highly dubious high-speed proprietary trading programs that mysteriously allow the firm to pick winners every single time (Harry, they're using cheat-algorithms to trade split-seconds ahead of the market, not "digging" legitimately as "knowledge-seekers" for inside information, which I know you think should be legal) – even all that wasn't enough, and Goldman still would have gone out of business, had all of us parasites not been pressed into service to rescue the company with our tax dollars.
It's hilarious that these Rand-worshipping cultist types are still blind to this basic fact a half a decade later. And my God, Mother Teresa? Would she have been a more "valuable" person if she'd managed an Applebee's? What the hell is wrong with you people?