The New York Times Owes an Apology

Yesterday the New York Times ran an editorial so inflammatory and in such willful disregard of the facts and reason that I can do nothing other than spend today’s post calling the editors of that once proud newspaper out as the bitter and infantile hate mongers that they are.

JapaneseAmericanGrocer1942 The editorial, entitled “Goldman’s Non-Apology” starts with dismissive criticism of a mild and philosophical mea culpa, largely on behalf of the entire financial industry, made last week by the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein.

Certainly, our industry is responsible for things. We’re a leader in our industry, and we participated in things that were clearly wrong and we have reasons to regret and apologize for.

This, the Times tells us, is a non-apology that falls far short of what is due. “Even if he had said, “we’re sorry,” it would have been hollow since he never actually said what he was sorry for….” Of course, the Times doesn’t get into all that much detail about what he should be sorry for either.

Wall Street, with Goldman as a leader and with regulators in thrall, helped to inflate and profited from a credit bubble that burst and cost tens of millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity.

I see. So all of a sudden the deep thinkers at the Times believe that it is the role of Wall Street to self-regulate and avoid bubbles? What happened to the better part of a century spent by liberals (and not-so-liberals) arguing that that was the role of government? As best I can remember, part of the argument was that only government was capable of keeping the markets safe from occasional panics and that only a fool would leave that task to the forces of self-interested private enterprise. I’m pretty sure that the regulation of the financial markets was commonly pointed to as an example of government intrusion into business that we could all agree was justified.

Of course, that did not work out in this case. But if there was a failure here, how can it be anything other than a failure of government? Perhaps regulators were in thrall of the dazzling smoke and mirrors of Wall Street.  Isn’t it their job not to be in thrall? Is this anything other than blaming the fox for stealing chickens rather than the farmer for failing to protect the chicken coop?

Even if we were to accept the Times’ peculiar idea that the financial industry wronged us all by failing in some larger collective responsibility, their implied apportionment of the blame within that industry is nothing short of insane. Essentially, and I can only infer this from the editorial, they believe that Goldman deserves more blame than others because it lost the least amount of money. This is almost perfectly backwards.

Goldman came out of the fiasco of 2008 in the best shape of the major firms because from an early date it was concerned about the risk of the mortgage bond market. It owned comparatively small quantities of those bonds, had default insurance (CDSs) on what it did own, and just for good measure bought insurance against the insurer failing. It is easy to cast this as an evil organization profiting from the misery of others, but the simple truth is that if all firms had acted with the skepticism that Goldman did there would have been no bubble.

It ought to be glaringly obvious that if blame is to be apportioned, the lion’s share should go to the firms that foolishly took the most risk and lost the most money. Those were the firms that bid up the prices of mortgage bonds, driving down interest rates, pushing up house prices, and encouraging comically lax underwriting standards. And when it all came back down to Earth, it was those firms that could not pay their debts, meaning that they not only gambled away all their own money but lost the money that others had lent them.

Chief amongst those foolish firms at meltdown ground-zero was, of course, AIG. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that AIG was not merely a wrong-place-wrong-time victim of circumstance but the closest thing the mortgage bubble has to a main protagonist. It was they who stoked worldwide demand for mortgage bonds by agreeing, for what in retrospect were astonishingly small fees, to make good on any bond defaults that might occur. And they did this on an epic scale.

Of course, AIG was itself the focus of populist outrage earlier this year. That particular witch hunt eventually petered out not because the mob came to its senses but because the culpable part of AIG is gone and there is only so much rage that can be vented on a corpse. Goldman, on the other hand, is not just alive and well, but thriving.

And it thrives, the Times tells us, because of government largess. That’s bad enough, but these ungrateful wretches insist on patiently explaining that they were not, in fact, the beneficiaries of bailout money beyond the general sense that all financial firms have benefitted from the government preventing an even more cataclysmic meltdown. The Times is indignant at this impertinent argument.

That is absurd. Goldman has repaid its initial $10 billion bailout allotment, but that is only a sliver of its taxpayer support. The firm was paid $12.9 billion, for example, in the bailout of American International Group, and a report by the bailout’s inspector general refutes Goldman’s claim that it did not need the money. Perhaps the biggest continuing prop is that the government clearly considers Goldman too big to fail, which means that taxpayers are on the hook if Goldman faces the abyss again.

The $10 billion in TARP money Goldman accepted was taken at the “request” of the Treasury, which insisted that all the major firms to take some, in a quixotic effort to reduce the stigma that might attach to firms that participated in the bailout. That may sound like an implausible story today, but it is how it was reported at the time, and since then, as far as I know, nobody has seriously refuted it.

Goldman easily repaid that money, much to the annoyance of the Treasury, after only a few months when it became clear that Congress was intent on worsening the already usurious terms of the loan after the fact. The taxpayers made a considerable profit on the deal.

But this is just a “sliver” of what Goldman got, we are told. A sliver is an inexact term, but if it equals $10 billion in this case, then the full amount must be truly immense. Alas, no doubt because of space limitations on the editorial page, the Times only provides two other examples of taxpayer support. It repeats the libel that Goldman got $12.9 billion in the AIG bailout and argues that Goldman is now officially “too big to fail” which is an implicit government guarantee and subsidy.

Taking the second charge first, it should be clear to any open minded person that too big to fail status is part of a government effort to backstop the financial system in general, not Goldman in particular. And again, Goldman has been the first to concede that it has benefitted from the non-collapse of the financial industry. But not only is this implied subsidy not Goldman specific, whatever direct benefit Goldman gets from it is dwarfed by what is received by firms manifestly more likely to require government assistance. Citigroup comes to mind as an example.

Which brings us back to the recurring conspiracy theorist fantasy that Goldman got $12.9 billion in bailout money through the backdoor of AIG. Goldman has repeatedly, patiently, and rather pathetically tried to explain that this is not in fact true, that its net exposure to a possible AIG failure was immaterial and that if the government hadn’t made good on AIG’s debts Goldman would have been made whole by others. Unsurprisingly, these explanations have not had the desired effect.

Reasoning with mobs does not generally work. Mobs know what they know and any objections from their victims only reinforces the belief that the victims are devious liars. I am reminded of nothing so much as the truly heartbreaking photograph by Dorothea Lange reproduced above. The owner of the grocery, an American of Japanese decent, put up the bluntly eloquent banner the day after Pearl Harbor. The picture was taken in March 1942, just before he was sent to an internment camp.

A reader of the Times editorial might believe that some government official had recently put out a report to refute Goldman’s ridiculous explanation of what happened with the AIG bailout, particularly the absurd notion that it did not need the money it got from the government. Not exactly.

The report, from the Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), hosted on the Times’ website but not linked to within the editorial, is on a narrow and tangentially related topic, why the government made full payments on AIG’s obligations instead of, for example, paying only 95 cents on the dollar. (I haven’t read the whole report, it’s 47 dense pages, but the gist seems to be that paying 95% would have required complex negotiations with dozens of parties and the government had only a day or two to get the whole thing done.)

Four paragraphs of the report discuss Goldman. (Starting on page 16, for those of you reading along.) At approximately 2% of the report, the attention paid to Goldman is actually rather a lot. In context it is clear that this is because Goldman made the mistake of cooperating with the SIGTARP and providing details and specifics that other firms did not. The single paragraph on Merrill Lynch, for example, is sketchily anecdotal and concludes, essentially, that Merrill was probably in the same previously described situation as Goldman.

Saying that this report “refutes Goldman’s claim that it did not need the money” is a lie. The report simply doesn’t discuss whether or not Goldman needed the money. The only thing discussed, briefly, is the question that the Times assumes the answer to: Did Goldman benefit from the AIG bailout at all?

None of this obfuscation would be possible if Goldman’s side of the story was as simple or succinct as “I am an American.” Unfortunately, this is a complicated and somewhat arcane topic. It just is. And I am sure that to the likes of the Times editors its complexity is further evidence of its sinister nature. But in the hopes that there exists even a single person willing to listen, let me try and explain why Goldman’s exposure to an AIG collapse was, in fact, immaterial to their business.

As best I can tell, the $12.9 billion figure the Times mentions is a reference to $13.9 billion worth of mortgage bonds (CDOs) discussed in the report that were once guaranteed by Goldman and that wound up in a government sponsored AIG rescue vehicle called Maiden Lane III. Goldman had protected itself from the possible default of these bonds by purchasing credit default swaps (CDSs) from AIG. Part of the deal was that as the bonds declined in value AIG had to deposit “collateral”, i.e. cash, with Goldman to make up the difference between the face value and the market value of the bonds.

By the fall of 2008, those bonds had gone down in value rather a lot and AIG had given Goldman $8.4 billion in cash on the CDSs, implying the bonds were then worth around 40% of face value.

Reasonably and presciently, Goldman was concerned that AIG might eventually not be able to meet its obligations, so it paid $100 million to a variety of third parties for a further $1.2 billion worth of insurance against an AIG default.

According to Goldman, an AIG default would not have been a big blow to them in this situation because between the cash they already had and the insurance they already bought, they were covered for the first $9.6 billion in losses, or 69% of the $13.9 billion portfolio. And they believed that if they had had to, they could have sold the bonds for 31% of face value to make up the rest. We will never know if that is true, but it is worth pointing out that the bonds are now worth considerably more than that.

In any case, even if we do not buy Goldman’s claim of zero exposure, it should be clear that that exposure, and thus the benefit it got from Uncle Sam making good on AIG’s markers, was at least an order of magnitude smaller than the $12.9 billion claimed.

And the SIGTARP report does not effectively refute even this. The closest it gets is the final paragraph of its discussion of Goldman:

Of course, notwithstanding the additional credit protection it received in the market, Goldman Sachs (as well as the market as a whole) received a benefit from Maiden Lane III and the continued viability of AIG. First, in light of the illiquid state of the market in November 2008 (an illiquidity that likely would have been exacerbated by AIG’s failure), it is far from certain that the underlying CDOs could have easily been liquidated, even at the discounted price of $4.3 billion. Second, had AIG collapsed, the systemic implications on other market participants might have made it difficult for Goldman Sachs to collect on the credit protection it had purchased against an AIG default, although Goldman Sachs stated that it had received collateral from its counterparties in those transactions. Finally, if AIG had defaulted, Goldman Sachs would have been forced to bear the risk of further declines in the market value of the approximately $4.3 billion in CDOs that it transferred to the Maiden Lane III portfolio as well as approximately $5.5 billion for its credit default swaps that were not part of the Maiden Lane III portfolio; Maiden Lane III removed any risk for the $4.3 billion within that portfolio, and continued Government backing of AIG provided Goldman Sachs with ongoing protection against an AIG default on the remaining $5.5 billion.

Of course, this is just a long winded repetition of the argument that Goldman benefitted from the financial system not collapsing. If AIG had defaulted, the mortgage bond market might have been more fully destroyed and the sellers of the insurance Goldman bought against AIG not making good might have themselves gone under. That all may be true, but it is merely speculation about the possible effects of collateral damage from an AIG default, not an explanation of how Goldman would have been directly harmed.

Yes, Goldman is better off because the government held back financial Armageddon. We all are.

All witch hunts are the triumph of base emotions over reason. In this case I think I understand why the Times editors have so completely lost their sense of rationality and now seek to lead the lynch mob.

Times editors and Goldman bankers are basically drawn from the same strata of New York. They went to the same colleges, send their kids to the same schools, and, at least in the good old days, attended the same dinner parties.

The Times editors never thought much of the Goldman guys in college. Too focused on material things and numbers. The Times gang chose to take the high road, doing God’s work in the noble and literate field of journalism. And the ones that became important people at The New York Times could only be the very top of the heap, at the pinnacle of the success ladder.

But all is not well. The Boomer principle of “do what you love, the money will follow” badly betrayed the journalists. Those uncultured dolts at Goldman live in spacious Park Avenue co-ops and summer in the Hamptons. Not only are the fiftysomethings at the Times still in that three bedroom too close to the river, but it’s getting progressively less certain that they can afford even that. Things are very grim in newspaper land. What was once a merely theoretical threat from the web has become a horrible, fast moving reality. The ship has hit an iceberg, it’s taking on water, and there are no lifeboats.

Exacerbating this further is the contrast between The New York Times and Goldman Sachs as businesses. The Times may still be the most prestigious paper in the country, but the company that runs it seems to have a gift for poor decisions that cost their hapless shareholders money. As if one was needed, it is an irrefutable demonstration of why it is a bad idea to make the office of CEO a hereditary post.

Goldman, on the other hand, seems to go from strength to strength, even when by rights it should be wallowing in pain from getting the comeuppance it deserves.

It is pretty clear to me that what inspired this editorial was not the bland comments by Blankfein on an obscure video or a paragraph in an obscure government report. It wasn’t even the revelation that Goldman is on track to make massive profits in 2009. What upset the Times was that it was last week revealed that Goldman will pay record bonuses to its staff this year.

The editorial ends with a very unfunny suggestion that instead of bonuses Goldman could make “A multibillion-dollar gift to the federal Bureau of the Public Debt”. In case that is too subtle the next paragraph makes what they want clear.

And a contribution might help Goldman ward off the alternative: serious calls for a windfall tax on bonuses, which would be justified since the profits they are based on are in large part the result of government efforts. One way or another, the taxpayers will demand their due, and one way or another, they just might get it.

The editorial ends, menacingly, with the address of the Bureau of Public Debt, to which contributions can be sent while there is still time to preempt the mob.

I have no personal affiliation with Goldman Sachs. I have never worked there, and at this point it is pretty clear that I never will. And as a long-term unemployed fortysomething, on paper I ought to sympathize more with the Times people facing the obliteration of their careers. But I carry the burden of understanding what Goldman is talking about. To me, those explanations are as clear and vivid as “I am an American.”

There is an unspoken convention that you can accuse the rich of whatever you like, since they are so capable of defending themselves. There may be some truth to that, but Goldman seems unable to get its case out. What should it do? Buy the Times and fire everybody? Fund a rival publication?

So here I am, defending to my tiny audience a firm that ought not to need defending. And in truth, maybe it doesn’t need my help. Perhaps this hysteria will blow over like it usually does. But this still makes me angry.

[Sorry this was so long and thanks for sticking with me to the bitter end.  I'll probably be calmed down enough tomorrow to return to our regularly scheduled programming.]

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