Thirty floors up in the black-tinted box that is Goldman Sachs headquarters on 85 Broad Street, there is a whiff of panic in the air. The Goldman of legend—pillar of the free market, breeder of super-citizens, object of envy and awe—has vanished. Ever since the bank crossed paths with U.S. taxpayers, getting saved with at least $10 billion in government aid last year and then parlaying that into $5.1 billion in profits in 2009 (so far), the firm has been seen as the ugly essence of capitalism at its most cynical—by Washington, by the public, by the financial press, even by some of its clients. Stalwart voices of Wall Street like the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have criticized the firm’s undue influence on government and its ruthless pursuit of risky profits. Venom is flowing from more unlikely quarters as well: A recent Rolling Stone article called Goldman “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” and accused it of rigging every major market bubble since the Great Depression.
This is not the kind of attention Wall Street’s most vaunted financial institution is used to. Which is why I am now sitting in its wood-paneled and gold-trimmed executive suite: The famously press-averse firm has consented to a rare audience.
The man Goldman has selected to come to its defense is John Rogers, the firm’s chief of staff. Rogers is typical of the Goldman elite—doubling as a Washington power broker and confidant to James Baker, Jon Corzine, and Hank Paulson. The atmosphere is airless as Rogers sits down, his steady eyes barely blinking: a silver-haired sphinx in a sky-blue shirt. “We don’t live in a vacuum, and we’re very aware of what the general public is thinking,” says Rogers calmly. “We work in a fiercely competitive global industry, but we can’t afford to be oblivious to public opinion.”
Especially not as Goldman ramps up astronomical profits and prepares to pay its executives $11.4 billion and counting in this of all years. If the amount seems obscene to an outsider, it is justified on the inside by an article of faith: that Goldman employees are the absolute best of the breed, meant to wield the levers of power—and reap its rewards. As John Whitehead, the godfather of Goldman’s modern culture, wrote in a set of guidelines for executives: “Important people like to deal with other important people. Are you one?”
Of course, that’s not the message Goldman Sachs wants to send out at this particular moment. The goal here is to demystify the company, present it not as a nefarious organization set on world domination but as an American institution, a producer of public servants, its business synonymous with the capitalist system, its health reflective of the health of the economy as a whole.
“I think this company is essential in terms of the American capital markets,” says Rogers.
His tone is placid, soothing—until, that is, the subject of American International Group comes up. At this, his eyes widen, his face grows angry, his hands gesture in the air.
“If you didn’t like the policy,” he says of the decision to bail out AIG and pay off its debts to Goldman, “one avenue for pursuing your own interests was to attack Goldman Sachs.”
It’s a sore spot for good reason. The AIG rescue is the incident from which all other Goldman conspiracy theories spring—the original sin, in a sense, of Goldman’s current public tarring. It’s the act that first made the average man on the street sit up and say, “Hey, wait a minute. The secretary of the Treasury, who used to be the Goldman CEO, just spent $85 billion to buy a failing insurance giant that happened to owe his former firm a lot of money. Does that smell right to you?” It also seems to have the legs of a potential scandal, with Neil Barofsky, the inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, conducting an audit of the buyout.
Then again, if you’ve just posted $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits in an environment where, say, Morgan Stanley just reported a $1.26 billion loss, what does it matter what people say? The answer lies in another of Whitehead’s principles: Reputation must be closely guarded, because it is “the most difficult to regain.”
The decision that put Goldman’s reputation in play is now almost a year old. On the weekend of September 12, 2008, as the financial system shuddered and appeared to be on the verge of lurching to a halt, two Goldman Sachs men, former CEO Hank Paulson and current CEO Lloyd Blankfein, huddled with other banking heads at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to consider how to stave off disaster. Bear Stearns was dead. Merrill Lynch, run by another former Goldman man, John Thain, was in desperate need of a savior. And now Lehman Brothers was on the brink. As secretary of the Treasury, Paulson asked the banks to come up with a private-funding solution for Lehman before it imploded from lack of cash. But all the banks had been scrambling for cash reserves or strategic mergers to buffer against a rapid freeze in lending. No one was able, or willing, to help. And Paulson, a free-market purist, had made one thing clear up front: The government would not bail out the firm. Lehman Brothers, a longtime Goldman rival, prepared to declare bankruptcy, ending its 158-year run on Wall Street.