Why We Should Cheer Goldman’s Fat Profits

Making money is what companies are supposed to do

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It’s tempting to feel bitter, isn’t it? Many of us are sucking wind on account of the recession, with the awful sensation that things are going to get worse, not better. And here comes Goldman Sachs, the royalty of Wall Street, racking up a huge $3.4 billion quarterly profit and making plans to pay bonuses that could average well over half a million dollars per employee.

Goldman, of course, is accomplishing this with the help of a $10 billion TARP loan from the government, which it paid back in June. The tony banking firm has benefited even more from the bottomless AIG bailout, which allowed Goldman to recoup $13 billion from the insolvent insurer without losing a penny. It has also taken advantage of FDIC backing for privately issued bank debt, borrowing $28 billion at much cheaper rates than it would have had to pay without the feds.

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Somewhere in our brains, this doesn’t compute. Shouldn’t Goldman Sachs suffer along with the rest of us? Doesn’t the firm owe some debt to the taxpayers before enriching its investors and employees? Can’t the government force the firm to disgorge its profits into a needy citizens fund or something like that?

There certainly have been some problems with the whole financial bailout, which is so flawed that the only thing worse would probably have been no bailout at all. But the entire point of the bailout was to help the financial sector, and then the larger economy, get back to business as usual. Goldman is the first big bank to do that.

The white-shoe firm has always been one of the most profitable on Wall Street, admired and envied by other investment banks. So it’s not a surprise that Goldman would be one of the first to crank the money spigot back open. And it’s hardly Goldman’s fault that it has benefited from programs meant to … benefit the financial sector. For its $10 billion in TARP money, Goldman paid the government a dividend of about $426 million, which amounts to about 4 percent of the principal for a loan that lasted 8 months. Private investors like Warren Buffett who provided funds to Goldman and other firms earned a higher return doing the same thing, but the government’s purpose was never to extort money from the banks or turn a huge profit on the loans. And other banks have paid dividends similar to what Goldman has paid.

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Goldman and a few other AIG trading partners got a sweetheart deal on that bailout, but once again, the government was offering it. So why would Goldman turn it down? If the IRS told you that you could pay taxes at a 10 percent rate this year instead of your usual 28 percent rate, would you say no because you didn’t want favorable treatment? Fat chance. Why the feds let this happen in the first place is still one of the most important unanswered questions of the last 12 months. But it’s the government that set these lax rules and enforced them, not the banks. And it’s the government that needs to answer the question.

If there’s evidence that former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson—who was CEO of Goldman Sachs before coming to Washington in 2006—singled out friends, family or his own accounts for government favors, then the AIG affair should be investigated as a crime, and prosecuted if necessary. But so far there’s only innuendo and circumstantial evidence, mainly because Paulson happened to come from Goldman. Well, he had to come from somewhere, and you could just as easily argue the converse: That Goldman produces Treasury-capable leaders because it’s the best on the Street. But that would be out of step with the national impulse to vilify every firm with a knack for making money.

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Those FDIC loan guarantees have been another factor in Goldman’s rebound. But other banks have taken advantage of those, and are still in a straitjacket.

Goldman, by contrast, has done what financial firms and well-run companies everywhere are supposed to do. It has used every resource at its disposal to weather a brutal storm, accepting government aid during an emergency, then returning it after the danger passed. It has managed risks better than reckless competitors. As a wave of consolidations swamps Wall Street, Goldman is one of the winners getting stronger, at the expense of poorly run firms like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. If more companies had Goldman’s mojo, we’d probably be out of the recession by now.

Goldman is also one of the few stocks showing any life over the past few weeks, rising against the backdrop of a falling market. It has even helped lift other stocks. Anybody with $150 to spare can buy a share and join in. But only do that if you’re in favor of firms that make money without having to lean on the government for years.