The Sunday Times gains unprecedented access to the world's most powerful, and most secretive, investment bank
Lloyd Blankfein: chairman and CEO
Number 85 Broad Street, a dull, rust-coloured office block in lower Manhattan, doesn’t look like a place to stop and stare, and that’s just the way the people who work there like it. The men and women who arrive in the watery dawn sunshine, dressed in Wall Street black, clutching black briefcases and BlackBerrys, are very, very private. They walk quickly from their black Lincoln town cars to the lobby, past, well, nothing, really. There’s no name plate on the building, no sign on the front desk and the armed policeman stationed outside isn’t saying who works there. There’s a good reason for the secrecy. Number 85 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, is where the money is. All of it.
It’s the site of the best cash-making machine that global capitalism has ever produced, and, some say, a political force more powerful than governments. The people who work behind the brass-trim glass doors make more money than some countries do. They are the rainmakers’ rainmakers, the biggest swinging dicks in the financial jungle. Their assets total $1 trillion, their annual revenues run into the tens of billions, and their profits are in the billions, which they distribute liberally among themselves. Average pay this recessionary year for the 30,000 staff is expected to be a record $700,000. Top earners will get tens of millions, several hundred thousand times more than a cleaner at the firm. When they have finished getting "filthy rich by 40", as the company saying goes, these alpha dogs don’t put their feet up. They parachute into some of the most senior political posts in the US and beyond, prompting accusations that they "rule the world". Number 85 Broad Street is the home of Goldman Sachs.
The world’s most successful investment bank likes to hide behind the tidal wave of money that it generates and sends crashing over Manhattan, the City of London and most of the world’s other financial capitals. But now the dark knights of banking are being forced, blinking, into the cold light of day. The public, politicians and the press blame bankers’ reckless trading for the credit crunch and, as the most successful bank still standing, Goldman is their prime target. Here, politicians and commentators compete to denounce Goldman in ever more robust terms — "robber barons", "economic vandals", "vulture capitalists". Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, contrasts the bank’s recent record results — profits of $3.2 billion in the last quarter alone — and its planned bumper bonus payments with what has happened to ordinary people’s jobs and incomes in 2009.
It’s even worse in the US. There, Rolling Stone magazine ran a story that described Goldman as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore drives up to 85 Broad Street in an armoured Brinks money van, leaps out carrying a sack with a giant dollar sign on it, looks up at the building and yells: "We’re here to get the money back for the American people!"
Goldman’s reputation is suddenly as toxic as the credit default swaps and other inexplicably exotic financial instruments it used to buy with glee. That’s bad for the one thing it values more than anything else: business. Being the prime target for popular and political outrage could put Goldman first in line for draconian new regulation. So it has, reluctantly, decided that the time has come to speak out, to fight its corner. That’s how, on one of those bright autumnal New York mornings when anything seems possible — even an invitation to break bread with the masters of the universe — I find myself walking past the security guard who held up Michael Moore and into the building with no name.
"Aha! You catch us plotting in real time," says Lloyd Blankfein, breaking away from a cabal of senior executives discussing his trip to Washington the previous day. Blankfein, 55, Goldman’s chairman and chief executive, is wearing a grey suit with a jaunty Hermès tie with little red bicycles on it. In his hand, he’s carrying one of those cups of coffee that look bigger than the human stomach. Maybe it’s the caffeine, maybe it’s the tie — a birthday present from his daughter — but he’s in a remarkably jolly mood for a man everyone seems to hate. "It’s like a safari here," he jokes. "You’ve come in to look at the animals."
Blankfein may be Wall Street’s Sun God, but, with the economic outlook stormy, he doesn’t want to advertise it, so the merest hint of a status symbol or — horror! — ostentation is airbrushed out of his life, publicly, at least. Take his office on the 30th floor. The chairs are the same ones that were there when he became CEO three years ago. There are none of the $87,000 handmade rugs or $5,000 wastepaper baskets of Wall Street lore. There’s no sign of irrational exuberance. Only coffee, which arrives cold. It sets just the right tone for the job in hand. The grand wizard of Wall Street is steeling himself for the hardest sell of his life: he’s here to argue for good ol’ capitalism, for investment banks and for Goldman Sachs.
Luckily for him and his firm, he’s a damn good salesman. He starts with a little humility. He understands that "people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape" at bankers’ actions. Goldman played its part in the meltdown that almost destroyed the global financial system. It, like most other banks, lent too much money, made its first quarterly loss for more than a decade last year and ended up taking bail-out cash from Washington. "I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer," he says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. "We’re very important," he says, abandoning self-flagellation. "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."
Social purpose? Those who have lost their jobs or seen their pay slashed thanks to bankers who flogged dodgy mortgages and dreamt up investments so complex not even they understood them, would gladly tell him where to stick his social purpose. But the problem is, Blankfein is a good advertisement for wealth creation. His own. He is no scion of privilege, dispensing plummy-voiced homilies to raw capitalism from his 30th-floor eyrie. Born in a tough neighbourhood in the Bronx, the son of a postal worker and a receptionist, he was the first in his family to go to college and used financial aid to go to Harvard.
Even though he proudly pays himself more in a year than most of us could ever dream of — $68m in 2007 alone, a record for any Wall Street CEO, to add to the more than $500m of Goldman stock he owns — he insists he’s still "a blue-collar guy".
But what about the charge sheet? Bankers brought the world to the brink of bankruptcy and instead of doing the decent thing and jumping out of the nearest window, they turned up cap in hand to governments to hoover up taxpayers’ money to save their skin. Now, just one year on, they are carrying on as if nothing has happened, gambling, and winning, handsomely, with our cash. Goldman’s profits in the second quarter were a record $3.4 billion. Most of the money is being made in trading in bonds, currencies and commodities.
Goldman is coining it again for two reasons. First, global markets are booming — up 50% from the credit-crunch lows, as new money, much of it from governments, has gushed into the financial system. Second, with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns off the street, Merrill Lynch a crippled shadow of its former self, and neither Citigroup nor UBS the forces of old, Goldman has a bigger slice of a growing pie. "We didn’t f*** up like the other guys. We’ve still got a balance sheet. So, now we’ve got a bigger and richer pot to piss in," is how one Goldman banker puts it. Small wonder the bank is on course to set aside over $20 billion for salaries and bonuses.
Source: Times Online.co.uk