Today, the congressionally mandated Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) officially got underway with a hearing featuring testimony from the CEO’s of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan Chase. The goal of the commission is to examine the causes of 2008′s financial collapse and deliver a report to Congress by December 15.
The commission’s chairman, Phil Angelides, kicked off the question and answer portion of the hearing with a bang, grilling Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd “God’s work” Blankfein on a host of issues. Angelides tried to ask Blankfein what would have happened to Goldman in the absence of extraordinary government support for the financial system, and Blankfein replied that government help wasn’t necessary to keep his firm afloat:
We had tremendous liquidity through the period, but there were systemic events going on. If you’re asking me what would have happened but for the considerable government intervention, I would say we were in, it was a more nervous position than we would have wanted. We never anticipated the government help, we weren’t relying on those mechanisms…That weekend, when we became a bank-holding company, the next day, we capitalized ourselves privately with Warren Buffet, and the day after that we did a capital raise for $5.75 billion…We weren’t relying on that government help. That government TARP legislation came about three weeks later.
Blankfein did add “the fact is the world was unsafe. The government, taxpayers, regulators took extraordinary measures to reduce an intolerable level of risk to a much more tolerable level of risk, and that we should all be appreciative of.”
But watch Blankfein’s tactic here, equating “government help” with “TARP.” This is what I was thinking of when I expressed concern about the Obama administration framing its push to implement a bank fee solely in terms of recouping TARP. As Angelides pointed out, there were a whole host of government interventions, many still in place, that supported the banks as they returned to sky-high profits.
And the notion that Goldman did not need or benefit from programs other than TARP is nuts, and the commission should point that out over and over. Blankfein cited investments by Warren Buffet and others as Goldman’s actual savior, but as Daniel Harrison noted, Buffet only invested in Goldman after Goldman received billions as a counterparty to AIG, and he likely only “did so on the basis that the firm was reasonably supported by government aid.” The prior weekend, Goldman was given government permission to convert from an investment bank into a bank-holding company, giving it access to low-cost loans from the Fed, which also presumably factored into investors’ decisions.
This is important as the administration seeks to implement a levy on the biggest banks, and as Congress debates various ways to raise taxes on Wall Street. If the banks are allowed to frame TARP as the only step taken to help them, they can make the easy argument that paying back TARP has made taxpayers whole, which is not really the case.