Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times reports that Goldman and no other Wall Street firm was involved in the AIG rescue talks and an AIG failure would have created a hole as big as $20 billion in Goldman’s balance sheet.
This is special dealing, pure and simple. Even if AIG needed to be salvaged (there was considerable agreement on this point), having Goldman deeply involved in the process is cronyism. But that’s been a staple of this Administration.
From the New York Times:
As the group, led by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., pondered the collapse of one of America’s oldest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, a more dangerous threat emerged: American International Group, the world’s largest insurer, was teetering. A.I.G. needed billions of dollars to right itself and had suddenly begged for help.
The only Wall Street chief executive participating in the meeting was Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson’s former firm. Mr. Blankfein had particular reason for concern.
Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said…..
A Goldman spokesman said in an interview that the firm was never imperiled by A.I.G.’s troubles and that Mr. Blankfein participated in the Fed discussions to safeguard the entire financial system, not his firm’s own interests.
If you believe that, I imagine you believe in the tooth fairy too. Goldman had $45 billion of equity as of its last balance sheet date. A loss, if it approached $20 billion, in this general environment of worries about financial firms, would have sent Goldman shares into a tailspin, and the rating agencies have started taking a dim view of overlevered financial firms that appear unable to raise equity on reasonable terms. This certainly would have lead to a downgrade, and that has put other firms on a slippery downward slope.
Note the article contains a recitation of denials later in the piece that the damage would have been as large as $20 billion or that Goldman’s exclusive role in the talks was self-interested.
The rest of the story focuses on how the credit default swaps operation, a small unit at AIG, was allowed to take on risks that brought a sizable and otherwise highly successful firm to its knees. It is a riveting read.