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The Globe and Mail

A 'vampire squid' of Wall Street professes his innocence

Lloyd Blankfein doesn't look remotely like a vampire squid.

With his round face, bald head and large, smiling eyes, the diminutive Goldman Sachs chief executive officer seems more like a friendly Hobbit.

And yet the Wall Street bank he heads can't seem to shake its unflattering characterization in Rolling Stone magazine as a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into everything that smells like money."

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Mr. Blankfein is doing what he can to counter the perception that he and his company epitomize what's wrong with Wall Street - the Byzantine financial engineering, the bailouts and now the out-sized profits and bloated bonuses.

Normally pretty reserved, Mr. Blankfein is on a charm blitz to set the record straight, including interviews, speeches and town halls. And the company is making noises about making some large charitable contributions to temper public anger.

Mr. Blankfein's message has been consistent. Goldman plays a vital role in the financial system. He and other Goldman officials like to point out that they never wanted last year's $10-billion (U.S.) government loan, which it was obliged to take and has since paid back with interest. And the big bonuses - $16-billion so far this year and counting - are just the competitive price of success.

"The core of Goldman's performance, success and longevity over this period, aside from luck, is that we've put ourselves in a position to be more lucky because of our people. And I have an obligation to keep the firm and the franchise intact," Mr. Blankfein recently told The Wall Street Journal.

But Mr. Blankfein's explanation is in many ways incomplete.

And yet the $10-billion is a small part of how Goldman reaped rewards from the government's historic rescue of the financial system.

In saving troubled insurer American International Group, Washington indirectly may have saved Goldman. Under the bailout, AIG fully paid Goldman and other so-called counterparties in debt guarantee deals. For Goldman that meant a cheque for $13-billion.

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Goldman insists its positions were fully hedged, and even with an AIG bankruptcy, it would have been paid in full.

Goldman benefited in other ways. As the financial crisis raged last fall, Goldman sought and received permission to transform itself into a bank holding company. That gave the company access to the U.S. Federal Reserve liquidity programs and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s bank debt guarantees. It tapped into an FDIC program designed to backstop commercial paper loans, borrowing as much as $28-billion. It still has $21-billion in loans from the scheme.

Near-zero interest rates are also a big contributor to its surging profits. Goldman earns billions borrowing at next to nothing from the Fed and putting the money to work at significantly higher rates.

Goldman is also a big user of the Fed's Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF. The program subsidized banks to buy up toxic securities and sell them at a profit.

And finally, Goldman was probably the greatest beneficiary of the government's decision to let Lehman Brothers fail, scooping up most of its market share in the now thriving trading business.

So it's a bit disingenuous for Mr. Blankfein to argue that Goldman didn't need the government.

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A more accurate portrait is that the bank cleverly took full advantage of what was on offer, and as a result, it is now thriving.

That gets us back to the salaries and bonuses, which have become an embarrassment for Wall Street, and a growing political hot button in Washington.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the 23 largest financial services companies on Wall Street will pay out a record $140-billion in bonuses this year, thanks in large part to the stock market's recovery from last fall's abyss.

In most cases, those bonuses will be in cash - cash earned with the help of taxpayer money.

As White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg suggested last week, there's something inherently unfair about that. The stock market soars and bonuses go through the roof. When the stock market plunges, bonuses decline but never completely disappear, leaving investors to bear the full brunt of heavy losses.

Mr. Feinberg argues that executives on Wall Street and beyond should get far less guaranteed pay, and take the rest in shares that must be held for several years. That way, executives are rewarded for their companies' long-term success, not fleeting market bounces.

If Mr. Blankfein and his Wall Street colleagues really wanted to charm investors, they would quickly reform the way they reward their people.

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