By Ronni Berke and Christine Romans
The Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs has come under a firestorm of criticism lately for expected record bonuses this year, after the government bailout. Goldman, like other banks sold those toxic assets that, in part, pulled the country into recession.
Some are asking: just how much of Goldman's profits come on the backs of U.S. taxpayers?
Goldman's worldwide influence is legendary. Due to a long tradition of public service, the firm's alumni often become top players in government and the world's leading financial institutions. So it was no surprise that when the financial industry almost collapsed sixteen months ago, Henry Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs CEO, as Treasury Secretary, helped push through the $700 billion bank bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP.
$10 billion of that went to Goldman. And although the firm paid the money back, the money has become a thorn in Goldman's side. CEO Lloyd Blankfein said, "Had I known it was as pregnant with this kind of potential for backlash, then of course I really would not have liked it."
When the government rescued insurance giant AIG from the brink of failing last year - Goldman Sachs received a full payout of what it was owed - $12.9 billion. Some say Goldman and other banks should have taken a haircut.
"Goldman Sachs has figured out how to take advantage of the guarantee that we have given them to internalize the profit and hold onto it," says former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.
Spitzer faults Goldman Sachs and other banks for not passing along the benefits of billions in government-backed loans they got at nearly zero interest. For Goldman it amounted to a $21 billion dollar security blanket. Critics claim all of these taxpayer-financed programs allowed the firm to reap bigger profits.
After mounting public backlash, Blankfein apologized. "We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret," he told a conference in November. But his mea culpa is not enough for Janet Tavakoli, a structured finance expert who wrote a book in 2003 about collateralized debt obligations – CDO's – complicated investments whose value fell with the housing market.
"Goldman was creating securities along with a lot of other people on Wall Street; these were value destroying securitizations spewing out of their financial meth labs. And today they are trying to pretend they weren't responsible for massive systemic risk."
Goldman Sachs disputes that, priding itself in being a top manager of risk. As far back as 2006, it saw trouble ahead and began selling off mortgage-backed securities. But critics say Goldman continued selling those toxic assets to others, at the same time investing in bets that they were going to tank.
"We never knew at any moment if asset prices would deteriorate further or had declined too much and would snap back," Blankfein said in the firm's defense Wednesday.