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Goldman Sachs says sorry

Wall Street’s response to public criticism has mainly been exercises in “never apologize, never explain.”

Which makes today’s mea culpa by Lloyd Blankfein all the more extraordinary. Bloomberg News reports:

“We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret,” Blankfein, 55, said at a conference in New York hosted by the Directorship magazine. “We apologize.”

Such a simple and direct admission should have been made by a number of financial executives months ago, but it is to Blankfein’s credit that he has made it even as the pressure on Wall Street from Washington seems to be diminishing.

The commitments committee

The bursting of the dot-com bubble pales in comparision to the financial crisis. In retrospect, it seems a comic-book lesson about the all-too-obvious consequences of irrational exuberance: What were they thinking?

Yet the Internet bubble was in many ways a warm-up for the much larger credit bubble. The common thread, Jonathan Knee, a senior managing director at Evercore Partners, writes in DealBook, is the enabling role played by financial institutions.

The liquidity canard

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It’s often said on Wall Street that the more liquidity there is in a given market, the better things are for investors trading stocks, bonds or commodities. And while there’s a lot of truth to that, there are times when too much liquidity can be just the wrong tonic.

After all, Wall Street’s churning-out of one subprime-mortgage backed security after another pumped a lot of liquidity into the U.S. housing market, and that simply encouraged a lot of reckless — even fraudulent — lending.

Wall Street’s $4 trillion kitty

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matthewgoldstein.jpgThe Obama administration’s plan for reining in derivatives leaves unchecked one of Wall Street’s dirty little secrets: the ability of a derivatives dealer to redeploy cash collateral that gets posted by one of its trading partners.

On Wall Street, this practice of taking collateral and reusing it is called rehypothecation. In essence, it’s a form of free money for derivatives dealers to use as they please — even to repost it as collateral to finance their parent company’s own borrowings.

Shock! Goldman favours big clients

Susanne Craig uses 2,200 words in today’s Wall Street Journal that state the obvious: Goldman Sachs treats big clients better than small ones.

In any other industry, a company giving favourable treatment to its best customers would stand accused of nothing more than sound business practice.

July: It rained, the deals didn’t

With stock markets on the rise and some signs of economies steadying, if not recovering, investment bankers have recently sounded more optimistic about the prospect for deal-making for the second half of the year.

This month? Not so good.

July, with just $96 billion in announced deals around the globe, is the first month to have less than $100 billion in worldwide M&A since September 2004, reports Thomson Reuters Deal Intelligence. No deal was more than $5 billion, the first time that has happened in a month in nearly six years. (The biggest announced merger was in Japan, the $4.4 billion acquisition of Nipponkoa Insurance by Sompo Japan Insurance. The biggest U.S. acquisition was Sanofi-Aventis’ $4 billion offer for Merial.)

Crazy money

Wall Street pay is so extreme, so removed from what nearly everyone else thinks is within the boundaries of reasonable compensation, that one can be jaded by the continued talk of sky-high bonuses. Even when the absurdity of the pay practices are pointed out — as it is in a new report from the New York attorney general’s office:

..even a cursory examination of the data suggests that in these challenging economic times, compensation for bank employees has become unmoored from the banks’ financial performance.

Tax Wall Street trades

Reports of the death of the investment bank have been greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have put it. It was just 10 months ago, after Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley quickly converted themselves into bank holding companies, that nearly everyone had written off investment banking. All those predictions about Wall Street firms becoming less profitable and boring places to work seem laughable in light of Goldman’s blowout second-quarter profits and JPMorgan Chase’s equally impressive earnings.

Now all the chatter is about how little things have changed on Wall Street, with trading revenues and fees from underwriting stock deals padding the bottom lines of both banks. Back in September, The New York Times ran a lengthy article headlined “Wall Street, R.I.P.: The End of an Era.”

Leaving a house of cards with a good hand

Wall Street’s gatekeepers often make their displeasure known when reporters and columnists refer to investment decisions as “bets” or taking on risk as a “gamble,” and God forbid should you liken the entire business to a “casino.”

And yet are the skills really so different?

A case in point is Steve Begleiter, who is currently having a better run of luck at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas than he did more than a year ago as head of corporate strategy at Bear Stearns. He is one of 27 remaining players on the final three tables, in third place with $11.9 million in chips.  Play resumes today to winnow the field down to 9.

Goldman Sachs earnings call

Goldman Sachs had a blowout second quarter, exceeding high expectations on its strong trading gains.

At a time when much of the financial industry is still struggling with the legacies of debt and leverage, the success of Goldman is riveting.  Yet as Matthew Goldstein has written, exactly how Goldman makes its huge gains remains largely a mystery.   Maybe, just maybe, some light will be shed when the firm holds a conference call on the results at 11 a.m. today.  Reuters columnists will be live blogging the call here.

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