Goldman Sachs responds to Taibbi

By Felix Salmon
June 26, 2009

I just got off the phone with Lucas van Praag, the top flack at Goldman Sachs, who called Matt Taibbi’s piece on the bank “hysterical”. He also sent me an email, which makes some specific responses to Taibbi’s points:

Having read your piece about Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone, I wanted to set the record straight, particularly about “regulatory capture”.

Background: Under the Commodity Exchange Act, the CFTC (for agricultural futures) or exchanges (for energy/metals futures) established speculative position limits. As much as anything else, the limits are intended to prevent market imbalances that would result in failures of the ultimate settlement of the futures contracts.

The CFTC rules exempt “bona fide hedging” transactions from these spec limits. A bona fide hedging transaction was originally understood to be an actual producer/consumer who was selling or buying the underlying commodity and wanted to hedge risk of the price moving up or down. In 1991, J. Aron wanted to enter into one of its first commodity index swap transactions with a pension fund. In order to hedge our exposure on the swap, we wanted to buy futures on the commodities in the index. We applied to the CFTC for exemption from position limits on the theory that even if we weren’t buying the commodity, we had offsetting exposure (in our swap) that put us in a balanced/price neutral position. The CFTC agreed with our argument and granted exemption. By the way, each of the then Commissioners signed off, so it was hardly a secret…

The CFTC published a report in August 2008, indicating that there were few instances when entities would have exceeded spec limits, had they applied to OTC positions.

Yesterday, as you probably know, the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations issued a report on wheat futures in which they concluded that divergence between prices for actual wheat v. wheat futures is being caused solely by index investment. The Committee’s recommendation is that hedge exemptions which support indices should be phased out.

Not quite so recently, the elimination of Glass Steagall doesn’t exactly provide a robust argument for regulatory capture. And Taibbi’s bubble case doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny either. To give just two examples, even with the worst will in the world, the blame for creating the internet bubble cannot credibly be laid at our door, and we could hardly be described as having been a major player in the mortgage market, unlike so many of our current and former competitors.

Taibbi’s article is a compilation of just about every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up about Goldman Sachs, but what real substance is there to support the theories?

We reject the assertion that we are inflators of bubbles and profiteers in busts, and we are painfully conscious of the importance of being a force for good.

Van Praag is right that if the Senate is recommending that Goldman’s exemptions in the futures market be phased out, then the Senate, at least, has not been captured by Goldman. And he’s also right that Goldman can’t really be blamed for creating either the tech-stock bubble or the housing bubble — it was a relatively minor player in both.

But you don’t read a Taibbi rant for an evenhanded look at both sides of a complex story. It’s more a forcefully-put case for the prosecution: some of his charges might not stick, but he’ll throw a few chancers in as well for good measure. (Interestingly, though, even Taibbi didn’t try to include Ben Stein’s ridiculous conspiracy theory about Goldman’s chief economist trying to drive down the prices of mortgage bonds in order that Goldman could profit from its short positions.)

I disagree with van Praag that the CFTC exemption given to J Aron “was hardly a secret” — as far as I know, there was no contemporaneous reporting of it at all, either in the press or in Goldman’s own filings. And although there’s a strong case to be made that Goldman has failed to capture the legislative branch (see for instance Chris Dodd jumping on the Ben Stein bandwagon), I think there’s a pretty compelling case that both the executive branch (home to countless Goldman alumni) and the regulators, like the CFTC, have a pretty strong track record of doing whatever was in the best interests of Goldman Sachs.

Van Praag told me that in the wake of the events of the past year or two, Goldman’s partners have pretty much lost their appetite for going into public service. Maybe that’s for the best. They are generally smart and talented and knowledgeable people, and I daresay that many of them have done a lot of good after leaving the firm and joining government. At the same time, however, we’re supposed to have a government of the people, not a government of multimillionaire Goldman Sachs technocrats. And when you have the latter, you’re inevitably going to end up with a lot of mistrust and conspiracy theories sooner or later, whether they’re well-founded or not.

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