Goldman Sachs’s not very charitable foundation

By Felix Salmon
November 12, 2009
Geraldine Fabrikant gets her hands on the 2008 tax filing for the Goldman Sachs Foundation today, and it's pretty astonishing stuff:

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Geraldine Fabrikant gets her hands on the 2008 tax filing for the Goldman Sachs Foundation today, and it’s pretty astonishing stuff:

The latest tax filing for Goldman Sachs’s foundation is as thick as a phone book. The list of trades is more than 200 pages, single spaced. Goldman, it seems, invests like no other, even for its own charity.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said Verne O. Sedlacek, president of Commonfund, when shown the 2007 filing, which was nearly three inches thick. He has a good overview from the Commonfund, which manages more than $25 billion for universities, foundations and other not-for-profit groups.

What good does all this extreme trading do? Not very much, it would seem, according to Fabrikant’s numbers:

  • Goldman has given $501 million to the Goldman Sachs Foundation since 1999
  • The present size of the foundation is $404 million
  • The foundation gave away $12.6 million in 2007 and $22 million in 2008.

Goldman doesn’t reveal the foundation’s investment returns, but clearly they’re negative: the amount of money in the foundation is lower than the amount donated to it, even after accounting for the sums it’s given away.

What’s more, Goldman seems to be giving away only the bare minimum of the foundation’s assets each year: just 5%, the level below which the foundation would lose its charitable status.

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that the foundation’s counterparty, on its phone-book-sized list of trades for just one year, was always or nearly always Goldman Sachs*. And when Goldman Sachs trades with anybody, be it a client or the Goldman Sachs Foundation or anybody else, Goldman Sachs makes money.

Meanwhile, the foundation itself, as we’ve seen, has been losing money.

And who are the charitable recipients of the foundation’s funds? Entities like the Asia Society, on Park Avenue, which is a talking shop where Goldman bankers can schmooze important international clients. Or big universities like Johns Hopkins and Duke, which take charitable gifts and keep them in the market by adding them to their endowments and investing them rather than spending them.

All in all, the single biggest beneficiary of the Goldman Sachs Foundation would seem to be Goldman Sachs itself, while the amount of money which trickles down from it to genuinely needy charitable cases is minuscule. Goldman should turn its foundation into an arm’s-length institution, charged with giving money where it can do the most good, and allowed to give much more than 5% of its total assets if it sees the need to do so. Because right now the foundation looks mostly like an exercise in self-dealing.

Update: One other thing: why on earth couldn’t the NYT have either linked to the tax filing, or put it online? Most annoying.

*Update 2: Goldman phones to say that the vast majority of trades at the Goldman Sachs Foundation are not with Goldman Sachs.

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