I watched the Senate hearings on Goldman yesterday. CNBC carried it live. It was a fascinating spectacle over all. Depressing, often, but fascinating. One of the best moments came when Sen. Ensign (of somewhat dubious morals himself) objected to the comparison of the finance industry to Las Vegas Casinos. He was quite right to draw two definite contrasts--those who gamble know, if not the exact odds, that the odds favor the house and gamblers, for the most part, bet their own money. The efforts the Senators made to get the bankers to admit they may have done something to fuel the financial meltdown and that it may have been wrong (morally if not legally) was totally wasted. All of them hid behind the culture of the time which encouraged reckless risk taking. I would have a bit of sympathy for them if they (the banking industry generally) were not so intent on shifting the blame to those sub-prime borrowers (fools if not outright frauds) who obtained mortgages they couldn't pay for. Those borrowers were also a part of the culture that encouraged reckless leveraging and they were aided and abetted by the bankers. But the bankers don't want to expend any sympathy in that direction. The bankers I saw were sullen, uncooperative, convinced that they were persecuted for merely conducting business as usual.
Most of the commentators I have heard in the aftermath think they acquitted themselves quite well and did Goldman some good in the process. I have a very different opinion. From what they said conflict of interest problems are woven into the very structure of Goldman's business. On the one hand you have a division of that business that engages in constructing investment vehicles and, on the other, a division that is in the business of selling those vehicles. Worse, Goldman itself invests in those investment options. And the sales division may market those investments without disclosing to its clients that Goldman is betting that that investment might fail and sees nothing wrong with this practice. And the division that constructs the investments may do so for clients who want it designed to fail so they can cash in by shorting the investment. Now, once upon a time (in 1919 to be precise) the Chicago White Sox made their way to the World Series. But the players (the best in baseball at the time) had a big beef with the cheapskate owner of the team. So they threw the world series and bet big that they would lose. To this day they are known as the Black Sox. But, here is my point--what is so very different about a baseball team that has the ability to throw a World Series while placing bets on the side that they will, in fact, lose and a cabal of bankers that puts together an investment package designed to lose money while placing bets (shorting) that the package will lose at the same time that they are selling that investment to others on the premise that it is a money maker? And how can they serve the interests of one client (who wants the designed-to-fail package constructed) and those of another client (who wants a sound investment that will make money) at the same time? Though a number of the bankers did make a valid point that to have a market you have to have both a buyer and a seller, they missed an equally valid feature of the structure of markets--both sides have to have equivalent knowledge of the particulars, i.e., the value of the assets. What they constructed wasn't a market--it was a scam, a fraud.