Monday, November 9, 2009

I'm doing 'God's work'. Meet Mr Goldman Sachs

"Aha! You catch us plotting in real time," says Lloyd Blankfein, breaking away from a cabal of senior executives discussing his trip to Washington the previous day. Blankfein, 55, Goldman’s chairman and chief executive, is wearing a grey suit with a jaunty Herm├Ęs tie with little red bicycles on it. In his hand, he’s carrying one of those cups of coffee that look bigger than the human stomach. Maybe it’s the caffeine, maybe it’s the tie — a birthday present from his daughter — but he’s in a remarkably jolly mood for a man everyone seems to hate. "It’s like a safari here," he jokes. "You’ve come in to look at the animals."

Blankfein may be Wall Street’s Sun God, but, with the economic outlook stormy, he doesn’t want to advertise it, so the merest hint of a status symbol or — horror! — ostentation is airbrushed out of his life, publicly, at least. Take his office on the 30th floor. The chairs are the same ones that were there when he became CEO three years ago. There are none of the $87,000 handmade rugs or $5,000 wastepaper baskets of Wall Street lore. There’s no sign of irrational exuberance. Only coffee, which arrives cold. It sets just the right tone for the job in hand. The grand wizard of Wall Street is steeling himself for the hardest sell of his life: he’s here to argue for good ol’ capitalism, for investment banks and for Goldman Sachs.

Luckily for him and his firm, he’s a damn good salesman. He starts with a little humility. He understands that "people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape" at bankers’ actions. Goldman played its part in the meltdown that almost destroyed the global financial system. It, like most other banks, lent too much money, made its first quarterly loss for more than a decade last year and ended up taking bail-out cash from Washington. "I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer," he says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. "We’re very important," he says, abandoning self-flagellation. "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."

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