Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Risk Takers

by Russ Roberts on November 10, 2009
in Financial Markets

From an article on Goldman Sachs, from a conversation with the CEO, Lloyd Blankfein:

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.”

I used to feel this way. I used to think that Wall Street innovation was part of our prosperity because the innovation made markets more efficient. But that only works when firms face profits and losses. When losses are truncated by bailouts, you get anti-social risk-taking. You get a cycle not of virtue but of vice. You get $1.5 trillion poured down the black hole of subprime lending. The bottom line of the current system is that Blankfein won and the we, the people, lost. Shame on the people who allowed him to play with our money instead of his own. Shame on him for pretending he earned our money and the profits he made playing with it.

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