Timothy P. Carney: Goldman rallies for Obama in Wall Street 'reform' 

In his self-styled war against Wall Street, President Obama appears to have a powerful ally: Goldman Sachs.

The nation's largest investment bank, famously cozy with top government officials in both parties, has tipped its hand to its shareholders, indicating that major financial "reform" proposals will help Goldman's bottom line.

"Given that much of the financial contagion was fueled by uncertainty about counterparties' balance sheets," Goldman Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and President Gary Cohn wrote in a letter at the beginning of the annual report, "we support measures that would require higher capital and liquidity levels, as well as the use of clearinghouses for standardized derivative transactions."

Goldman's executives are calling for two regulations here. First, they want the federal government to restrict free-wheeling, heavily leveraged, high-stakes financial risk taking. Second, they want government to set more rules of the road for trading derivatives -- financial products that are often complex.

These are the very "fat cats" to whom Obama directed his trash talk in January: "If they want a fight, that's a fight I'm willing to have." Well, it looks like they don't really want a fight. It looks like they want more regulation. The question is: What's in it for Goldman?

If you take Blankfein and Cohn's word, stricter federal liquidity and capital requirements would amount to regulators doing Goldman's work for Goldman. They want Uncle Sam to mitigate "uncertainty about counterparties' balance sheets." That is, they want the government to reduce the risk that Goldman's debtors or insurers will run into trouble.

This is an odd function of government: Making Goldman Sachs feel safer in its business dealings. Blogger Ira Stoll, at his Web site The Future of Capitalism, put it well:

"It's one thing for some elderly retail depositor to ask the FDIC to protect her from risk by guaranteeing bank deposits. But the idea that the government needs to run around setting capital requirements to protect Blankfein and Cohn from the risk that their counterparties might go under or get in a liquidity crunch seems a bit odd. Let them protect themselves."

Also at play in Goldman's call for stricter capital requirements and standardization of derivatives: the confidence game. Much of America has lost some faith in the markets. Regular investors are still a bit scared of the stock market. Financial firms are lending less. Goldman thrives on free-flowing capital.

If Obama signs a financial "reform" and declares that it now safe to enter the waters of the stock market, that's good news for Goldman.

Restoring public confidence in the markets should be the job of those who profit from your investing in the market -- it should not be the job of the federal government.

Another pillar of Obama's financial reform is the "Volcker Rule," which would restrict the trading banks can do. Blankfein and Cohn, in their letter, indicate to shareholders that this rule will be no big deal for them.

The Volcker Rule would bar "proprietary trading" by Goldman (that is trading simply to benefit Goldman's bottom line) but would not restrict dealings "related to" serving the bank's clients. But even Goldman's most notorious financial dealings, transactions with failed insurance giant AIG, were client-related, Goldman told shareholders: "The net risk we were exposed to," Blankfein and Cohn wrote, "was consistent with our role as a market intermediary rather than a proprietary market participant."

In other words, almost any deal Goldman would make could be tied to a client, meaning the Volcker Rule couldn't touch Goldman, even if it cramps the style of smaller, less well-connected banks.

Goldman is lobbying hard on financial regulation, but that doesn't mean they're lobbying "against" regulation. And they certainly shouldn't be considered White House foes: Goldman was Obama's No. 1 corporate source of funds in 2008.

So when Obama triumphantly signs his "reform" later this year, forget the rhetoric and watch the smart money -- it'll be betting on Goldman.

Timothy P. Carney is the Washington Examiner's lobbying editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.

 

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