A few weeks ago, shortly after Goldman Sachs reported its latest blowout quarter, the firm’s chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, spoke at a Fortune magazine breakfast.
In normal times, Mr. Blankfein might have been forgiven for bragging a bit about the just-reported quarter — over $3 billion in profit on $12 billion in revenue. It had generated some $6 billion just in one division: fixed income. It had more than $160 billion in cash or cash equivalents on its balance sheet. And of course it had long since repaid, with interest, the $10 billion it had accepted from the Treasury Department during the darkest days of the crisis.
But of course those weren’t the numbers the media and the public had focused on in the wake of Goldman’s earnings. Instead, people were fixated on the $5.3 billion the firm had set aside for its executives’ year-end bonuses. Added to first and second quarter set-asides of $4.6 billion and $6.6 billion, the firm had put aside $16 billion so far this year for employee bonuses. Nearly 50 percent of the firm’s revenue was going toward compensation. And there was still one more quarter to go!
Was it fair, commentators kept asking, that barely a year after the taxpayers had essentially saved the financial system, this firm that took government capital should now be paying multimillion-dollar bonuses? Was it right? Which, not surprisingly, is what Fortune’s managing editor, Andrew Serwer, asked Mr. Blankfein within minutes of taking the stage.
In private, Goldman executives are scornful of the sentiment behind this question. Their view, in essence, is that they should be applauded for being able to pay such big bonuses, because it means their business is successful. People who want them to pay less, they believe, want them to fail.
But Mr. Blankfein, a charming, funny man who has been Goldman’s boss since 2006, is far too smart to say that out loud. Nonetheless, what he did say was revealing. Treasury’s original decision to use the Troubled Asset Relief Program to shore up the banks’ capital, Mr. Blankfein said, “was a sensible thing to do at the time.”