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Leverage

October 21st, 2008 · No Comments

Investment banks have been some of the financial crisis main victims. Their business model left them wide open for all kinds of trouble. Basically, their leveraged business model is the micro-cosmos of the credit crisis.

Investment banks perform a host of services for corporate clients at (rather generous) fees, like underwriting, acting as an intermediary between an issuer of securities and the investing public, facilitating mergers and other corporate reorganizations, and also acting as a broker for institutional clients.

But this is basically garden variety investment banking, their most profitable, but most risky (yes, risk and reward usually go hand in hand) they invest money for their own account.

The business model is relatively simple. Unlike normal banks, they do not take deposits from the general public, but instead rely on credit markets for funding. They use that money to invest, that is, they invest a multiple of it, using leverage (25:1 last year, that’s quite a lot)

This model is inherently risky, and wide open for abuse by others in tough times, and this is exactly what happened:

  1. If the investments turn sour, the leverage forces them to cut back position or to attract new capital
  2. When attracting new capital becomes difficult, such as the last half year or so, because of credit markets freezing up and people see that they’ve become a risky bet, selling assets is the only remedy left
  3. Forced selling is never good, but as several institutions have to do it together this will further sink the value of assets, and create more problems for others, forcing them to sell assets, and turning the selling into a vicious cycle of deleveraging.
  4. The potential abuse comes from parties understanding the logic, and helping the process along, by short selling, manipulation, and rumor mongering, all of which can easily become a vicious cycle in itself by further closing off access to capital and scaring away clients, withdrawing their money. See for instance the article ‘The Attack on Morgan Stanley

The nefarious naked short selling is not mentioned in the otherwise excellent article below, but it’s a gripping story nevertheless, from Bloomberg:

Goldman Sachs Paydays Suffer on Lost Leverage With Fed Scrutiny
By Lisa Kassenaar and Christine Harper

Oct. 21 (Bloomberg) — On Sunday Sept. 21, just before 3 p.m., Lloyd Blankfein gathered the top executives of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in his 30th-floor office and set off a chain of events that would forever change the company he leads.

It had been a week like no other on Wall Street. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the fourth-largest U.S. securities firm, was bankrupt. The credit markets, which Goldman uses to fund its business, were frozen. And Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Blankfein’s predecessor as chief executive officer of Goldman, was begging Congress for $700 billion to save the financial system. Goldman’s stock had plunged as much as 26 percent in one day.

In the brief meeting in lower Manhattan that warm Sunday, according to a person familiar with the events, Blankfein told his lieutenants the firm would become a bank holding company, ending its run as the jewel of global investment banks.

So began the next chapter in the history of Goldman Sachs, a company founded in 1869 by a former street peddler that had weathered many crises. It survived what may have been the most serious threat in September, only to be thrust into a new landscape where Goldman will have to prove that old virtues–a vast alumni network, a fierce partnership culture, high levels of compensation and trading acumen–are still of value.

The contingency planning to become a commercial bank had been under way since March, after the collapse of Bear Stearns Cos. sent shivers through Wall Street. That’s when Federal Reserve inspectors set up camp at the firm’s 85 Broad St. headquarters, a sign of things to come.

Break the Glass

It wasn’t until that weekend in September that Blankfein, 54, decided to break the glass and sound the alarm. Goldman was going to need the stability of a large deposit base, he concluded, to compete with the likes of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., the nation’s two largest commercial banks. It was no longer enough to be the biggest, most profitable securities firm–not when the investment banking model of relying on capital markets for funding was busted.

Goldman executives, fortified with Chinese takeout, gourmet pizza and burgers from Harry’s at Hanover Square, had spent the weekend debating the firm’s options. Lawyers were preparing the paperwork to transform the bank into an institution supervised by the Fed. Some slept in the office. Blankfein was in close contact with Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and with John Mack, chief executive of rival Morgan Stanley, the person said.

After the meeting in his office, Blankfein secured the consent of his board of directors on a conference call. By 10 p.m., as darkness engulfed Wall Street, Goldman and Morgan Stanley separately announced they would henceforth do business as deposit-taking institutions.

Cohn, Winkelried

That was only the first step in rescuing Goldman from what would have been an unthinkable fate last year, when the firm earned $11.6 billion and its three top executives — Blankfein and Co-presidents Gary Cohn and Jon Winkelried — earned a total of $203 million.

Over the next days, the trio, stewards of Goldman since 2006, would call Warren Buffett for a $5 billion investment to shore up their balance sheet–and snag the billionaire’s platinum-plated endorsement. And they’d raise another $5 billion by selling public shares for $123 each. That price was 43 percent higher than the $85.88 the shares touched in New York trading on Sept. 18, their lowest level in four years.

Treasury Connections

Meanwhile, in Washington, Paulson, 62, was scrambling to sell his plan to relieve banks of toxic mortgage securities that had sucked more than $600 billion from their balance sheets and were now devouring investor confidence. The world’s rapidly unraveling financial web could trigger economic catastrophe, he told Congress. Paulson had already let Lehman go. The Fed had pledged $85 billion to keep American International Group Inc., the world’s biggest insurer, from the same destiny. The markets were screaming that such stopgaps were no longer enough.

On Oct. 3, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing the Office of Financial Stability to oversee the U.S. purchase of soured securities and loans from scores of companies, including Goldman. Edward Forst, 47, a former head of Goldman’s asset management unit who now helps manage Harvard University’s $35 billion endowment, helped set it up. On Oct. 6, another Goldman alumnus, Neel Kashkari, a 35-year-old former technology banker who joined the Treasury in 2006, was named to lead it.

Then, a week later, Paulson reversed course and summoned Blankfein and eight other banking chiefs to Washington, where he told them the government would inject $250 billion into the banking system — including $10 billion for Goldman — and insure senior unsecured debt issued over the next three years. In exchange, the government would take stakes in their companies and control executive compensation.

At the Pinnacle

Goldman has adapted before. It rose to the pinnacle of Wall Street profitability and power by creating a culture with a canny talent for reacting to what’s coming next.

Change is a general operating principle,” says John Rogers, 52, Blankfein’s top counselor, who has managed the firm’s executive office under three CEOs. “We have people who live in the markets, and our culture is one of speed. It’s nimble.”

Goldman’s business model is rooted in contrasts, current and former employees say: agile and unrelenting, risk loving and paranoid, outward looking and secretive, demanding of individuals and focused on team above all else. Traders and bankers have the wits to move billions of dollars a day between markets, supported by an exacting risk management system. Goldman has also built a brand that, with the promise of reputation and riches, entices the best talent.

`Greater Regulation’

The government plan is designed to make it easier and cheaper for banks to borrow money, alleviating the pressure on Goldman to gather deposits right away. By providing capital to the financial system, the government hopes to loosen credit markets and get banks lending to each other and to companies again.

With that benefit will come restrictions.

The capital infusions will mean much greater regulation and oversight, not only from the government but from Mr. Buffett,” says Peter Solomon, a former Lehman Brothers vice chairman who now runs Peter J. Solomon Co., an advisory firm in New York.

Blankfein, Cohn, Winkelried and Chief Financial Officer David Viniar, 53, are among the executives whose compensation will be subject to new Treasury-imposed standards, although none of these rules is likely to make a material difference to pay practices at Goldman. While the company won’t be able to take tax deductions on salaries exceeding $500,000, bonuses that make up the majority of Goldman executives’ pay won’t be affected.

Less Leverage

The Fed may impose stricter controls on the amounts and types of risks that Goldman and other banks can take in the future, although regulators haven’t said anything publicly.

The government is going to want to ensure that there isn’t a meltdown like this again,” says Larry Tabb, founder and CEO of Tabb Group, a financial market research and advisory firm in Westborough, Massachusetts. “They’re going to have to use less leverage.”

Goldman’s record profits last year were fueled by trading and multibillion-dollar investments that leveraged the company’s total assets to shareholder equity more than 25 to 1. The firm seemed to make all the right bets: Mortgage securities traders wagered against the U.S. subprime market, bankers booked hundreds of millions from private equity stakes in energy companies and in China and prime brokerage revenue soared 25 percent as former Goldman employees directed business to their alma mater. For the seventh year in a row, the firm was No. 1 in advising on mergers and acquisitions, as dealmakers worked Goldman’s network of business and government contacts.

2008 Credit Crisis

Now the credit crisis of 2008 has shattered the business, and Goldman is switching gears. Blankfein plans to gather consumer and corporate deposits as a more-stable and lower-cost source of funding. He’ll dial back risk in trading and principal investing, which provided 68 percent of revenue in 2007. And partners will have to learn to live with Fed inspectors in their midst.

“Most outsiders don’t realize how frequently and how drastically Goldman has changed,” says Peter Weinberg, 51, a founder of New York-based Perella Weinberg Partners LP who ran Goldman’s international operations from 1999 to 2005 and whose grandfather, Sidney Weinberg, was the firm’s senior partner from 1930 to ’69. “The changes we see today, however seismic they may seem, will be met like the many others: with a rigorous evaluation of which businesses make sense and which don’t and then a fierce commercial plan to be leaders in those businesses.”

Good News, Bad News

The good news for Goldman is that the company’s expertise in making investments in distressed assets could pay off. The firm has already raised funds to buy assets ranging from mortgage securities to loans made to finance leveraged buyouts, and it sees opportunities to invest in the current environment, people familiar with the company say.

Goldman’s top executives declined to comment for this article. Blankfein scheduled an interview and then canceled on Oct. 10, when the firm’s shares plunged 12 percent and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index finished its worst week since 1933.

The bad news is that the weak economy may depress business in other areas, including M&A and trading. Blankfein has described Goldman’s strategy as “chasing GDP around the world,” meaning the company makes money in economies that are growing fastest. “Our ultimate source of growth is the economy,” he has said.

Slower Growth

The International Monetary Fund on Oct. 8 scaled back its forecast for global growth in 2009 to 3 percent — a level the fund has called the dividing line between a global recession and expansion — and it predicts industrial economies will grow at the slowest pace since 1982. The volume of global corporate takeovers, a business Goldman dominates, plunged 29 percent in 2008 through Oct. 16 compared with the same period a year earlier. Worldwide stock offerings fell by the same percentage, while sales of high-yield bonds tumbled 60 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Asset management, which includes hedge funds and investing in stocks, bonds, private equity and real estate, may also be hurt in declining markets, although it could be a long-term growth area for the company. Falling markets mean declining asset values and fewer fees. In the three months ended in August, Goldman’s assets under management dropped 4 percent to $863 billion, cutting management fees 3 percent from the prior quarter.

New Competitors

In trading, Goldman’s biggest source of revenue, cutting leverage means smaller bets, capping the amount the firm can make — and lose. The firm may revert to acting as a middleman between buyers and sellers, says David Killian, a fund manager at Valley Forge Advisors LLC in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. That isn’t as lucrative as making trades with the firm’s own capital, he notes, but it’s less risky.

For Blankfein, the question is no longer about survival, says Killian, whose fund manages $650 million and owns Goldman stocks and bonds.

“The question,” he says, “is, Can we put up the same returns over the next 10 years as we did the prior 10? Unequivocally, the answer is no.”

Already, fewer deals and curbs on risk have cut into the available money for compensation. As of the end of the third quarter, Goldman had set aside $11.4 billion for pay and benefits for its 32,000 employees this year, 32 percent less than in the same nine months of fiscal 2008. About two-thirds of that pool is typically paid out as year-end bonuses.

Deposit Base

The new rules of finance also force Blankfein to rethink his competition. Decades-old rivals Bear Stearns and Lehman are dead. Now, Goldman will contend with behemoths such as Citigroup Inc., Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. Those banks have been hobbled by the credit crisis, yet they’re way ahead in deposits, which has kept their overall cost of funding relatively low.

Goldman is set to begin building its deposit base. Since 2002, it has operated a Utah-based bank for private clients that has grown to about $19 billion in deposits. The firm is moving $150 billion of assets from other businesses, including lending, into that division immediately, and it has also applied for a New York state bank charter. Goldman’s plans to acquire deposits may include buying banks as the credit markets thaw and some lenders falter, a person familiar with the strategy says. It’s more likely to gather wholesale deposits, money from companies, than smaller amounts from retail clients.

`More Conservative Model’

CFO Viniar is now in charge of a group of about 200 people changing the company’s accounting and legal systems to meet Fed requirements. Peter O’Hagan, a managing director from Goldman’s commodities group, was named CEO of GS Bank USA. E. Gerald Corrigan, 67, a former New York Fed president who joined the firm in 1996, was appointed the unit’s chairman.

Goldman is being forced into a much more conservative model,” says Christopher Whalen of Hawthorne, California-based Institutional Risk Analytics. While the business will be steadier, even the best-run commercial banks tend to post return on equity of about 12 percent, he says, meaning Goldman isn’t likely to be the highflier for investors it was last year, when its ROE topped 32 percent.

That will be a test for Goldman’s culture, which above all is about making money for employees and shareholders. Weinberg, who left the firm in 2005, remembers a conversation with Jon Corzine, a former bond trader who bucked Wall Street style by wearing a beard and a sweater vest, rose to senior partner of Goldman in 1994 and is now governor of New Jersey.

Goldman `Hustle’

Jon Corzine always told me that the only strategy really worth a damn was ‘hustle,’” Weinberg says. “And I will tell you one thing: ‘Hustle’ was practiced to a fine art at Goldman Sachs.”

With their rapid action that September weekend, Blankfein and Paulson — CEOs present and past — offered a glimpse of Goldman at full speed. Blankfein, a postal worker’s son from Brooklyn, New York, who joined the firm as a gold salesman in 1982, didn’t hesitate to move quickly when the markets demanded it. Byron Trott, who started at Goldman the same year and is one of Buffett’s closest advisers, was able to score Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s capital injection within five hours. Goldman’s equity sales desk, adept at moving stocks into the market, was informed of a $2.5 billion share sale the afternoon of Sept. 23, according to a person familiar with the matter. By 8 a.m. the next day, they’d sold twice that much.

Appearance of Conflict

The alumni network was also engaged. Paulson has been working with former Goldman colleagues to wrestle with the financial crisis for months. In August, he brought Kendrick Wilson, Goldman’s former head of bank M&A, to Treasury as a consultant. Paulson is close to Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, who worked at Goldman until 1999. Robert Rubin, who led Goldman from ’90 to ’92 and was President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, was advising Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on his response to the economic crisis.

Goldman’s connections in Washington have spurred speculation that the Treasury Department, and Paulson in particular, may have favored the firm during the process of trying to rescue the financial system, especially by letting Lehman, a Goldman rival, go down and then saving AIG, which owed Goldman billions. Paulson started at Goldman in 1974 as an investment banker and became co-CEO with Corzine in ’98. He sold all of his Goldman stock when he joined the Bush administration.

“Paulson has found himself in a position of extraordinary appearance of conflict,” says Solomon, the former Lehman vice chairman. “But I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that it influenced his decisions.”

Competitive Advantage

Lucas van Praag, a spokesman for Goldman, says the firm has not received any preferential treatment from the government. If anything, he says, Goldman has been excluded from some opportunities afforded competitors, such as the chance to analyze Bear Stearns’s books before the company was sold to JPMorgan. A person close to Paulson, who asked not to be identified, says he has gone out of his way to avoid even the appearance of conflict.

Yet Goldman’s network is a clear competitive advantage, says Ed Maran, portfolio manager at Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which manages more than $35 billion and has bought more than a million Goldman shares since mid-September.

“Every major move that’s happened in the markets, they’ve been there for: hedge funds, alternative investments, globalization in Asia and Eastern Europe,” Maran says. “You don’t get these positions by reacting but by anticipating the way the world is going.”

`Influenced by Greed’

Goldman has been anticipating the way the world is going since Marcus Goldman, a German immigrant, began brokering IOUs from an office on Pine Street in lower Manhattan in 1869. Thirteen years later, he invited his son-in-law, Sam Sachs, to join the business, which became Goldman, Sachs & Co.

A partnership was born that would flourish until 1999, when the company, the last major Wall Street firm to abandon private ownership, sold shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Needless to say, the partnership managed its own sale: Goldman started handling public offerings in 1906, when sales for United Cigar Manufacturers and Sears, Roebuck & Co. introduced the concept of evaluating a company by its cash generation rather than its assets, according to the firm’s Web site.

Working the Network

Goldman’s first major crisis, in 1929, presaged the firm’s troubles with leverage now. An investment arm, Goldman Sachs Trading Corp., had bought millions in shares of U.S. companies with money raised in the stock market. Later, Walter Sachs, Sam’s son, would say, according to Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success, a history by Lisa Endlich: “I confess to the fact that we were all influenced by greed. We thought these values were going to be justified.”

Sidney Weinberg, who took over in 1930, was loath to put partners’ capital at risk after the collapse of the stock market. He expanded in investment banking instead. He also forged the company’s still-prevalent view toward public service as an adviser to presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. His role as a director on 34 boards helped him recruit corporate leaders to serve the government during World War II, earning him the nickname “the body snatcher.”

Weinberg worked the network for the good of the firm, says Charles Ellis, a former consultant to Goldman whose book The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs was published in October. Many executives turned to Weinberg for advice on appointing board members.

1994 Crisis

“Then, of course, he’d make it clear to the people who were going to go on the board that he had made it happen,” Ellis says. “And so they were grateful. And who would they choose for an investment banker? Pretty soon he’s got a network of corporations that want to be clients of Sidney Weinberg.”

In 1994, the firm faced another crisis that almost put it under: The Fed jacked up U.S. overnight lending rates seven times, doubling its target to 6 percent and sending Goldman’s bullish bets on the bond market into a tailspin. It was then that the partnership structure was truly tested, says Peter Weinberg, who became a partner in 1992.

The firm was struggling month to month; we all had personal liability,” he says. “It was a great way to learn what a partnership really means.”

The 1994 crisis ramped up the urgency to go public. It also pressed the firm to examine its risk management process.

Risk Committee

Merrill Lynch & Co. CEO John Thain, who became Goldman’s chief financial officer that year, and David Viniar, the firm’s treasurer at the time, designed the system of checks and balances still in place today. Controllers who monitor risk report directly to Viniar, who has been CFO since 1999, not to the heads of individual businesses.

A risk committee of about 25 people meets every week to talk about developments in the market, examine value at risk and review positions over a certain size, according to a person familiar with the system. The firm marks to market every day, which means it assigns its assets the prices they’d fetch from a buyer. For illiquid securities, those prices may be estimated based on computer models.

“We recognize concentrated exposures early, and we move aggressively to reduce them,” Viniar said on a conference call on Sept. 16, when Goldman reported third-quarter earnings, which were hurt by losses on its sales of leveraged loans. “This risk reduction was painful. It caused us to have losses of over $3 billion. But daily marks actually strengthened our resolve to continue to reduce our exposures.”

Avoiding Subprime

It was Viniar, following his own risk rules and his instinct for keeping the firm out of consumer businesses, who prevented Goldman from having blistering losses in the subprime market, according to a person familiar with the firm’s operations. Viniar and other top executives were early to see risks in the home loan market, the person said. In September 2006, as rivals such as Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley were snapping up mortgage lenders, Viniar told analysts that Goldman was hesitant to follow.

“We have two primary concerns,” he said. “One is a timing concern: Is this the right point in the cycle to do it? And the second is a retail concern. Goldman Sachs is largely an institutional business.”

Three months later, Viniar observed that the U.S. housing market was wobbling. He met with Goldman’s mortgage-trading department to advise on offsetting the risk of Goldman’s holdings of mortgage-backed collateralized-debt obligations and other related securities, according to people familiar with the matter.

AIG Hedge

Those discussions proved critical. Goldman’s structured- products trading group, betting the firm’s own money, shorted the subprime-securities market by buying credit-default swaps through 2007. By the end of the year, the firm had made money on those trades and avoided losing billions.

This year, Goldman also saw trouble brewing in the insurance sector and began hedging its exposure to AIG, which had a notional value of about $20 billion as of mid-September, according to a person familiar with the strategy. The hedges included short positions on AIG and other insurance companies, as well as CDSs. Goldman wouldn’t have lost money if AIG had gone out of business, the person said, although the collapse would have caused wide- spread economic distress.

Blankfein’s Record

The firm Blankfein took over in 2006, after Paulson’s sudden decision to join the Bush administration, was in great shape by most measures. The stock had almost tripled since the initial public offering. Goldman had reported record profit in 2005 and was growing income from trading and from the firm’s own investments. Revenue from those activities was $16.4 billion that year, 17 percent more than the entire firm made in 2002.

Goldman’s appetite for risk was climbing in tandem. Value at risk, a measure of how much the firm could lose in a day if markets turned against it, climbed to $70 million in 2005 from $28 million in 2000.

As CEO, Blankfein drove further into trading and principal investing, which accounted for 75 percent of its pretax profits by 2007. Like other Wall Street banks, Goldman used leverage to generate bigger returns. The year before Blankfein became CEO, Goldman’s gross leverage ratio, a measure of assets compared with shareholder equity, was 18.7 to 1. By the end of 2007, it had ballooned to 26.2 to 1. Assets more than doubled in that period to $1.1 trillion.

The strategy of buying assets with borrowed money worked wonders when the values of everything from U.S. real estate to Chinese bank shares were soaring. About 65 percent of the jump in Goldman’s ROE from 2003 to ’06 can be traced to an increase in leverage, more than its competitors, Merrill Lynch analyst Guy Moszkowski calculated in an Oct. 7 report.

Asset Management

Now with losses spreading beyond mortgages to a wider range of assets including stocks, corporate debt, commodities, emerging markets and real estate, Goldman’s leverage amplifies the risk to the firm of those falling prices. At a leverage ratio of 26 to 1, a 4 percent decline in the value of the firm’s assets will wipe out shareholder equity. As of mid-October, the firm had cut its leverage ratio to 19 to 1.

With investors and regulators demanding that banks cut risk, Goldman may beef up a business that doesn’t require the company’s own money: asset management. Even after a decline in the third quarter, the business was on track for another record year, with revenue up 8 percent from last year’s record.

One part that has flourished is so-called alternative investments, such as private equity funds and hedge funds. They’re lucrative because they reap higher fees than traditional money market or stock funds. More than 17 percent of the company’s funds under management were in alternative investments at the end of 2007.

`Marquee Business’

Investors may have more appetite for conservative choices such as money markets as they emphasize safety over high returns, says Peter Sorrentino, a senior portfolio manager at Cincinnati-based Huntington Asset Advisors.

“They will continue to do private equity and things like that, but it will be a sideline business as opposed to the marquee business,” he says. “The less risky the business, the greater the dollar volume they can garner and the more consistent the returns.”

Some analysts say Goldman’s asset management business could grow to as much as $5 trillion under management. By comparison, BlackRock Inc., the fund management company run by Larry Fink and part owned by Merrill Lynch, had $1.4 trillion under management at the end of June.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the scale of the asset management business dramatically increased,” Weinberg says, “which may finally provide the recurring earnings stream so sought after by public equity investors.”

Weinberg’s Trauma

There’s a certain irony in Sidney Weinberg’s grandson predicting that asset management may end up becoming a core business for Goldman. The elder Weinberg was so traumatized by the Goldman Sachs Trading Corp. calamity that, for years afterward, the company made it a policy not to manage other people’s money.

“Goldman Sachs does not manage any investment trusts–open end, closed end, or no end,” Weinberg said, according to Endlich’s book about the firm.

Ever since the scandal, Goldman has had a love-hate relationship with managing money for clients. Gus Levy, Weinberg’s successor, sold the firm’s $500 million money management business in 1976 because Goldman wanted to avoid competing with clients, according to Endlich’s book. John Whitehead, the firm’s senior partner from ’76 to ’84, got back into the business. In ’90, Goldman created the Water Street Corporate Recovery Fund, a pool of money to buy controlling stakes in the debt of financially distressed businesses. It was shut a year later when its negotiations upset clients such as Fidelity Investments and Tonka Toys.

Global Alpha

Blankfein, in a speech to investors in November 2006, said that skepticism about Goldman’s asset management strategy was “unwarranted.”

A year later, even though the unit had posted record revenue, the division again marred the firm’s reputation. The flagship Global Alpha hedge fund fell 40 percent in 2007, hurt by wrong-way stock and currency bets. Global Equity Opportunities, which relied on mathematical models to select trades, fell 28 percent in August 2007. That led Goldman to put $2 billion of its own money into Global Equity Opportunities and to raise $1 billion from a group of outside investors, including billionaire Eli Broad and hedge fund firm Perry Capital LLC.

“We feel terrible about it,” Blankfein said in November 2007. Still, he noted that Goldman had recently raised a new $2.7 billion credit hedge fund called Liberty Harbor and a $1.8 billion distressed credit fund called GS Liquidity Partners.

$1 Billion Hurdle

A month after that fateful September weekend, Blankfein’s rescue plan was still a work in progress. His challenge is to find revenue as the global economy veers into recession and markets gyrate in a way not seen since the Great Depression. He has support from the likes of Buffett and the U.S. government– although at a cost. Berkshire’s $5 billion investment pays a 10 percent dividend, an annual expense for Goldman of $500 million. The Treasury’s $10 billion pays a 5 percent dividend, or another $500 million. That’s $1 billion in new expenses Goldman has to cover.

Blankfein, known for his disarming quips, tried to make light of his predicament on the evening of Oct. 14. It was the day after Paulson had gathered the heads of the biggest U.S. banks in Washington and forced them to accept the government’s cash. Blankfein stood in front of a crowd of about 160 people in New York’s Plaza Hotel, where he presented a book award to Mohamed El-Erian, Pacific Investment Management Co.’s co-chief executive officer and author of When Markets Collide.

“Are you suggesting that you think I should be depressed?” he asked at one point, as guests ate banana- chocolate puff pastry.

“There’s an evolution here,” Blankfein said, “and just as we are being provided with stimulus that none of us in our lifetime have ever had to this extent before, we are going to have responses that nobody’s ever seen before. We understand the importance of the moment.”

With that, Blankfein was off — headed to the airport, to meetings in London and to figure out Goldman’s future.

Tags: Credit Crisis