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Goldman's Invincibility Myth Debunked

Goldman Sachs has long contended it would have survived without government help, but stock sales at key moments during the crisis show certain executives weren't so sure.
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Goldman Sachs

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doesn't lose often, but it now appears to have conclusively lost an argument it's been having trouble making for a while.

At issue is the contention that Goldman would have survived the crisis without government help. Company executives have been saying this for some time now. Recent examples that come to mind are statements by Goldman President Gary Cohn and CFO David Viniar

in a Vanity Fair article last month


Few would dispute that Goldman is a better-run company than

Bank of America

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Morgan Stanley

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or, heaven forbid,

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, but Goldman executives like to say they didn't need the government because it creates a clear bright line separating them from those institutions.

Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein implicitly admitted losing the argument when he took a $9 million bonus for 2009 despite the bank's $13.4 billion in earnings. That compares to a $17 million payday for Jamie Dimon, even though

JPMorgan Chase

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, the bank he runs, made less money last year.

And now, thanks to a

report by William Cohan in The New York Times ,

we know that several of Blankfein's top lieutenants each dumped millions of dollars worth of Goldman shares after

Bear Stearns

imploded in March 2008, and after the bankruptcy filing by

Lehman Brothers

some six months later.

It is astonishing that this information is just coming to light now. It was publicly available, for all to see. Still, one has to know where to look. So many companies file so much useless information with the Securities and Exchange Commission., it is inevitable that we will occasionally miss the most important stuff.

Then again, we did not miss it entirely. Cohan eventually found the information, presumably having been tipped off by someone during his reporting for an upcoming book on Goldman.

What the share sales should tell investors is they should be careful about putting too much faith in Goldman's impressive ability to find the right trade quarter after quarter. As those executives realized, Goldman is not a machine. It may be about as close to a machine as a giant trading-driven institution can get, but the risk of failure is never too far in the background.


Written by Dan Freed in New York