NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The CEO whom I call the "Rodney Dangerfield of Corporate America" (because he gets no respect), Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com, recently placed a screed on Overstock's main page attacking Goldman Sachs (GS) - Get Report and talking up his frivolous "naked shorting" suit against Wall Street banks.
I had just learned about the Byrne histrionics when I read
this week, a sympathetic profile of Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
Blankfein is portrayed as an affable guy, overflowing with "humility" throughout his career, bald and cuddly, bewildered by all the vitriol, all the "vampire squid" hyperbole. Resign? No sirree.
This graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School is staying on, despite attacks from the likes of Evelyn Davis, a respected shareholder advocate here portrayed as something of a crackpot. No bullies are going to push him out of the schoolyard.
The article was featured on the cover as "Lloyd Blankfein vs. the Haters."Arrogant? You bet. Dishonest? Certainly. But what do you expect from Goldman and Blankfein, especially in the context of an article that gives short shrift to its unholy deal with hedgie
and only briefly mentions the No. 1 source of outrage against Goldman -- that it was the most direct beneficiary from the bailout of
American International Group
, with $2.9 billion in taxpayer money flowing directly to Goldman.
Thanks to such government largesse, for which nothing was asked in return, Goldman and the other banks prospered while the nation sank into recession.
The 2008 Wall Street bailout turned out to be the sweetest trade Wall Street ever pulled off -- trading billions in taxpayer money for its not going out of business.
That's the reason why Goldman and the other banks are so despised. It was an outrage, and Blankfein is far too smart a man to be "bewildered" by the justifiable anger directed at his firm.
At first, I dismissed this article as yet another example of the Goldman public relations machinery -- very much visible in the article in the form of PR chieftain Lucas van Praag -- trying for the umpteenth time to revive the reputation of the joke-telling, public housing project-raised CEO. The article didn't break much new ground and hasn't gotten much attention, probably because Blankfein made many of the same points in an interview with
The Wall Street Journal's
Holman Jenkins last month.
"Sitting across from me now in his comfortable office on the 30th floor of company headquarters in lower Manhattan, Goldman's CEO Lloyd Blankfein professes to be more bemused than hurt by the slurs," Jenkins said of his chat with the "cherubic and youthful" banker.
Hmmm ... two major articles within the span of a month, both of which portray Goldman as a victim of "slurs" and "vitriol." With the latest Byrne publicity stunt in mind, it dawned on me: Are we seeing here an emerging alliance between Goldman Sachs and the conspiracy theorists and nuts? Is there a symbiotic relationship between the "vampire squid" and the "tinfoil hat"?
What we have here, in other words, are the elements of a corking good conspiracy theory. There are three main elements to my Goldman Sachs-Tinfoil Hat Alliance Conspiracy Theory:
- The conspiracy-mongers benefit from their conspiracy theories. Goldman Sachs is a big, fat, supremely wealthy, Jewish-sounding target. It is doling out enormous bonuses to its people at the same time that the rest of America is suffering. So whether one attacks Goldman Sachs to make a sociopolitical point (Glenn Beck) or to divert attention from one's own failures (Patrick Byrne), Goldman is an irresistible hate-object.
- Goldman is a vampire squid. As I and other non-conspiracy-mongers have pointed out, there is much truth to the hyperbole and wrath directed at the firm. Yes, Goldman Sachs does bad stuff. Yes, it is entrenched in government. Its alliance with John Paulson, under which the short-seller worked in cahoots with Goldman to design mortgage-backed financial instruments, with no disclosure to potential buyers, is a prime example of a company with no moral principle other than "gimme."
- Goldman benefits from the conspiracy theories. Just read the Jenkins interview and the New York profile and you can see what I mean. The attacks on Goldman have given the firm a PR opportunity, deliberately equating well-warranted criticism with conspiracy tales.
It's rarely pointed out that the attacks on Goldman are largely an expression of frustration with the fact that Goldman and the other banks have not been the subject of criminal probes into their behavior. Look back on past Wall Street scandals and think for a moment: Were there conspiracy theories? There weren't -- at least, none that got much mileage or attention -- because tough prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani and Eliot Spitzer were on the job.
During past scandals, the wrath of Wall Street was directed at real adversaries like Giuliani and Spitzer, ambitious government officials capable of getting them in real trouble and causing real pain. But think about it: Who are the enemies of the Wall Street bankers? Who are capable of doing damage to the likes of Blankfein, Vikram Pandit of
and Jamie Dimon of
? They surely have nothing to fear from the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, the most un-Giulianiesque prosecutor to grace that office since the do-nothing Otto Obermaier warmed the same seat during the Bush I administration. Who else is there? Mary Schapiro? Congressional bloviators? Don't make me laugh.
So that leaves Goldman's true adversary: a justifiably outraged public, furious at the crony capitalism that has allowed Goldman to thrive while the rest of us suffer-- but with no effective advocates working on their behalf.
I have no doubt that Blankfein is "bemused" by the attacks and vitriol. I'm sure he gets a good laugh at all the hate mail and nuttiness. I have no doubt that he is delighted with them as every day passes in which his firm escapes consequences for its actions.
I'm sure that Goldman will, with regret, throw a few million bucks at Patrick Byrne to make him go away. I say "regret" because Byrne serves a useful purpose: Conspiracy-mongers are the ideal foil for a bank that has gotten away with murder.
Gary Weiss has covered Wall Street wrongdoing for almost a quarter century. His coverage of stock fraud at BusinessWeek won many awards, and included a cover story, "The Mob on Wall Street," which exposed mob infiltration of brokerages. He uncovered the Salomon Brothers bond-trading scandal, and wrote extensively on the dangers posed by hedge funds, Internet fraud and out-of-control leverage. He was a contributing editor at Conde Nast Porfolio, writing about the people most intimately involved in the financial crisis, from Timothy Geithner to Bernard Madoff. His book "Born to Steal" (Warner Books: 2003), described the Mafia's takeover of brokerage houses in the 1990s. "Wall Street Versus America" (Portfolio: 2006) was an account of investor rip-offs. He blogs at garyweiss.blogspot.com.