NEW YORK — Government Sachs is returning to Washington.
After a decade in the wilderness, Wall Street’s most powerful firm, Goldman Sachs, is dominating the early days of the incoming Trump administration. The newly picked Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, spent 17 years at Goldman. Trump’s top incoming White House adviser, Steve Bannon, spent his early career at the bank. So did Anthony Scaramucci, one of Trump’s top transition advisers.
Goldman’s president, Gary Cohn, spent an hour schmoozing with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday and could be up for an administration job, possibly as director of the Office of Management and Budget, people close to Cohn and the transition said. Cohn, a long-time commodities trader, is friendly with Trump’s powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for Goldman, a long-time Washington power that fell out of favor following the financial crisis. CEO Lloyd Blankfein got hauled before Congress along with other Wall Street executives to account for their behavior. And Trump, who ran as a populist and bashed Wall Street on the campaign trail, featured Blankfein as a shady and dangerous character in his final campaign ad.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi famously labeled Goldman the “great Vampire Squid” on the face of America.
Had Hillary Clinton won the White House, Goldman faced a virtual lock-out from Washington with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders poised to block and major picks from the bank or any other firm on Wall Street.
Now Goldman, whose proximity to the levers of power dates to the early 20th Century and the creation of the Federal Reserve, stands to return to a level of influence unmatched by any other company in America. And Warren and her allies are left throwing darts from the sidelines.
“We are talking about a massive change in tone in literally just three weeks,” said William Cohan a former banker and author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Run the World. “If this had gone as the cognoscenti thought it was going to go we would be hearing Elizabeth Warren with her megaphone saying no one with a Wall Street background is getting anywhere near a Washington job.”
The rise of Goldman is also filled with ironies for Trump, even beyond his recent bashing of Blankfein.
Like many Wall Street banks, Goldman stopped doing business with the real estate mogul years ago, scared off by his bankruptcy filings. Many of the firm’s top executives made it clear they preferred Clinton for president.
Now Mnuchin, whose father was also a powerful Goldman banker, will be Trump’s top economic adviser, and he is already promising an agenda that thrills Wall Street and terrifies many Democrats.
“Our number one priority will be tax reform. This will be the largest tax change since Reagan,” Mnuchin said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday, flanked by Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor tapped by Trump to serve as Commerce secretary. “We’re going to cut corporate taxes … we’re going to get to 15 percent,” said Mnuchin, who also argued for changing parts of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that curtailed many of Wall Street’s swashbuckling ways.
“The number one problem with Dodd-Frank is it’s way too complicated and it cuts back on lending,” Mnuchin said. “So we want to strip back parts of Dodd-Frank that prevent banks from lending. And that will be the number one priority on the regulatory side.”
Those kinds of comments and the rise of Goldman and Wall Street influence in Trump’s Washington is sending progressive Democrats into a panic. Liberals fear an agenda that will slash tax rates for the wealthy and corporations and gut regulations while allowing Wall Street to go back to the kind of trading practices that helped fuel the financial crisis.
Even many reform-minded conservatives wanted Trump to pick a different Treasury Secretary, someone like House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling or former BB&T CEO John Allison for the job. Both have strong views on increasing bank capital requirements and fighting so-called “Too Big to Fail” institutions. It’s much less clear that Mnuchin will do anything to make life difficult for large banks.
Warren came out firing against Mnuchin on Tuesday night. And Democrats plan to hammer the Treasury nominee’s record as head of OneWest, a California bank derided as a “foreclosure machine” during the depths of the crisis.
“Steve Mnuchin is the Forrest Gump of the financial crisis — he managed to participate in all the worst practices on Wall Street,” Warren said in a statement on Tuesday night. “He spent two decades at Goldman Sachs helping the bank peddle the same kind of mortgage products that blew up the economy and sucked down billions in taxpayer bailout money before he moved on to run a bank that was infamous for aggressively foreclosing on families.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will consider Mnuchin’s nomination, promised thorough hearings including a focus on Mnuchin’s time at OneWest. The attacks may not be enough to derail Mnuchin, but they will add to a developing Democratic strategy of undercutting Trump’s blue-collar credentials by portraying him as a billionaire plutocrat governing with the interests of his rich friends in mind.
“There are a number of serious problems raised by populating the most senior positions in government from a single bank and from a single industry,” said Dennis Kelleher, CEO of financial reform group Better Markets. “Whether it’s true or not, Goldman Sachs will be perceived as having privileged access and influence throughout the government. What we need most, and Candidate Trump seemed to understand this, is a view that prioritizes what’s good for Main Street and the real economy.”
Goldman defenders say a negative focus on Mnuchin’s time at the bank is unfair and that he has the economic and markets expertise to help create faster economic growth that lifts wages across the board.
“I commend President-elect Trump on his outstanding selection of Steven Mnuchin to be Secretary of the Treasury,” former Goldman CEO and George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said in a statement on Wednesday. “Steven embodies the characteristics necessary to be a very good Treasury secretary. He is a doer with the analytic and political skills to get things done in a complex environment.”
Goldman supporters also note that had Clinton won, the left would have pushed for Gary Gensler, former head of the CFTC and himself a long-time Goldman banker, to be Treasury secretary or take some other high-profile post.
“Throughout its 147-year history, Goldman Sachs has encouraged its employees to give back to the community while they are working here and after they leave,” said Jake Siewert, communications director at Goldman. “We are proud that many have gone on to serve their country and their communities after they have left.”
The return of Goldman to prominence in Washington restores a tradition that waned in recent years. The relationship dates to back at least to 1913 when one of the firm’s founding partners, Henry Goldman, helped create the Federal Reserve.
The influence declined during the Depression only to rise again with Goldman head Sidney Weinberg’s close relationship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. More recently, Goldman held sway in President Bill Clinton’s White House with the elevation of former co-chairman Robert Rubin to Treasury secretary during a period that saw significant deregulation of the banking industry and the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law separating the activities of retail and investment banking.
And when the financial crisis hit in 2008, then-president Bush turned to Paulson to help design a Wall Street bailout package that pumped hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into the financial industry.
Defenders of the bailout say it saved the economy from potential ruin and most banks including Goldman quickly paid back all federal funds. But Wall Street critics worry that the return of Goldman to such levels of power will ensure friendly treatment of the industry that could spark more crises in the future.
“My real issue with Mnuchin is that it really is a start the countdown clock moment to the next crash,” said Kelleher. “That is the inevitability if the Wall Street view of the world once again becomes policy.”
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