There is nothing lovable about Goldman Sachs, and its recent grilling by the ominously named Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations understandably drew a lot of attention.
We should not, however, obscure the reality. Goldman Sachs is a bank, and except for questions about the Abacus deal, in which it’s accused of disclosure failings, Goldman was doing what modern banks do. In collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, it wasn’t the biggest player.
So question for Congress isn’t whether Goldman did the right thing. The real question is, why on earth were banks allowed to do the things that Goldman was doing?
The late Hyman Minsky had something to say about this. In a paper from 1993, he was clear-eyed about the role of institutions like Goldman:
Essentially these operators have superior knowledge about their customers who need financing. . . and their customers who have a need for outlets in which money can be placed. They turn this private knowledge of the conditions under which funds are desired and the conditions under which funds are available to their own advantage, even as they perform the social function of selecting the investments that the economy makes.
Each of these financial intermediaries, Minsky well knew, “has an agenda of its own: they are not charitable institutions.” But they play a crucial role in the most sensitive aspect of capitalism, which is lending. And lending, Minsky said, is capitalism’s Achilles heel, a kind of fatal flaw whereby growth breeds instability. continue reading…