After the Financial Crisis, Wall Street Turned to Charity—and Avoided Justice

The stark fact about the financial crisis ten years on is that, in retrospect, it was a good deal for many of the people who caused it.

By for The New Yorker

At 5:47 P.M. on November 18, 2007, Lucas van Praag sent a mildly concerned e-mail to six colleagues in the leadership of Goldman Sachs. Van Praag was the firm’s liaison to the press, and he had word of a coming story, a New York Times piece on the firm’s role in the mortgage disaster—the same disaster that would, by the following September, precipitate the global financial crisis that erupted ten years ago this week. In the careful corporate way, the e-mail’s only “to” recipient was the chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein (putting others at that tier might have given Blankfein an excuse not to read it); the five other senior leaders of the firm were carbon copied. “Jenny Anderson and Landon Thomas’ story about how we dodged the mortgage mess is scheduled to run tomorrow,” van Praag wrote. “At this stage, 95% certain to be on the front page.” He warned that the “story will, of course, have ‘balance’ (ie stuff we don’t like).”

The e-mail, which has been made public by the U.S. Senate, is more than a message in a bottle sent from the past. It turned out to contain clues about what kind of crisis was coming, and also what kind of recovery.

Let’s begin with the word “dodged.” Goldman would get in big trouble for its dodging. In a five-billion-dollar settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, nine years later, it confessed that it knew about the problems with toxic mortgage products, avoided them itself, and sold them to investors anyway. “If they only knew . . .” Goldman’s head of due diligence had written to a colleague in 2006. And yet none of the firm’s senior leaders went to prison for malfeasance, and neither did any of the complicit chiefs of Wall Street’s other biggest banks.

There is in van Praag’s e-mail a confidence that this mortgage debacle, too, shall pass. And it would. Just as the firm dodged the collapse of those toxic securities, it dodged the public’s thirst for justice. The e-mail’s recipients—and the very affluent in general—would capture most of the gains from the long recovery. A Times analysis of Federal Reserve data last year found that, while the average American household was still thirty-per-cent poorer, in net worth, than in 2007, the top ten per cent of households were twenty-seven per cent wealthier than before the crisis. Another study, from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has found that the average income of the top one per cent of American families soared from nine hundred and ninety thousand dollars to $1.36 million between 2009 and 2015, while the incomes of the remaining ninety-nine per cent crept up from $45,300 to $48,800.

The men in the e-mail have fared particularly well. Blankfein left the firm with an eighty-five-million-dollar payout. Van Praag ended up at Teneo Holdings, an advisory firm co-founded by Doug Band, a longtime consigliere to Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Incidentally, one of the most politically damaging e-mails unearthed in the Russian hack of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, was a transcript of a speech Clinton gave in 2013, to Goldman Sachs.) The president of Goldman at the time, Gary Cohn, would, of course, go on to work for the man who defeated Clinton, Donald Trump, who seemed to share the public’s anger at Wall Street’s impunity until, as the President, he delivered Wall Street the great present of tax cuts that, in the first quarter of this year alone, made America’s five biggest banks $2.5 billion richer, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Cohn, having been part of the machinery that caused the meltdown, gained a chance to serve in government thanks, in part, to the rage it aroused—the arsonist reinvented as firefighter.

Perhaps the most telling thing that the e-mail foretold was how finance would, in the coming years, use giving to protect its right to keep taking. Making a difference, when done right, is a great way to protect your opportunity to make a killing—which is why there are so many galas in New York and, at the same time, so much inequality. But I will tell you, having spent the past few years reporting a book on wealthy givers and their attempts to change the world (without changing their own elevated positions in it), that there is seldom a smoking gun connecting the giving to the taking. Rich people stand atop a system they are clearly reluctant to change in any major way, even as they throw scraps down from on high. But you rarely find an e-mail that shows the link in their own minds between the helping and the hoarding.

The briefing to Blankfein about the coming Times report was organized into five points. The first was this cryptic bit of intel: “GS Gives i[s] not in the story.” Van Praag was warning Blankfein and the others that, presumably in spite of his efforts, a new charitable initiative the bank was set to announce hadn’t made the piece. Ideally, a stiff shot about Goldman’s profiteering would have been served with a chaser about its giving. But van Praag had a plan: “We will issue the press release to coincide with publication of her article and will actively work with other media, esp in the UK, to make sure the message is spread and picked up effectively.”

The hard-hitting Times piece ran the next day, as planned. Two days later, Goldman issued a press release about its new charitable fund—and Anderson, of the Times, published a second piece, this one focussed on how GS Gives was part of a Goldman heritage that “discouraged ostentation and expected a level of philanthropy.” “We know we make a lot of money,” Anderson quoted Blankfein as saying, “and we know that we live in this world and we have a responsibility to give something back.” It was a small coup, and part of the ongoing dodge: here Goldman could present its giving as noblesse oblige, part of its sense of duty—when, in fact, on the inside, van Praag had all but acknowledged that giving was a smokescreen. (When I reached out to Anderson for her recollections of being pitched on including the giving story in the mortgage story, she wrote back: “Selling toxic mortgages to clients while shorting them is problematic, whether you give to charity or not. That they would suggest the two were somehow connected shows the desperate measures banks were willing to take to try and salvage their fraying reputations.”)

On the day van Praag sent the e-mail, one of his carbon-copied recipients, Jon Winkelried, with his wife, Abby, acting through their foundation, donated twenty-five thousand dollars to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, in Short Hills, New Jersey. The next day, they donated twenty-seven thousand dollars to the Valerie Fund, in Maplewood, New Jersey, which supports children with cancer and blood disorders. That year, according to the foundation’s tax disclosures, they would also make a $993,369.75 donation, in Goldman stock, to the University of Chicago; a five-hundred-dollar gift to Friends of Nantucket Public Schools; and a hundred-thousand-dollar donation to a Teach for America benefit dinner. There is also a Lloyd & Laura Blankfein Foundation, which reported giving away a total of twenty thousand dollars, in 2016, to Bronx Baseball Dreams, Inc. David Viniar, another carbon-copied recipient, has the Viniar Family Foundation in his name. Another, Russell Horwitz, is a member of a board of trustees of the Children’s Aid Society. And still another, John F. W. Rogers, is the chairman of GS Gives and the Goldman Sachs Foundation. To be a recipient of van Praag’s e-mail was to be involved with business practices that would wreak havoc on millions of lives. It was also to be generous.

Goldman isn’t alone in this mix of profiteering and apparent kindness. Wells Fargo agreed last month to pay $2.09 billion for its own role in selling toxic mortgage-backed securities and contributing to the financial crisis—which came two years after it was ordered to pay a hundred and eighty-five million dollars for engaging in what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau described as “the widespread illegal practice of secretly opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts.” However, Wells Fargo also says it donated $286.5 million to more than 14,500 nonprofits in 2017. Bank of America agreed to pay a $16.65-billion settlement for its role in bringing about the 2008 crisis and its wave of foreclosures. It also has a foundation that, among other things, supports “organizations creating pathways to stable housing or homeownership through financial stability efforts such as homebuyer education, budgeting, savings, credit and credit repair including foreclosure prevention and loss mitigation.” JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay thirteen billion dollars for similar shenanigans. It, too, gives back to the problem it helped to cause, through a hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar charitable project “to support locally driven solutions for revitalizing neighborhoods.”

This is the shape our recovery has taken: some bailouts, some fines, some giving, and a net transfer of wealth from the many to the few. Is it any wonder that our political discourse is angrier, fringier, and more paranoid than at any time in memory? The stark fact about the financial crisis ten years on is that, in retrospect, it was a good deal for many of the people who caused it. Imagine what might have been: a recovery in which homeowners and indebted students had won relief from their loans, in which banks had agreed to pay a fairer share of taxes in exchange for the bailout help, in which they had been required to pump more of their capital into the real economy instead of swilling it around Wall Street. But none of that was to be, because, as the e-mail shows, a little bit of generosity could be put forward as a plausible substitute for justice. Giving in millions has a way of erasing harm done in billions.