SPIEGEL Interview with Goldman Sachs CEO: 'We Didn't Realize How Bad Things Would Get'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, 55, discusses his astronomical bonuses, the mistakes and failures of his bank prior to the start of the global financial crisis and his proposals for better regulating financial markets.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Blankfein, two years ago, your $67.9 million bonus was the largest ever paid to a Wall Street banker. You recently said that you could understand the anger that people are expressing over inflated bonuses. How are we to understand this?

Blankfein: I think people legitimately question whether compensation is tied to performance and, looking back, they see that some people were enriched but did not seem to have any alignment with their shareholders. A large part of the compensation paid to our senior people, including mine, is paid in shares, which may be worth less or more depending on our performance well after they were granted. This is what our shareholders want and we are convinced of this alignment of interests.

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SPIEGEL: Still, $67.9 million is an astronomical sum. Is there any way to justify this?

Blankfein: Our board of directors sets the pay of our most senior executives, including mine. They tie pay to the firm's performance and I believe we have established a strong track record of correlating growth in revenues to growth in compensation. The real test is whether compensation is reduced when performance changes. For example, in 1994, the firm made a loss and the partners had to pay money back to the firm so that the staff could be paid. And, in 2008, which was a very difficult year as you know, I was paid no bonus, even though the firm was profitable.

SPIEGEL: That all sounds very rational. But don't such payments promote greed as the primary motivator?

Blankfein: I think we all know that greed can drive behavior, but it tends to be short term and ultimately destructive. Our leadership team stands out because most of our people have built their whole career at the firm and stayed through many years and many changes in the market. When our people leave they tend to go on to other positions -- whether in government or other forms of public service -- that no one would do if their were motives were financial. Those characteristics don't make me think of "greed."

SPIEGEL: So only modest, good people work for Goldman Sachs? We hardly believe that.

Blankfein: I have stated my honest view of things.

SPIEGEL: This week in Pittsburgh, the G-20 will discuss stricter regulation of bonus payments. Based on what you have said, you believe that such efforts will do nothing to prevent future crises?

Blankfein: That is not what I said. The incentive aspect played a role in the crisis, but it was not the primary cause -- I think you have to look at the macroeconomic backdrop, the concentrations of risk in certain institutions and the fact that many, including regulators, should in hindsight have had better information and acted sooner to address capital and liquidity shortfalls.

SPIEGEL: One gets the impression that the issue of bonuses is mostly a problem of image for you. A few weeks ago, you called on your employees to act more modestly, in order not to draw undue attention to themselves in a time of government bailouts for banks. "Spend like a pauper," was the headline in one US newspaper.

Blankfein: That's not exactly true -- I didn't send that message then, but it almost doesn't matter. We are in the public spotlight. And, in any event, I think it is bad form to be ostentatious.

SPIEGEL: If you don't consider a change in the rules regarding bonuses to be a central element for the establishment of a sustainable financial system, then what would you propose?

Blankfein: The system needs more capital, less leverage and, above all, greater transparency. The balance sheets of the banks must clearly depict and properly measure their risk exposures. What good does it do to mandate capital adequacy if there is no real indication of the bank's available capital and total risks?

SPIEGEL: You are talking about the billions in off-balance sheet financial transactions conducted by the banks. They are counted among the primary reasons for the crisis, because enormous amounts of junk mortgages were bought on credit without capital backing. Have we seen the end of this era?

Blankfein: I think it is over. But off-balance sheet trickery was also the big problem at Enron ...

SPIEGEL: ... the US energy company that went bust in 2001. Why didn't anyone learn from the Enron debacle?

Blankfein: We learned -- a few others did too.

SPIEGEL: So Goldman Sachs never engaged in off-balance sheet business?

Blankfein: At our bank, every transaction, and thus every risk that we take, is recognized on the balance sheet and the income statement because we use mark-to-market accounting. This is not the case at every bank. And this is one reason why companies fail.

SPIEGEL: Stronger capital bases and deeper debt ratios might indeed be the right measures to render banks less prone to crisis. But, at the moment, we are experiencing the opposite. Many institutions are still suffering from a capital shortage. Accounting standards have been relaxed. When will be the right time to turn this trend around?

Blankfein: First, we will have to go through a period of transition and economic recovery. We are not there yet.

SPIEGEL: Where do we currently stand in this process?

Blankfein: Today, we can debate the rules that will be introduced in 2012 or 2013. I would design a system under which all risks are recognized at market value on the balance sheet and income statement.

SPIEGEL: The timeframe to turn the trend around may be quite small. If the lax rules remain in force too long, the next bubble could be allowed to inflate.

Blankfein: At Goldman Sachs, we already mark our assets to market daily, and have a capital ratio of 16 percent. So, it's easy for me to say: "Let's start with the new rules today." But, the rest of the system may not be able to handle such requirements.

SPIEGEL: Even Goldman Sachs cannot survive without competitors and other market participants.

Blankfein: You're right, we cannot live without a healthy system. In the days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when everyone was panicking, we received $5 billion from Warren Buffett and then raised $5 billion from public equity investors. But, we couldn't make ourselves healthier than the system. Those who fail to recognize that the aid given by governments to the financial system benefited everyone are deluding themselves.

SPIEGEL: Are you referring to Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann, who boasted that he did not accept any government money?

Blankfein: No, I am not talking about Deutsche Bank. I am thinking of other people whose names I will not mention. In any case, I do not miss any opportunity to express my appreciation for what the governments and central banks have done.

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