Goldman Sachs: Your tax dollars, their big bonuses

Goldman Sachs is having a banner year, and is getting a big boost from government programs.

By Colin Barr, senior writer

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Goldman shares have soared during this year's market rally.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's probably cold comfort, but Goldman Sachs couldn't have done it without your help.

The New York-based investment firm turned another eye-popping profit Thursday, earning $3.2 billion in the third quarter, as revenue from trading rose fourfold from a year ago.

As Wall Street firms typically do, Goldman set almost half that sum aside to compensate its workers. Through the first nine months of 2009, the firm socked away $16.7 billion, enough to pay the average Goldmanite $526,814.

The bonus pool is on pace to hit $21 billion for 2009, which would match the record bonus payout of 2007.

Goldman said it won't decide the size of the bonus pool till year-end. In any case, the payments will be substantial -- and will come just one year after huge sums of taxpayer dollars were funneled to financial institutions.

Critics charge that the lion's share of Goldman's profits comes from making big bets using cheap dollars printed by the Federal Reserve. Plus, given the crisis that followed the failure of Lehman Brothers, there's a sense that government officials won't let big firms go bust. That in effect gives too-big-to-fail firms a license to bet the house.

"This is almost an 'in your face' kind of setup here," said Michael Panzner, a Wall Street veteran who blogs at financialarmageddon.com and who wrote a 2007 book predicting economic disaster. "They're rolling the dice, and so far they're winning," said Panzner.

Goldman denies that it is taking on too much risk and leaning on the government for support. "We don't operate the company that way," said financial chief David Viniar in response to a question on Thursday morning's Goldman media call. "We stand on our two feet as a financial institution. None of our bondholders has ever talked to us about" an implicit government backstop.

And, of course, Goldman (GS, Fortune 500) looks like a paragon of virtue compared to many of its peers in the financial sector. Unlike Citi (C, Fortune 500) and Merrill Lynch, for instance, Goldman never paid out billions of dollars in bonuses while losing huge sums of money. Even last year, when the firm took big writedowns and posted its first quarterly loss as a public company, Goldman managed to stay profitable.

Goldman repaid its $10 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) debt with interest this past spring. And in contrast to the likes of Lehman Brothers, which dithered while it could have saved itself, Goldman raised $11 billion in capital over the past year, including a preferred stock sale on Warren Buffett's tough terms.

Still, there's no denying Goldman has had a lot of help.

It was one of the nine big banks that received loans from Treasury last fall. It received $13 billion in the costly, widely questioned September 2008 rescue of insurer AIG (AIG, Fortune 500). It has sold $22 billion in federally guaranteed debt under a plan the feds started to restore capital markets activity. And it has been a major beneficiary of the low interest rates the government has adopted in hopes of restarting the economy.

Of course, Goldman wasn't the only beneficiary of those moves, but it has certainly been among the most nimble in cleaning up. That has attracted the attention of investors.

"There's a perfect storm of arguments against paying that much," said Tim Smith, a senior vice president at Walden Asset Management, a $4 billion Boston-based asset manager focusing on socially responsible investments.

He notes that Walden, which owns a small amount of Goldman stock, sponsored a resolution last year calling for Goldman to allow investors to advise the firm on compensation practices. The measure failed, but it did score a 46% vote, Smith said. He is hopeful that a similar resolution this year will pass.

"There are many faces to this discussion," Smith said, "but the outrage over the bonuses is going to be focused on the larger context, with foreclosures and job losses."

While Goldman churned out $3 billion in profits in the third quarter, the economy shed 768,000 jobs, and home foreclosures set a new record.

More than a million Americans have filed for bankruptcy this year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. A September survey of state finances by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank found that state governments faced a collective $168 billion budget shortfall for fiscal 2010.

Goldman, by contrast, is sitting on $167 billion in cash, in the name of making sure it can withstand another market meltdown if that day comes.

Goldman was guarded in its assessment of the future -- Viniar said he has seen signs markets have stabilized without necessarily improving. But Panzner believes many Americans have been caught up in the massive stock market rally. On the next downturn, he said, they could be left nursing huge losses again.

Meanwhile, Washington has made little progress in recasting a financial system that only a year ago was on the verge of collapse. "We need to be mindful about the dangers of complacency," said Doug Hamilton, deputy director of the Pew Economic Policy Group. "We can't go back to the old way of doing business." To top of page

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