"What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe
While ordinary people fret about austerity and jobs, the eurozone's corridors of power have been undergoing a remarkable transformation
The ascension of Mario Monti to the Italian prime ministership is remarkable for more reasons than it is possible to count. By replacing the scandal-surfing Silvio Berlusconi, Italy has dislodged the undislodgeable. By imposing rule by unelected technocrats, it has suspended the normal rules of democracy, and maybe democracy itself. And by putting a senior adviser at Goldman Sachs in charge of a Western nation, it has taken to new heights the political power of an investment bank that you might have thought was prohibitively politically toxic.
This is the most remarkable thing of all: a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.
Simon Johnson, the former International Monetary Fund economist, in his book 13 Bankers, argued that Goldman Sachs and the other large banks had become so close to government in the run-up to the financial crisis that the US was effectively an oligarchy. At least European politicians aren't "bought and paid for" by corporations, as in the US, he says. "Instead what you have in Europe is a shared world-view among the policy elite and the bankers, a shared set of goals and mutual reinforcement of illusions."
Mr Monti is one of Italy's most eminent economists, and he spent most of his career in academia and thinktankery, but it was when Mr Berlusconi appointed him to the European Commission in 1995 that Goldman Sachs started to get interested in him. First as commissioner for the internal market, and then especially as commissioner for competition, he has made decisions that could make or break the takeover and merger deals that Goldman's bankers were working on or providing the funding for. Mr Monti also later chaired the Italian Treasury's committee on the banking and financial system, which set the country's financial policies.
Perhaps the most prominent ex-politician inside the bank is Peter Sutherland, Attorney General of Ireland in the 1980s and another former EU Competition Commissioner. He is now non-executive chairman of Goldman's UK-based broker-dealer arm, Goldman Sachs International, and until its collapse and nationalisation he was also a non-executive director of Royal Bank of Scotland. He has been a prominent voice within Ireland on its bailout by the EU, arguing that the terms of emergency loans should be eased, so as not to exacerbate the country's financial woes. The EU agreed to cut Ireland's interest rate this summer.
Picking up well-connected policymakers on their way out of government is only one half of the Project, sending Goldman alumni into government is the other half. Like Mr Monti, Mario Draghi, who took over as President of the ECB on 1 November, has been in and out of government and in and out of Goldman. He was a member of the World Bank and managing director of the Italian Treasury before spending three years as managing director of Goldman Sachs International between 2002 and 2005 – only to return to government as president of the Italian central bank.
"My former colleagues at the IMF are running around trying to justify bailouts of €1.5trn-€4trn, but what does that mean?" says Simon Johnson. "It means bailing out the creditors 100 per cent. It is another bank bailout, like in 2008: The mechanism is different, in that this is happening at the sovereign level not the bank level, but the rationale is the same."
So certain is the financial elite that the banks will be bailed out, that some are placing bet-the-company wagers on just such an outcome. Jon Corzine, a former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, returned to Wall Street last year after almost a decade in politics and took control of a historic firm called MF Global. He placed a $6bn bet with the firm's money that Italian government bonds will not default.
When the bet was revealed last month, clients and trading partners decided it was too risky to do business with MF Global and the firm collapsed within days. It was one of the ten biggest bankruptcies in US history.
The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent. Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries' debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.
(…) This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less. The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.
Shared illusions, perhaps? Who would dare test it?”