AT THE firm’s highest levels, Goldman Sachs personnel are not indifferent to important ethical and public policy concerns, whether that necessarily helps or hurts the Wall Street bank’s bottom line. We know this because chief executive Lloyd Blankfein took to Twitter for the first time ever to repudiate President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord on climate change. “Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world,” Mr. Blankfein declared. Previously, he had gone public in opposition to the president’s proposed ban on travel to the United States from certain Muslim-majority nations.
What, then, are we to make of Goldman Sachs fund managers’ recent secondary-market purchase, at a steep discount, of $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued by the state-owned oil company of Venezuela; that is to say, the same government that guns down pro-democracy protesters on a near-daily basis and otherwise subjects its people to vast corruption and economic privation?
Well, the first thing to be said is that the transaction was a really sweet deal for Goldman and its clients. The firm paid only $865 million for the securities, a near-70 percent markdown from face value reflective of Venezuela’s parlous finances. Of course, Goldman’s fund will be entitled to $2.8 billion in 2022, when the bonds mature, and meanwhile gets 19 percent annual interest, a cool $756 million. The second thing to say, though, is what a terrible deal this is for the people of Venezuela, since on the other end of the transaction, ultimately, stands the Venezuelan central bank — which held the bonds and sold them to Goldman via a little-known intermediary.
The cash Caracas reaped will help President Nicolás Maduro survive the (very) short-term, or even remain in power long enough to pay back Goldman in 2022, necessarily by imposing more brutal austerity on his people. Yes, the opposition might be in power by then; leaders pledged to stiff Goldman if it is. But the firm would probably break even under any scenario short of total debt repudiation, which would not be in a future democracy’s own interest.
No wonder former Venezuelan planning minister Ricardo Hausmann, now teaching at Harvard University, calls them “hunger bonds.” To be sure, Goldman was trying to keep pace in the emerging market bond market — to meet such standards as the JPMorgan Chase Emerging Market Bond Index, of which Venezuela’s official debt is a highly remunerative component. But that simply shows Wall Street as a whole needs to rethink dealing in this utterly illegitimate regime’s obligations the same way it deals in, say, democratic Chile’s, or even the debt of more responsible undemocratic countries.
Even among the world’s odious regimes, Venezuela is a special case; Mr. Hausmann has suggested the financial community could collectively curb incentives to do deals such as Goldman’s by removing Venezuelan bonds from market indexes. If Goldman Sachs and the rest of Wall Street really want a reputation for social responsibility, they will eagerly seek alternatives to business as usual with Caracas.