Regardless of the outcome, the power dynamic at the top of Goldman, the world's most profitable investment bank, is intensely watched within the firm because it can make or break the careers of a number of professionals.
The rumblings emerging from Goldman's headquarters come during a long period of stability at the top. At the same time, some of its rivals have experienced upheaval. Over the last 12 months, a number of senior managers have left JPMorgan Chase, while Citigroup ousted its chief executive.
At Goldman, no such exodus is envisioned, but there is the challenge of keeping restless senior executives happy.
It is a particularly nettlesome problem for someone like Mr. Cohn, who has publicly said that he wants Mr. Blankfein's job. Mr. Cohn is responsible for the firm's day-to-day operations and is, by many accounts, very engaged despite his impatience. Mr. Cohn also helped navigate Goldman through the financial crisis. For those efforts, he has earned nearly $128 million since 2007, according to Equilar, a compensation data firm.
Still, it is almost certain that Mr. Cohn, who got his start as a metals trader, could make more money working at a hedge fund. Such a move, while tempting, would almost certainly come with less power than the job he wants at Goldman. As a result, some people inside Goldman feel that Mr. Cohn is not serious about leaving anytime soon.
For his part, Mr. Blankfein appears to have no great incentive to leave. A number of former top Goldman executives, including Mr. Paulson, Mr. Corzine and Robert E. Rubin, fashioned second careers out of government service. Yet Mr. Blankfein himself has acknowledged that a government post is an unlikely option, given the beating that he and other Wall Street bankers took during and after the financial crisis.
It wasn't long ago that most of Wall Street wouldn't have given Mr. Blankfein strong odds of survival. On his watch, Goldman was accused of defrauding investors and paid $550 million to settle the allegations. Mr. Cohn, a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is cut broadly from the same cloth as Mr. Blankfein. Should he get the top job, it would break an unstated tradition at the firm of passing the top job from a trader to a banker, as both men hail from the trading side of the business. Under their leadership, the business has tilted from advising and underwriting for corporate clients to emphasizing trading.
Mr. Cohn got his start at New York's commodities exchange in 1983. He became known as "gum guy" because his job included holding the chewing gum needed to wet the throats of screaming traders. Soon, he began trading silver with his own capital, a job he had until Goldman came calling in 1990.
He took a pay cut for the opportunity to trade metals at Goldman, and struck up a close friendship with Mr. Blankfein. Over the years Mr. Cohn followed Mr. Blankfein up the corporate ladder, becoming co-president and co-chief operating officer when Mr. Blankfein became chief.
The men are both part of the Manhattan elite. Mr. Blankfein lives on Central Park West, while Mr. Cohn and his wife, an artist, live on the Upper East Side. Mr. Cohn, who has three daughters, also owns a house in the Hamptons not far from Mr. Blankfein's home.
"All his frustrations aside, Gary has joked to me that he can see why Lloyd doesn't leave," said a friend who asked not to be named. "The two men really do both love what they do."