Clinton Global Initiative

Still 'God's work'? Blankfein defends Goldman

Lloyd Blankfein 
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

It wasn't quite "God's work." But it was close.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein came out swinging in defense of global capitalism as well as bonuses paid by the firm after it received government aid in the wake of the financial crisis.

At panel at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting Wednesday afternoon, moderator Fareed Zakaria had asked Blankfein to respond to the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

At first Blankfein took a light-hearted tact, saying that if he had realized it was such an important anniversary he would have sent flowers. But a few moments later the Goldman chief executive and chairman turned more serious.

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"I would say to Occupy Wall Street, that business has helped lift more people out of poverty than philanthropy," Blankfein said in a Wednesday afternoon panel at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting.

Philanthropy can "fill the gaps" where profit motives don't suffice to improve the lives of the poor. But it's role is "supplementary." The "bulk of it"—raising people out of poverty—is done by business, he said.

"We should educate the public more about how business and its core activities have lifted people out of poverty," Blankfein said.

Blankfein was widely criticized for an off-hand, half-joking remark he made years ago describing the role of an investment bank as doing "God's work."

Blankfein defended the payment of bonuses to employees at Goldman Sachs by arguing that it was necessary to "keep the firm together."

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"If we hadn't paid our people we wouldn't have had a stable population at the firm," he said. "I work at the company. I don't own it. I'm not entitled to blow it up" by not paying bonuses.

In another remark likely to generate controversy, Blankfein praised the U.S. for having "accepted a higher unemployment rate" over the past few years, even as it bailed out the banks. Labor market flexibility—reflected in the ability of U.S. companies to fire workers—is one of the reasons the U.S. is doing so well despite many headwinds in the economy, he said.

"The United States is in a position where the banks are recapitalized and companies are more efficient, not because they kept people on but because they let them go. It was a social decision we made," Blankfein said.

The political standoff over the federal budget is already hurting the U.S economy and markets, according to Blankfein.

"Saying we'll blow up the credit rating is not responsible," he said.

According to Blankfein, the U.S. is very unlikely to default on its debt because of a debt ceiling stalemate. But an actual default isn't necessary for economic harm to be inflicted.

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"It's not an on/off switch. We already making people nervous," he said. "It's already bad."

Blankfein said that although his focus is on Republicans "right now," some blame must be placed on the Obama administration for its early behavior.

He argued that the Obama administration acted as if it were in a parliamentary system early in its first term, when it controlled both the House and Senate. It didn't reach out to Republicans enough when passing health care reform, he argued. That set the tone for the GOP's defiant stance..

If the health care reform known as Obamacare had been passed with "more Republican support and concessions to earn it," the tone in Washington would be different now, he said.

Blankfein downplayed the importance of the possibility of the Federal Reserve tapering its bond buying program, saying that it was just one step among many the U.S. is undertaking to normalize its economic situation.

"The tapering of (quantitative easing) is not the first step toward normalization," Blankfein said. He cited rising rates in long-term Treasury bonds and deficit reduction as steps that had already been taken.

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But he wasn't totally at ease with the beginning of the end of QE.

"It's among the long parade of things over which I'm anxious," he said.

The topic of the panel was supposed to be emerging markets. Zakaria admitted at the very start that he reserved the right to take liberties with panel topics—and this was no exception.

Eventually, however, the panel—which also included Denis O'Brien, the chairman of Digicel, and Jim Rogers, chairman of Duke Energy—managed to get around to emerging markets.

Blankfein said that emerging markets "will grow faster than the developing world in this century but not evenly." There will be "mistakes and things will have to be written off."

"If the 20th century was the American century, well, it was ours but we didn't own every year," Blankfein said. "There will be fits and starts."

China, Blankfein argued, had "just come off a period where it was growth at all costs." Now it was beginning to concern itself with sustainability, environmental impact, and quality of life. Growth would likely be slower because of these new concerns.

"As soon as you get a little rich, things like breathing become important," he said.

The shale energy revolution "matters hugely" Blankfein said.

"We're not in a position where we can be energy sufficient," he said.

Blankfein argued that this would have geopolitical ramifications. The U.S. has been policing the world's waterways "so oil can go to China." That might shift now that the U.S. isn't as dependent on foreign energy sources.

"Different decisions would have been made over the last 40 years (if it weren't for foreign energy dependence). So what does that tell you about the next 40 years?" he said.

Blankfein said that he thought many businesses and individuals in the U.S. have not yet come to grips with the changes possible due to energy sufficiency. Cheaper energy in the U.S. is a reason to expect more growth, he argued.

"We should do a better job of reveling in our blessings and not just our burdens," he said.