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Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, By William D Cohan

The bank that likes to say 'Yes' – to both sides

In the 1860s, when the clothing merchant Marcus Goldman offered cash, at a suitable discount, for bills yet to be paid by others, he used to stuff the accumulated IOUs under his top hat.

Goldman's clients could tell how busy Marcus was by the tilt of his headgear, a degree of transparency that would not always be displayed in the decades that followed.

The surprising thing revealed by William Cohan in his history of Goldman Sachs is not so much that the "giant vampire squid" made so much money, but that it often lost vast sums. Less a vampire squid, in fact; more a lucky black cat, one that has crossed the path of every major financial meltdown, from the 1929 Great Crash through Robert Maxwell to hedge funds and the credit crunch. Plus its own stupid mergers, court cases and official investigations, charges of racism, sex scandals, and deals that were – as only a Jewish boss of Goldmans could get away with describing them – a little "too Jewish". If communism is "permanent revolution" then, on this basis, capitalism is "permanent crisis".

Yet Goldmans has survived, with a rare feline agility. Part of that is its reputation – the power of "brand". No matter what scrapes it gets into, the cleverest want to join it, even if that means 30 individual interviews and waiting for five hours for a boss to turn up to meet you on your first day (a final test of humility, apparently). When the largest share offering in history arrived – the Ford flotation of 1953 – Goldman was the choice, despite old Henry's notorious anti-Semitism. The Sumitomo Bank of Japan offered $500m in 1987 just to be a "sleeping partner, with no votes and just to learn". At its darkest hour in 2008, Warren Buffet, the richest man on the planet, had sufficient faith in Goldmans to put $5bn into it.

If it has one abiding habit, Goldmans has always tried to be on both sides of a deal. At an early stage in its history, it perfected the "block trade", wherein it would advise a company on issuing shares or bonds, but would also ensure it advised the pension funds who bought those shares. Playing both sides went wrong when it was marketing "toxic" assets to clients while at the same time "shorting" or selling those securities – backed by mortgages that it knew were rapidly going bad in the US.

When this huge bet that the American property market would crash came good, it made Goldmans billions – but busted its biggest clients, such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. It busted the global financial system so badly that Goldman itself had to be rescued, partly by Buffet and partly by the US taxpayer. When the firm's current boss, Lloyd Blankfein, denied that they ever needed state aid, President Obama privately exploded that "these guys want to be paid like rock stars when all they're doing is lip-synching capitalism".

So they are, but you'd never know that these cool cats can't sing.

Sean O'Grady is the economics editor of The Independent