The following article was taken from Dealbook, the New York Times' financial bulletin:
Goldman Sachs P.R. Chief's Accidental Exit Interview
Lucas van Praag, the outgoing head of Goldman Sachs‘s public relations department, has given many interviews to the media over his 12 years at the firm.
But Mr. van Praag’s last major interview may be one he never intended to be made public.
A Dutch television program, Tegenlicht, scored a surprisingly detailed 37-minute telephone interview with Mr. van Praag, who is scheduled to retire from Goldman at the end of March. In the interview, the audio recording of which was posted online in five parts by Tegenlicht this week, Mr. van Praag defended Goldman against accusations that it played a role in the Greek debt crisis, that it engaged in unethical conduct during the financial panic of 2008 and that it has fostered a culture of greed within its ranks.
Tegenlicht, which is Dutch for “backlight,” initially contacted Goldman in November of last year regarding a broadcast it was planning to air about the Greek debt crisis, according to a Dutch-language article on the television program’s Web site explaining the process of approaching the firm.
After some delay, Goldman provided a written statement, but Tegenlight insisted on a verbal statement to be recorded for broadcast, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. So Mr. van Praag agreed to speak with the program’s director, Alexander Oey, by telephone in order to read the statement aloud, the person said.
Mr. van Praag knew the telephone call was being recorded, but intended to have only the brief recorded statement used in the broadcast, according to the person. Mr. Oey kept the questions coming, however, and nearly 40 minutes later, he had scored what amounted to one of Mr. van Praag’s widest-ranging interviews about Goldman’s business practices in the last several years.
In the interview, Mr. van Praag – known among Wall Street journalists for a quick, unsparing wit and deep knowledge of the financial industry – displayed patience with Mr. Oey, whose line of questioning was often accusatory in tone.
On the subject of Greece, whose recent problems Mr. Oey implied were partially caused by a series of currency swaps Goldman helped the nation arrange in 2000 and 2001, Mr. van Praag replied, “Almost every country on earth executes these kinds of transactions.” The P.R. chief explained that financial derivatives, such as currency swaps, “have become the bogeyman of the financial crisis,” but said that in the proper hands, they were useful instruments to help companies and governments raise capital.
Outlawing derivatives altogether, Mr. van Praag said, would be like saying “we should ban cars because cars kill people. If you drive a car very badly and you’re not sure about what you’re doing, you’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you. But if you do understand what you’re doing, it’s much less risky.”
Asked about Goldman’s role in the financial crisis, Mr. van Praag opined on why the firm has been blamed more often than rival firms.
“Goldman Sachs is an investment bank and it deals with institutional clients,” Mr. van Praag said. “We’re not a retail bank. People can’t come open checking accounts, they don’t have credit cards, we don’t have branches on High Street. So we’re not well-known in the way a JPMorgan or a Citi or a Bank of America or a Royal Bank of Scotland might be, but we play a very important role in facilitating capital markets.”
Although Goldman has defended itself against accusations of misconduct before, the Dutch television interview gives a window into how Mr. van Praag, one of the longest-serving public relations chiefs on Wall Street, has made the bank’s views known during one of the least popular eras in its history.
Of the accusations, made by pundits and politicians alike, that Goldman bet against its own clients in a series of crisis-era transactions, Mr. van Praag gave Tegenlicht a succinct and unambiguous defense. “We don’t bet against our clients,” he said. “What we were doing, we would argue, is being effective risk managers.”
Goldman executives were called before a Senate subcommittee led by Senator Carl Levin to defend that transaction and others like it in 2010. Mr. van Praag, who attended some of the hearings, expressed disappointment in the level of discourse.
“There was, in my view, really a dialogue of the deaf going on between Senator Levin and some of our senior executives,” he said. “I think the assumptions that were made by some of Senator Levin’s staff about what we were doing were just wrong.”
Mr. van Praag also responded to questions about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has targeted Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks, saying that the movement’s claims of economic unfairness and lack of opportunity were “perfectly understandable.” But he said that the current unpopularity of banks obscured the larger problems facing the nation.
“There’s great political capital to be made attacking banks at the moment,” he said. “But the reality is, one could argue that this is a very cynical political response to a problem that is much broader.”
Asked whether financial regulation, like the Dodd-Frank Act signed into law in 2010, could prevent crises of the magnitude of the 2008 crash, Mr. van Praag said that he understood some elements of the regulation, like requiring banks to hold more capital in reserve and prohibiting certain types of risky trading. But he added that those changes alone were not likely to stave off another financial crisis.
“Greed and jealousy and sloth are all unfortunate traits of human nature,” he said. “I’m not sure you can actually come up with a system that prevents people from being greedy or jealous or lazy. But I think that you can come up with a system which doesn’t reward that kind of behavior.”
Asked about the interview, Mr. van Praag declined to comment.