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Goldman Sachs is implicated in history’s largest financial con – but will it be held accountable?

Even by Wall Street standards of gouging customers this was one hell of a skim.

In 2012 and 2013, the Malaysian government was raising $ 6.5bn (£ 5bn) from investors to establish a sovereign wealth fund and finance various domestic infrastructure investment projects. And the cut for Goldman Sachs - the most prestigious investment bank in the world - for arranging the fundraising from the global capital markets? Ten per cent, or $ 600m.

Now we can have a guess as to why the Malaysian authorities were so insouciant about those extortionate fundraising costs: because they themselves were, apparently, going to loot the pot in one of the biggest frauds in history.

Around half of the fund has gone missing. According to the US Justice Department a fair amount has been pumped into luxury American real estate and shady art auction bids. Appropriately, some went into investing in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. At one stage $ 680m mysteriously appeared in the bank account of the former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, who chaired the 1MDB advisory board, and who is now charged in his own country with corruption.

Malaysian politicians, officials and financiers had effectively bought Goldman Sachs' blue chip reputation to pull in naive investors to the "1MDB" state investment fund. Ten per cent probably seemed a reasonable cut in the circumstances.

The question is: what did Goldman know about the theft? The bank claims today that it was completely oblivious. But the senior Goldman banker on the ground in Malaysia, Tim Leissner, certainly knew. He pleaded guilty in New York to financial crimes related to 1MDB last week, including bribery of officials to ensure Goldman was the sole fundraiser.

What's even more problematic for the bank is that Leissner told the court there was a "culture" at Goldman Sachs of bypassing internal compliance. That's backed up by US prosecutors, who say Goldman's business culture in the region was "highly focused on consummating deals, at times prioritising this goal ahead of the proper operation of its compliance functions".

Goldman has been a Teflon bank over the past decade. Scandals have slithered off it and nothing has really stuck. We found out in 2010 that Goldman Sachs financiers constructed derivatives to help the Greek government deceive the outside world about the true state of its finances prior to the country joining the single currency.

It was revealed in 2013 that, before the financial crisis, the bank had been deliberately designing mortgage backed investment products to fail and then selling them to unwitting clients. There have been some large fines from regulators for malfeasance over the years but no senior resignations. The top brass have at every stage deplored the bad behaviour of underlings, but insisted they personally had no idea what was going on.

Lloyd Blankfein was one of the few Wall Street chief executives, along with Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan, to survive right through the financial crisis, collecting bonuses all the way. In 2007 Blankfein's total remuneration was $ 100m. His compensation in 2017: $ 22m. Clearly austerity in action.

But now Blankfein is implicated in 1MDB scandal. Reports say he personally met the Malaysian prime minister and Jho Low, the Malaysian financier accused of masterminding the theft, in New York in 2009.

Low was notorious in New York for his copious and ostentatious nightclub partying and outrageous spending. At the time, the New York Post quoted one person as saying: "Nobody spends their own money like that. It's just weird."

Is it really credible to say that this was all just a local problem, perpetrated by local rogue operatives? Did it really never occur to senior Goldman Sachs managers to wonder why the fees on the fundraising deal were so enormous? Even if it is unproven that top Goldman executives knew what was going on, what does it say about the culture of the bank that individuals like Leissner were employed there? Who is accountable for that culture? The incoming Malaysian prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, accuses Goldman Sachs the bank, not just corrupt individuals who worked for it, of being "complicit" in the looting. And he says Goldman Sachs should return those $ 600m in fees.

We are about to discover whether the world's most politically-connected investment bank - the former employer of dozens of senior civil servants, from US treasury secretaries to the governors of the Bank of England and the European Central Bank - can brush off being close to the heart of the world's largest financial con.

The answer will tell us something - one way or another - about how much reform there has been in finance in the decade since the crash.


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