by Paul Greenberg

It happens with partners. So long as the business is growing, the money's rolling in, and everything's coming up green, they're the best of friends. But when business sours and profits wither, the other partner becomes the cause of it all, a total incompetent and maybe a thief to boot. What was once mutual admiration turns into mutual litigation.

It's the same with stockbrokers and their clients. In boom times, when it would take a kind of perverse genius to lose money, the Investment Counselor or Financial Adviser -- no longer a mere broker -- is a brilliant innovator, a deep thinker, a patron of the arts, an all-around scholar and gentleman from whom all blessings flow.

No doubt that's how many of their clients once saw Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford -- and, before them, Charles Ponzi, pioneer of the eponymous Ponzi scheme. There's nothing like something for nothing to instill trust and gratitude. For a while.

But let the bottom fall out, and those who were only too glad to collect the too-good-to-be-true profits now want to hang the scoundrel. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes ... it's got to be somebody else's fault. Let's get him!

The surest aftermath of every economic collapse is the hunt for scapegoats. Congressional committees convene, and even the sleepiest watchdogs awake -- and start barking.

Even the long moribund Securities and Exchange Commission now has stirred. It's not clear what the hotshots at the SEC were doing if anything during the Great Meltdown except maybe watching porn, but now the SEC, too, is baying for a scapegoat. Like the rest of the political class. And it's nominated a sacrificial lion: Goldman Sachs. Somehow it survived the Deluge. How suspicious. It must have been cheating.

The SEC may have ignored the depredations of the Madoffs and Stanfords till they could no longer be ignored, but now it charges the most prominent investment house still extant with fraud. Round up the usual suspect!

Goldman Sachs' remarkable luck / skill / skullduggery -- take your pick, depending on your view -- invites envy, suspicion and, inevitably in America, litigation.

When folks started talking bitterly about the United States of Goldman Sachs, it was sure to be only a matter of time before it was offered up to the furies.

It certainly wouldn't have done for the SEC to go after a fellow government agency -- like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, whose policies not only led to the collapse of the housing market but were at its root. Nor would it be politic for congressional committees to inquire too deeply into the role played by their colleagues (like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd) who encouraged, if they did not actually demand, that government extend all that credit to the uncreditworthy. That would be coming entirely too close to home.

No, better to investigate a firm already none too popular. And when folks are looking for somebody to blame for a financial panic, do you really need all that much evidence? Isn't it enough just to show that an awful lot of money was lost? The time was ripe for a financial version of McCarthyism to sweep the land.

Never mind that the same, awful lot of money was made by some speculator who bet on the other side of the deal. Nobody likes a financier who bets on a collapse. It's un-American. It's not Positive Thinking.

Besides, didn't Goldman Sachs get a management firm, ACA, to consult with the speculator, John Paulson, in drawing up a package of risky investments he could bet against? Never mind that every deal requires both willing buyer and willing seller, both presumably adults. It's the short seller who's always the villain of the piece when a market tanks.

Goldman's best defense at trial may be that the selection of losers that John Paulson had a hand in selecting didn't do any worse than the firm's other bundles of high-risk (and therefore high-return) securities that Mr. Paulson had no hand in choosing. So much for conspiracy theories.

In today's climate, someone like John Maynard Keynes, the once and future hero of liberal economists, would come under suspicion because, when he wasn't writing groundbreaking economic treatises, he was doing remarkably well as a short-seller during the Great Depression, raking in record returns by betting on the market's continuing collapse. As bursar of Cambridge University, he ran a kind of early hedge fund. Very profitably.

Today, no doubt, Lord Keynes would be raked over the coals by the likes of some grandstander like Carl Levin. The senator from Michigan wasn't the only one playing to the crowd at last week's hearings, but surely he had to be most pompous, obnoxious, boring and repetitive of the lot.

Senator Levin didn't seem to understand the difference between an investment adviser, who has a duty to look after his clients' interests, and a market maker, who just puts buyers and sellers together without guaranteeing either a profit. Like a stock exchange.

Or maybe the senator only pretended not to understand the difference in order to give his demagoguery a final fillip. When Goethe said there is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action, he overlooked the rich possibilities of pretending ignorance. At least when those of us in the media fail to make so elemental a distinction, our ignorance is sincere.

Financial Crisis - Somebody Must Pay!