The Post-Trump Life of Gary Cohn

Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin at the White House
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
June 27, 2021

Since I began writing my column for Puck, I’ve been inundated with feedback about Wall Street’s biggest characters and concerns. I’ll be engaging with some of those questions here—in addition to a few observations of my own.

Steve Mnuchin’s Next Act

Will the business community re-embrace former Treasury Secretary and Trump flunky Steve Mnuchin?

I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question, since the establishment business community has never embraced Mnuchin. Sure, he was a legacy at Goldman Sachs—his father Robert was a very senior partner in the years before the firm went public—and he became a partner, too. But he was a bit of an un-rabbi-ed loner at Goldman and never found his footing there. He went on to start a hedge fund, Dune Capital, and hang out with billionaire Eddie Lampert, his Yale roommate, on the Sears board of directors, a spot he gave up when he became Treasury Secretary. In 2009 he led an investment group (including George Soros and John Paulson) that scooped up distressed residential lenders, foreclosed on some 36,000 properties, and then flipped the whole enterprise to CIT Group for $3.4 billion—a smart way to make money but a bad way to make friends. Mnuchin also became yet another Wall Streeter who goes to Hollywood thinking he’ll make a fortune and then leaves with his tail between his legs.

Ironically, in 2008, Mnuchin’s Dune Capital was one of the lenders that Mnuchin’s future boss, Donald Trump, sued in his outlandish claim that his lenders, most notably Deutsche Bank, had caused him to default on this Chicago hotel and condominium project during the 2008 financial crisis. Trump claimed that Dune, Deutsche, et al. had caused the crisis and therefore he didn’t have to pay them back. (The case was later settled and the tower completed.)

Mnuchin’s net worth has been estimated to be around $500 million. He’s no Leon Black, whose net worth is approaching $10 billion, nor a Mike Bloomberg, but he and his third wife, the flamboyant actress Louise Linton, will be just fine. The Washington Post has reported that Mnuchin is raising an investment fund and is hoping to secure money from some of the Middle Eastern potentates he cultivated as Treasury Secretary. Sounds about right.

David Solomon’s Gulfstream Infatuation

You were the first person to interview David Solomon when he ascended to become C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs. How do you, and how does Wall Street, assess his job so far?

It’s still relatively early days. Solomon has only been in the job for two-and-a-half years or so. But the ultimate litmus test in these situations is the Goldman stock price. During his tenure, the company’s market cap has increased an impressive 57 percent to $120 billion—not bad for a 152-year-old firm. Goldman still has the best reputation on Wall Street and is still the most coveted place to work. (It’s harder to get a job at Goldman than it is to get into Harvard.)

There is no doubt, however, that Solomon is changing the place. The firm is probably willing to take more risk now than it did under Lloyd Blankfein, Solomon’s predecessor, who famously said he spends “98 percent of his time worrying about things with a 2 percent probability.” Solomon is trying to turn Goldman into a firm that looks more like its major competitors, JPMorganChase and Morgan Stanley. He’s building up Goldman’s commercial banking businesses—such as lending and cash management—and has started Marcus, an online retail banking effort.

As usual, lots of people seem to be coming and going into and out of Goldman and the firm’s junior people still complain about being overworked. There are also noises inside the firm, as Bloomberg has reported, that Solomon has become too infatuated with Goldman’s two brand-spanking-new Gulfstream 700 private jets and his golf game. On the other hand, the rank-and-file seem to like his DJ D-Sol deejaying act. He’s also insisted that everyone return to the office, and that has now happened. Goldman will always Goldman.

Gary Cohn After Trump

What’s the deal with Gary Cohn? The ambitious former Goldman COO, who always coveted the top job, seems to have faded since leaving the White House. Is he just waiting for the Trump stench to lift before making his next, bigger move?

Not to make this into an all-Goldman missive—I guess it’s too late for that now—but as a relative matter (which is not saying much, I know), Gary has been faring better than his former partner, Mnuchin, in the post-Trump sweepstakes. Part of the reason for that is that Mnuchin went full-Trump Stink, while Gary had enough good sense to get out after 15 months. While he hoped he might be welcomed back to the world of bigtime finance with open arms, as perhaps the C.E.O. of a tech company, or the proprietor of his own hedge fund or private-equity shop, none of those things have happened. But he has ended up with a derivative of those aspirations. So not all bad.

In the midst of the pandemic, Gary teamed up with Cliff Robbins, the wily veteran of KKR and General Atlantic Partners, to—natch—sponsor a SPAC (special purpose acquisition company), with the sexy name “Cohn Robbins Holdings Corp.” Cohn Robbins raised $828 million last September. Nine months in, Cohn Robbins has been quiet; it has not “de-SPACced,” as they say, meaning it has yet to announce a merger with a private company. The duo has another 15 months or so to get a deal done, thus joining the more than 400 other SPACs looking for deals, while the clock ticks. (If they don’t get a deal done, they have to return the money to investors and have to eat the millions in fees they paid to the Wall Street professionals.) In the meantime, Cohn Robbins’ stock trades just below its I.P.O. price of $10 a share. Not to worry: The value of Gary’s and Cliff’s stake in their SPAC, for which they paid $25,000 (not a typo), is worth $168 million, although they can’t yet sell their stock.

A few months after getting his SPAC done—and despite any investor expectation that he might give that project his undivided attention—Cohn accepted a position as a Vice-Chairman of IBM. According to his website, Cohn has been helping the IBM executive team with “business initiatives and external engagement, in areas including business development, client services, public advocacy and client relationship management.” Nice, Gary. And it might be working: IBM’s stock is up about 16% since Cohn joined the squad, outperforming the Nasdaq.

Whether or not Cohn has another, “bigger” move ahead, to answer the reader’s question, certainly he is keeping busy. He has made personal investments in companies in a variety of industries, including cybersecurity, blockchain infrastructure, regulatory technology, and medical technology. He’s on the boards of Abyrx, Gro Intelligence, Indago, Nanopay, and Starling, and he is the Chairman of the Board of Pallas Advisors, a Washington-based consulting and investment firm that specializes in national security and defense. Serious military muscle populates its website.

Despite all that, Gary has still found time to hit the airwaves with Stephanie Ruhle, on MSNBC, and on CNN, from his Hamptons lair. He also has been known to be a bit of a regular at the Three Guys diner, on Madison Avenue (across from Marcel Breuer’s original Whitney Museum), where once upon a time M&A guys sealed deals.

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