WASHINGTON -- Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs and one of the most recognizable symbols of Wall Street, is bullish on China, calls proposals for taxes on financial transactions "screwy," and believes that his firm needs to do a better job of repairing its image and communicating its business to the American public.
Those were a few of the musings Blankfein offered in a wide-ranging on-stage interview here at the Investment Company Institute's annual general membership meeting.
This year's conference includes a strong international focus, and Blankfein offered a bright assessment of the long-term opportunities emerging in a rapidly industrializing and reformative China.
"The 20th century was America's century, and it doesn't mean we owned every year of it," Blankfein said. "I can't tell you whether this year is China's year or not, but I really believe this could be their century."
In China's new government Blankfein sees a genuine commitment to economic reform that could promote efforts to build up equity markets and pools of capital and other trappings of a financial infrastructure that would make it a more attractive investment over time.
"If you ask me, I would bet long with China that it works," he said.
That's not to say that the sun has set on the United States, which Blankfein sees as having emerged from the trough of the recession with markets stabilizing and the Fed charting a generally sensible policy.
"I think, and I think most people think, that the recovery is established," he said. "We're going in the right direction -- there's a lot of great factors."
He is less optimistic about the situation in Europe, where he sees a formidably challenging political framework, diminished prospects for growth and a limited capacity to keep bailouts and austerity programs going.
"I think the Eurozone situation is going to be problematic for a long time because they're trying to accomplish something very radical and it's a very difficult governance model, to say the least," Blankfein said.
Domestically, Blankfein allows that significant risks remain, and that activity in capital markets has been slowed as a result of market uncertainty and a near-zero tolerance for failure that he sees as an outgrowth of the financial crisis.
He readily admits that Goldman's image remains scarred from the near-collapse of the markets and that while the firm has emerged in a solid financial position, it has a major public-relations challenge on its hands.
"You can't ignore the legacies," he said. "That's the source of resentment and distrust that we have to grapple with in the present. It was a very big trauma."
Blankfein acknowledged "regrettable behavior by a lot of people, including, you know, things that we would regret financing in hindsight because of the bubble. But a lot of it was a bubble that captured everybody, and, you know, there were no brilliant actors when everybody got caught up in the same kind of a credit bubble. And we have to work ourselves through it, and it's no shock -- shouldn't be a shock -- that the trauma that big is going to have repercussions for a long time and we're going to have to live with these legacy issues for a while and work them through."
"I think we are on the front foot as an industry going forward. I think people are more interested in how we get this economy going than they are with, again, rehashing," he said.
Blankfein professed a "deep regret" for not having had a "dialogue" with the American public about Goldman's role in fostering capital markets, and not further explaining how that elaborate financial infrastructure in which the company is so deeply involved facilitates entrepreneurship and innovation.
"I think we have to do a better job of explaining our role in that and what a boon to society that is. And cynics will roll their eyes, but it is a boon to our society," he said.
As for the policy prescriptions that have percolated in the aftermath of the crisis, Blankfein has little time for proposals that would impose a transaction tax on financial activities, a "screwy" idea that would amount to a tax on the liquidity that he described as a "virtue of the system."