David Solomon: Inflation Could Be Above Trend For A Period Of Time

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Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC exclusive interview with Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) Chairman & CEO David Solomon on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” (M-F, 6AM-9AM ET) today, Tuesday, December 7th. Following is a link to video on CNBC.com:

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Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon Says Inflation Could Be Above Trend For A Period Of Time

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Joining us right now to talk all about all of this and the market risk, vaccine mandates, return to work and so much more. David Solomon is here, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs and thank you for having us. We are here now, this is the 12th floor, you guys just redid this place.

DAVID SOLOMON: Well first of all, Andrew, thank you for coming down to, to our office this morning. I'm delighted to be here with you this morning. We did redo this over the course of the last couple years. We started before COVID and then we paused for a little while but we've moved our executive team down here into the sky lobby on the 12th floor just so we can be more present, be more visible and I must say, we've been here about six months and we're really enjoying it. It just it keeps us much more connected to what's going on in the building. It's

SORKIN: It’s pretty cool. I got a little tour early, early morning tour. Let's talk markets though and try to just understand where we are and what's going through your brain as we're dealing with both the Fed on one side and this variant on the other and then the markets and the valuation as you see them.

SOLOMON: Well, there's a lot of uncertainty. And you know, I know that we're all looking for answers, but I think we need more time to see how this all plays out. I'm encouraged by what I'm hearing around the variant and the trajectory of that, but I think it's still uncertain. Yet the market certainly, the market certainly and this morning is another indication is kind of looking past the variant as something that's going to be slowing down economic activity. But we're still not completely out of the pandemic. There's uncertainty that comes from that and that uncertainty is going to affect economic activity and we're going to have to deal with that in some way. Against that, we clearly have real inflation in the economy. We've got a variety of problems, headwinds, issues that have occurred because we went into a pandemic, we shut the economy down, and we're now, we're turning it back on. That's really unprecedented. And, you know, on top of that, we have shifts going on in fiscal and monetary policy to try to balance that. And so there's no, there's no question that this has been an unprecedented period and so it's very hard to predict how we're going to come out of this.

SORKIN: So, one of the singular questions we've been asking on the program this past week or so, given the emergence of this variant is if the variant is mild and it's not something that we're, we need to be as concerned about as I think the worst case outcomes would have been, does that mean that the market rifts, if you will, or is the Fed on the other side going to keep that from happening, meaning what's more important right now?

SOLOMON: My, my base case, Andrew, is we're going to continue to find a path past the, past the pandemic broadly. This will be endemic in society, we're gonna have to live with it, but we're going to find a way to live with it effectively and economic activity will flourish. I don't believe we're in a new paradigm where the world will be fundamentally different, but it's going to take some time to move forward. In the context of that, I think that monetary and fiscal policy on a go forward basis, while the bigger impact on the trajectory of markets than the pandemic will from this point forward. That doesn't mean there won't be periods of time where in the short term, the variant can flare up. There's, there's news that affects markets in the short term but the bigger issue to focus now is we've had unprecedented monetary and fiscal policy for a meaningful period of time and we're going to emerge from that and unwind that and that's going to have an impact. It's had a big impact on asset prices, market activity, and a variety of things. It's going to have an impact on those things as we unwind it and find the balance and the thing that I don't have the answer to, none of us have the answer to, is can that be done in a smooth way where we take a little bit of the air out with, with not a lot of bumps in volatility, are we gonna have some bumps in volatility along the way?

SORKIN: Okay. You spend a lot of time talking to the CEOs of corporate America and around the world. And so, when you talk to them about this and really talk to them about the issue of valuation, oftentimes about their own stocks because they're thinking about whether they should be pursuing different transactions, what their own values are, what are you telling them at this point? Is this a fairly valued market? Do you say look, things are, you're, you're valued very highly, take advantage of the currency now? I mean, what's the thought?

SOLOMON: Well, there's no question that that looking at the market broadly, valuations are full in any historical context. And so, if you're talking to companies that have a very, very strong currency, you're certainly encouraging them if they have aspirations to deploy capital and put that capital to work. This is an interesting time to think about it. Also, for most companies, borrowing rates and the ability to access capital through debt finance has never been cheaper. And so, it's been a very, very good time to think about investing in business and deploying capital. I think it depends on the company and the particular company that you're talking to. I think the market has been very enamored with growth at all costs and I think we're seeing a little bit of the momentum come out of that over the course of the last couple of weeks. A lot of these businesses that have very, very strong top line growth, but haven't yet proven whether or not the business model really generates earnings over the long term, I think those are going to be a tougher slog, and I, you know, I'd encourage those companies to make sure they have the capital in place to execute on their growth plans while that capital is available. I think some of that can rebalance in the coming months, you know, over time, but it's not one size fits all. And you can look through the spectrum of the market and you can see different valuations for different businesses.

SORKIN: When you look though at what's happening for example in the IPO market or frankly the SPAC market, is that something that persists and continues at pace? Do you feel it's slowing down? Do you feel it's speeding back up again? I mean, we've sort of had this, this, this undulating roller coaster.

SOLOMON: It's, there's, there's been some undulation to use your word. But there's no question SPAC activity has come way off its peaks. SPACs are good capital markets innovation, they're not perfect. There's been an evolution in disclosure and the process around SPACs. I think SPACs are here to stay but I don't think we're going to regularly see the volume of activity and the surplus of activity that we saw in the early part of this year.

SORKIN: And when you talk about inflation again with clients, are you in the category of cash is trash and inflation is gonna make that cash, you know, not just worthless but worth less, or you in the category of you might actually want to keep a little bit because there might be an opportunity coming?

SOLOMON: Well, once again, not black and white. I do think that we've lived for a long time with inflation below trend. And I think one of the things that I'm concerned about or I think about a lot is people have kind of lost a historical perspective on what markets look like and what is normal. From a, from a monetary policy perspective, what we've had over the last decade is truly unusual. And I remember and I know historically, I've been around doing this, you know, since the 1980s, I remember when we had a very, very different environment and we could have a different environment again. And so, I do think that while we've had inflation below trend for quite a significant period of time, there's a reasonable chance that we're going to have inflation above trend for a period of time. Doesn't mean it has to be like the 1970s, could be, doesn't have to be, but when you think about periods where there's inflation, inflation hurts asset prices, and it slows down your ability to make money with almost any asset. From 1970 to 1980, there was almost nothing you could own where you made money. Basically, during that 10-year period, oil and gold, cash you lost money. If you owned US equities during that 10-year period, you lost nearly 50% of the value of your holdings. So, people forget the historical perspective. It wasn't too long ago in 2004 to 2006 I think it was June 2004 to June 2006, that as the Fed normalized rates, they hiked 17 times in that two-year period. Now I'm not saying that's going to happen, but I think we're living in a world where people are forgetting the history and this might be, you know, a period that's different. We could go back to another period that looks materially different from this. And so, I think you've got to be cautious and manage your risk appropriately for the distribution or the chance that that might happen.

SORKIN: What do you think about bank valuations? Your bank’s done quite well recently.

SOLOMON: Like any other CEO, you know, I think that my company and my stock is underappreciated and undervalued. There's no question there's been a, there's been a mark up in bank valuations. I think the earnings power of the traditional financial services sector is quite powerful and we get a very, very low multiple on those earnings. I think there's a perception because of the last 10 to 15 years, that there's greater volatility in that earnings stream than I think there is at this point, that doesn't mean that there can't be volatility in those earnings streams. But I think that as a group, there is much, much more fee based, durable, recurring revenue. I think, you know, that we're working on shifting our mix to continue to increase that and I think at some point in time, there's still upside because the earnings power of these institutions, the franchises that they, that they hold is really quite powerful.

SORKIN: What do you think about FinTech valuations on the other hand?

SOLOMON: I think that FinTech valuations at the moment project a view of the future because there are very few FinTechs that actually make money at this point in time to the degree that some of these platforms turn out to be sustainable platforms that really have business models where they can make a lot of money, some of them will look to be cheap over a period of time. To the degree that they can't convert to a business model that can actually make money, they'll be absorbed or they'll go away, but I think it's, I think it's a, it's a mixed bag. And what's clear to me is some of them will be a huge success, some of them won’t, but I also think the incumbent players, there’s a big disruption going on in the digitization of financial services and how they're delivered, whether it's the institutions, or to individuals, and I think the incumbents are going to play a big role in that and I think upstart FinTechs are going to play a big role in that. Not everybody's going to be a winner in every way, but the market’s probably ahead on some but not ahead on others.

SORKIN: I want to talk crypto in just a moment, but Becky's got a question. Becks?

BECKY QUICK: Hey David, great to see you this morning. Thanks for joining us. We had a big debate in the last hour just about back to work and whether getting back to work or working from home is going to be the future. There's differing opinions out there. I know you have been somebody who thinks it's really important to be in the office so I'd like to ask where you think the majority of office places are going to be, let's say a couple of years from now, maybe when the job market shifts a little bit and it's not quite as competitive and will those offices be in places like New York City?

SOLOMON: So, first Becky it's great to see you and appreciate you having me on. I think this is a complex question and my view on this and I talked to Andrew about this a couple of months ago when we were together at an event. I've been very focused on Goldman Sachs and what's right for Goldman Sachs and what Goldman Sachs needs to do to continue to serve its clients and be super competitive in our business. For our organization, which is an organization where 50% of the people who work at Goldman Sachs are in their 20s, we need to come together. We're an apprenticeship culture, we collaborate and we need to come together. That doesn't mean that there can't be flexibility. That doesn't mean that technology can't lever that flexibility but generally speaking for our organization, we need to come together. I think in most businesses, collaboration is important but every business has to determine what's best for that business to serve their clients or their customers, to compete, to retain their talent. I'm talking to a lot of, you know, our employees are in their 20s. They don't want to be sitting at home in a small apartment. They want to be with other people their age, they want to be collaborating, they want to be learning, they want to be in touch and so every company is going to choose its journey along a path to how to get back to work. I'm not good. I don't have a crystal ball to say where everyone comes out. But generally speaking, we're social creatures and I'd be, you know, I'd be cautious about interpolating forward, you know, a permanent state based on what we see at the moment.

QUICK: What about New York City?

SOLOMON: Well, I think in New York City, one of the reasons why I'm an advocate here in New York City, I think it's very important for the economic vitality of New York City to get people back into the city and get people back working. If you go through Midtown during the day, it's getting a little bit better but think about all the small businesses and all the organizations that are still, you know, under enormous pressure because we don't have that economic ecosystem where people come during the day. So I think for big urban centers, they have to be attractive, you have to bring people in. There's got to be a balance. I think technology allows more flexibility, but generally speaking, you know, I think it's important for New York to continue to bring people together and I think one of the strengths in New York is that young people want to be here. And I don't think young people want to be locked in their apartments. I think they want to be here. They want to participate, go out at night. The city's very, very busy and so, I think we're in a transition to getting people back engaged, and hopefully we'll make more progress over the next six months. But I think it's very, very important for economic vitality in the city.

SORKIN: By the way, what do you think of Eric Adams?

SOLOMON: I'm excited about Eric Adams and, you know, very, very hopeful that he’s going to—

SORKIN: I know you were worried about the city though.

SOLOMON: Lead the city forward. Well, I'm concerned, and I said this, you know, publicly, you know, recently, you know, history will tell you that no city’s place in the world is permanent and it's important that, that all cities are attractive for business and for people to live and cost of living, the vitality of the city, you know, what the city offers, taxes, all those things go into an equation that either attracts and retains and sustains people or at times put pressure on that. And so safety—

SORKIN: What’s your bet on New York?

SOLOMON: Well, my bet on New York and I said this clearly when I was interviewed about this, New York is not going away. But there's no question that safety, security, cleanliness, these things matter and I'm really hopeful and I've heard from, from the mayor elect directly that, you know, he's gonna be focused on these things. I think these things matter in any urban center.

SORKIN: Before when we were talking about FinTech, I said I’d get to crypto. Has the Solomon family changed its view on crypto? Do you own Bitcoin or Ethereum personally?

SOLOMON: I don't, I don't personally own Bitcoin or Ethereum and I don't, I don't have a strong view. When you say I've changed my view, I don',t I don't know what you think my view is. My view on, on Bitcoin for example is I really don't know but it's really not something, you know, individually that's important to me. I'm a big believer in the digitization that is occurring and the disruption that's occurring in the way financial services are delivered as I said to you both for institutions and for individuals. I think it's a massive shift. We're trying to participate in it based on what we're doing around Goldman Sachs, Marcus and our digital banking platform—

SORKIN: But do you want your clients in it?

SOLOMON: I'm sorry?

SORKIN: Do you want your clients in it?

SOLOMON: I want our clients to, to, to do what they think they want to do. As a speculative asset, is it interesting and are some of our clients participating? Absolutely. But whether it goes up or down, my guess is, look at the last week it's going to go up, it's going to go down. I don't know what the permanent state of Bitcoin is. But I think Bitcoin is really not the key thing. The key thing is how can blockchain or other technologies that are not developed yet accelerate the pace of the digitization of the way financial services are delivered? And I, you know, I just talked to you about our digital bank, you know, that we just made an announcement out of AWS re:Invent about a platform, the financial cloud that we're building in partnership with AWS for institutional clients. All of that is the changing of the digital processes that kind of lubricate the way financial services are delivered and I think that's a big opportunity and we're excited about that.

SORKIN: And that gives your clients almost direct access through APIs and such into the dataset that is Goldman Sachs. Joe’s got a question for you.

JOE KERNEN: Andrew, I know you got a lot of places you want to go, we could. David it's good to see you. We could do this for probably longer than an hour but just real quickly, so rates are probably after years of what we've seen, they're probably headed the other way, someday. Is Goldman Sachs factoring in a lower average return for equities over the next three or four years than we've seen for the past three or four. It's just a simple question. Do you think it has to be that way? Are we back to like mid-single digits, maybe?

SOLOMON: So, so, Joe, I would never say it has to be because has to be as is, is stronger than I would make it but it's certainly we would expect that we're not going to see the same rate of returns in equities and many other assets over the next few years that we've seen over the last couple of years. It's been an extraordinary disruption in markets and in the context of that you've seen some skewed results. And so, I'm not a believer that double digit equity returns compounding in perpetuity is something as an investor you should expect. My, I've been involved in a number of investment committees and, you know, charitable foundations, college board, etc. And certainly, my mindset is the returns we've received over the course the last three to five years are different than what we should expect as we go forward from here.

SORKIN: What we have here also wanted to ask you a little bit about China because it's a controversial topic. Goldman Sachs has spent a lot of time trying to build a business and you're committed to building a business in China. And yet we're at this moment where a lot of people are looking at the human rights issues that are taking place in that country and thinking about what is the role of an American business, oftentimes vocal American businesses here when it comes to ESG or voting rights or, or all sorts of other issues? You've been very outspoken about gender equality, for example, and yet doing business in China at the same time.

SOLOMON: So the geopolitical relationship between the US and China is, is very complex and that's going to continue for sure. We've been investing in our business in China for a long time because China's a very important part of the economic vitality of our world broadly. And we have clients that we serve around the world that are clearly exposed to economic activity all over the world and we want to continue to serve them. I think when you think about policy actions, it's not our job as a private enterprise to set policy actions, but we watch appropriately, and we obviously will respond to policy actions as I've said. I obviously don't like the human rights violations that I see in that part of the world. But I think that from a policy perspective, we have to strike a balance across this because we're very economically entwined and it's not simple. There are places where I think we have to cooperate and I would point to climate as a great example and I can highlight, for example, a green finance working group that were involved in establishing that's got both public and private sector leaders coming together with a particular focus on China's transition and then there are places like human rights violation where we have to confront and try to get a different result. But if people are looking for a black and white answer, I think that's that's going to be a very, very hard execution. But we've got to continue to focus on this because we're very economically entwined.

SORKIN: What do you think the role though of business is to speak out or not? Can they speak, can a business leader speak out on a human rights issue for example in China? I think, you know, for example, Adam Silver at the NBA has tried to thread this needle. Ray Dalio was on our air last week trying to thread the needle and it didn't work. Elon Musk was speaking at a Wall Street Journal event last night, very pro-China. And I think there were a lot of people critiquing him saying, does he feel he can't say something critical of China because he has so much business in China?

SOLOMON: So, I can't speak for everybody else, but I generally try to stick to business, and I leave policymakers to set policy. And, you know, I just commented, I said to you, I don't approve of the, of the human rights violations that are going on. And so that's a point of view, but it's not my job to set policy. We need government to set policy, we need them to legislate, we need them to interact in that geopolitical relationship, and it's our job to balance and run business based on the parameters that are set up. And I think, you know, I think Joe said this, or somebody said this on your show earlier this week, if we got into a debate of everything that goes wrong somewhere in the world every day and how businesses responsible for that we got ourselves to a very complex place. I don't think any of you are advocating that's where we want to go.

SORKIN: We gotta let you go. I know you’ve got a big conference today.

SOLOMON: We do. We've got our Financial Services Conference here where we've got a broad group of financial services companies here with, with investors and so that should be an interesting day and a lot of discussion about some of the things you and I were talking about, digitization, crypto, changes in disruption to the way those services are delivered so we're looking forward to that.

SORKIN: They're playing the music out. You're a better DJ, I do, Barry Manilow that's what I listened to the podcast. He did a podcast last week guys, and Barry Manilow is your—

SOLOMON: No, my dad loved Barry Manilow and unfortunately my dad's not with us and so sometimes when I hear Barry Manilow, I think about my dad. It’s a great memory.

SORKIN: David Solomon, thank you for joining us this morning.

SOLOMON: Thanks a lot. Good to be with you all. Thank you very much.