Wall Street 2: The Return of Corzine

Goldman Sachs bankers like trekking into the wilderness of public service, but once they go, they don’t come home. An

Goldman Sachs bankers like trekking into the wilderness of public service, but once they go, they don’t come home. An executive who becomes a senator, an intelligence adviser, a deputy secretary of state, a White House chief of staff or a Treasury secretary hardly ever returns to Wall Street. And the second act in finance, if it happens, rarely goes well.

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After a legendary 1998 Christmastime palace coup, Jon S. Corzine was ousted from Goldman’s helm. The trader pivoted to a career in New Jersey politics, which ended this January after the senator-turned-governor lost reelection by more than 80,000 votes. “He could retire and go to Florida,” said John Whitehead, the 88-year-old former Goldman Sachs (GS) co-chairman. “He could have racehorses. He could have a yacht. He could do whatever he wants. I think he wanted to come back.”

And so he did. On Saturday, March 20, Goldman’s former chief executive was in a New York office building, touring the ninth-floor headquarters of an unremarkable futures brokerage named MF Global. He was smiling. It reminded him of an office he knew when he was a junior Goldman bond trader. “You know,” he said, “this feels like 55 Water Street.”

Three days after the tour, he was named chairman and chief executive of the little-known company, which does not look or sound or make money like a serious full-service financial institution. In fact, it’s lost money for four straight quarters. Mr. Corzine thinks it can become something very different. It’s already applied, for example, to be one of the few firms that are allowed to deal directly with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “When I joined Goldman Sachs in 1975,” he said at the headquarters, “there were a few thousand employees and it had an application pending with the New York Fed to be a primary dealer. Sound familiar?”

Wall Street is not an easy or warm world, but compared to the medieval fiefdoms of New Jersey, it’s a gorgeous bastion of reason and order. It’s going to take time to bring MF Global up to speed, but at least Mr. Corzine has a fighting chance. “I think it’s with a certain degree of relief that he comes back to Wall Street. It’s a kind of sanctuary,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “He met his match in New Jersey.”

“Thank God we’re back in Hollywood,” a film producer sighs sweetly at the end of a classic Simpsons episode, “where people treat each other right.” Mr. Corzine isn’t obsessing over the past. “I’m a guy who lives in the here and now,” he said in a brief interview this week, “and the future.”

MR. CORZINE, 63, WAS BORN to an Illinois grain farmer and an elementary school teacher. In college, he worked at the post office and spent time shoveling concrete onto highways. Neither job lasted long. After getting his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, he took a job trading bonds for Goldman Sachs in New Jersey. That was in the mid-1970s, long before the piranhas and linebackers made bond trading macho and lucrative.

He was sweater-vested, bearded, avuncular and soft-voiced, but by the end of 1985, he’d been named to Goldman’s management committee. He has a reputation for uncommon mildness, but is also reported to have chased a lob during a tennis match with his then-wife and another couple “with such fervor that he fell on a water spigot and broke his back.”

He became the co-head of fixed income in 1988 and, after then-chairman Stephen Friedman’s abrupt exit six years later, the head of the most important firm on Wall Street. Along with John Mack’s rise a few months earlier at Morgan Stanley, his coronation marked the beginning of the era of the trader—away from prim and crisp investment banking. “The trading side is where the biggest risk is,” a partner told The Times then. “It gives you the biggest chance to lose your shirt or make a bundle. And Goldman needed someone close to the top of the firm that understands that.”

In his modest office, he kept black-and-white photos of the firm’s past leaders. But his tenure didn’t last long. Amid arguments over taking Goldman public, the dangerous collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital and the direction of the firm’s growth, his executive committee hatched the firm’s first cinematic coup. While he spent a family vacation skiing in Telluride, such colleagues as Hank Paulson and John Thain agreed to push Mr. Corzine out. He reportedly spent his last days working in his suit from a car parked outside Goldman headquarters.

A NEW YORK MAGAZINE PROFILE of his early days in politics shows him complimenting women on their hairdos at the Bergen County Senior Picnic, where milk spilled on his slacks.

Politics is hard. But friends like Janet Hanson, a former Goldman Sachs fixed-income vice president, were called to his televised appearances to lend support. “They would send a car for me, and I would calm him down before he spoke,” she said. “It was to cheer him on, and I think he needed that, he really did. He needed his Goldman fan club there. That sounds silly, but it was hard. What he was trying to do was hard.” Family and other friends were there, too, she said. “I think it was saying, ‘You go, guy, go. You can do this.’”

Mr. Corzine won his Senate seat in November 2000. At $62 million, his campaign doubled the previous record for the most expensive ever. In Washington, he voted prominently against the Iraq war, but the Senate was not a career highlight. “He wasn’t real happy there,” said Professor Baker, who visited the senator in DC. The two talked about his gout.

Wall Street 2: The Return of Corzine