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Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

2011 Jackass Of The Year

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There were so many contenders for TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award, I was ready to give up on making a decision.  Former Congressman Anthony Weiner (who never even “got lucky” with any of the women who received his “Peter Tweets”) was certainly a contender.  Another runner-up was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose to have an affair with his unattractive housekeeper – apparently just because she was there.

This year’s winner is Jon S. Corzine, the former Senator and Governor of New Jersey – in addition to having been the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Most infamously, Corzine was named chairman and CEO of MF Global in March of 2010.  It took Corzine only 20 months to drive the firm into bankruptcy.  As Stephen Foley of The Independent reported, Corzine gambled $6 billion of the firm’s money on his belief that Italy would not default on its government bonds.  When that wager was exposed, MF Global’s clients and trading partners stopped doing business with the firm.  Within a few days, MF Global went belly-up, in what became one of the ten biggest bankruptcies in American history.

On Halloween, the Deal Book blog at The New York Times discussed what happened after a discovery by federal regulators that hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps 950) in MF Global customers’ money had gone missing:

The recognition that money was missing scuttled at the 11th hour an agreement to sell a major part of MF Global to a rival brokerage firm.  MF Global had staked its survival on completing the deal. Instead, the New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy on Monday.

Regulators are examining whether MF Global diverted some customer funds to support its own trades as the firm teetered on the brink of collapse.

One of those customers was a gentleman named Gerald Celente.  On December 17, Mr. Celente appeared on Max Keiser’s television program, On the Edge to describe what happened with his contract (placed through MF Global in April) to purchase an undisclosed quantity of December gold for an amount slightly in excess of $1,400 per ounce.  Celente skewered more individuals than Jon Corzine while describing a travesty which exposed even more of the ways by which the Commodity Futures Modernization Act has been destroying America.  Be sure to watch the interview.

On the same day as the Celente interview, The Washington Post published a piece by Barry Ritholtz, which focused on six astonishing elements of the MF Global story.  Let’s take a look at a few of those elements:

3.  As a result of MF Global’s lobbying, key rules were deregulated.  This allowed the firm to use client money to buy risky sovereign debt.

4.  In 2010, someone from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission recognized these prior deregulations had dramatically ramped clients’ exposure to risk and proposed changing those rules. Jon Corzine, MF Global’s chief executive, successfully prevented the tightening of these regulations.  Had the regulations been tightened, it would have prevented the kind of bets that lost MF Global’s segregated client monies.

5.  None of MF Global’s Canadian clients lost any money thanks to tighter regulations there.

One would think that someone in Jon Corzine’s position would have learned something from the mistakes (such as excessive leveraging and risky bets) which contributed to the financial crisis.  He didn’t.  That’s why Jon S. Corzine is the winner of TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award.  Congratulations, Jackass!


 

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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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