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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.


 

Here We Go Again

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Goldman Sachs is back in the spotlight.  This time, there is a chorus of disgust being expressed about how Goldman conducts its business.  Back in June of 2009, Matt Taibbi famously characterized Goldman Sachs in the following terms:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The latest episode of predation by the Vampire Squid concerns an August 16 report prepared by Alan Brazil, a member of Goldman’s trading team.  Brazil prepared the 54-page presentation for the firm’s institutional clients as a guide to the impending economic collapse with some trading strategies to benefit from that event.  Page 3 of the report starts with the headline:  “Here We Go Again”.  The statement was prescient in that the report itself initiated a renewed, consensual effort to condemn Goldman.  Page 4 has the headline:   “The Underlying Problem May Be Structural And Created By the Housing Bubble”.  The extent to which the underlying problem may have been caused by Goldman Sachs had been previously discussed by Matt Taibbi, who explained Goldman’s propensity to act the way it always has:  

If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain  .  .  .

Shah Gilani of Forbes reacted to the publication of Alan Brazil’s report with the following statement, which was used for the title of his own article:

In my opinion, Goldman isn’t just a travesty of a mockery of a sham, it is a criminal enterprise and worthy of being stepped on itself.

Susan Pulliam and Liz Rappaport broke the story on Goldman’s “Dark View” for The Wall Street Journal:

The report, released by the Hedge Fund Strategies group in Goldman’s securities division, provides a glimpse into the trading ideas that are generated for hedge funds through strategists, such as Mr. Brazil, who are part of Goldman’s trading operation rather than its research group.

Such strategists sit alongside the traders who are executing trades for their clients.  Unlike analysts in firms’ research divisions—who are supposed to be walled off from information about the activity of the firm’s clients—these desk strategists have a front-row seat for viewing the ebb and flow of clients’ investment plays.

They can see if there is a groundswell of interest among hedge funds in taking bearish bets in a certain sector, and they watch trading volumes dry up or explode.  Their point of view is informed by more, and often confidential, information about clients than analysts’ opinions, making their research and ideas highly prized by traders.

The report itself makes note that the information included isn’t considered research by Goldman.  “This material is not independent advice and is not a product of Global Investment Research,” the report notes.

The idea that such a gloomy assessment had not been shared with the general public has become a frequently-expressed complaint.  Michael T. Snyder wrote a piece for Seeking Alpha, which provided this explanation for the lack of candor:

As I wrote about the other day, the financial world is about to hit the panic button.  Things could start falling apart at any time. Most of these big banks will not publicly admit how bad things are, but privately there is a whole lot of freaking out going on.

*   *   *

You aren’t going to hear the truth from the media or from our politicians, because keeping people calm is much more of a priority to them than is telling the truth.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider dissuaded the “little people” from getting any grandiose ideas after reading Brazil’s briefing:

Unfortunately, lest you think your knowledge of this semi-secret report will finally allow you to out-trade hedge funds, it won’t. The hedge funds got the report on August 16th.  As usual, you’re the last to know.

Beyond that, there is Goldman’s longstanding reputation for “front running” its own clients, which must have inspired this remark in a critique of Alan Brazil’s report, appearing at the Minyanville website:

Coincidentally, he had some surefire trading strategies for clients interested in capitalizing on this trend.  Presumably, Goldman’s own traders began bidding the various recommended hedges up some time earlier, a possibility Goldman discloses up front.

So this is what the squid is down to these days:  peddling the obvious to the bottom-feeders below it in the financial food chain.

By now, those commentators who had criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.


 

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Avoiding The Stock Market

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May 18, 2010

In the wake of the stock market’s “flash crash” on May 6, there have been an increasing number of reports that retail investors (“Ma and Pa”) are pulling their money out of stocks.  Beyond that, some commentators have stepped forward to speak out and advise retail investors to steer clear of the stock market, due to the volatility caused by “high-frequency trading” or HFT.  One recent example of this was Felix Salmon’s video message, which appeared at The Huffington Post.

HFT involves a practice wherein firms are paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves when the firms buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying firms to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) is to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  Many firms involved in high-frequency trading (Goldman Sachs, RGM Advisors, Tradebot Systems and others) have their computer servers “co-located” in the same building as the exchange, in order to get each of their orders processed a few nanoseconds faster than orders coming from further distances (albeit at the speed of light).  The Zero Hedge website has been critical of HFT for quite a while.  They recently published this informative piece on the subject, pointing out how HFT firms caused the catastrophe on May 6:

. . .  when the selling in size commences they all just shut down.  So much for providing liquidity when it is needed.

At The Market Ticker website, Karl Denninger explained how HFT platforms often use “predatory algorithms” to drive a stock’s price up to the full extent of a customer’s limit order (a practice called “frontrunning”):

Let’s say that there is a buyer willing to buy 100,000 shares of BRCM with a limit price of $26.40.  That is, the buyer will accept any price up to $26.40.

But the market at this particular moment in time is at $26.10, or thirty cents lower.

So the computers, having detected via their “flash orders” (which ought to be illegal) that there is a desire for Broadcom shares, start to issue tiny (typically 100 share lots) “immediate or cancel” orders – IOCs – to sell at $26.20.  If that order is “eaten” the computer then issues an order at $26.25, then $26.30, then $26.35, then $26.40.  When it tries $26.45 it gets no bite and the order is immediately canceled.

Now the flush of supply comes at, big coincidence, $26.39, and the claim is made that the market has become “more efficient.”

Nonsense; there was no “real seller” at any of these prices!  This pattern of offering was intended to do one and only one thing – manipulate the market by discovering what is supposed to be a hidden piece of information – the other side’s limit price!

The extent to which frontrunning takes place was the subject of a recent conversation between Larry Tabb of Tabb Group and Erin Burnett on CNBC.  The Zero Hedge website provided this analysis of the video clip:

The funniest bit of the exchange occurs at 3:35 into the clip, when Tabb publicly discloses that front-running is not only legal but occurs all the time on open exchanges. When Erin Burnett, who unfortunately still thinks that the Deutsche Mark is used in Germany, asks who is doing the front running, Tabb says “It could be anyone.”

A recent piece by Josh Lipton at the Minyanville website focused on the activity of retail investors since the recent “flash crash”:

Specifically, during the past week through May 12, your friends and neighbors pulled $2.8 billion out of US stock funds, according to the latest data from the professional number crunchers at Lipper FMI.

To put that stat in context, we called up Robert Adler, the head of Lipper FMI Americas, for a chat this morning.  He tells us that’s the most investors have pulled out, in fact, since March 11, 2009.

At the same time, says Adler, investors plowed $16.6 billion into money-market funds.  “That’s the first inflows money market funds have seen in the last 16 weeks,” he says.

*   *   *

“There was an about-face this past week by investors,” Adler says, noting that such outflows from both equity and bond funds, and a sharp reversal in money market funds, demonstrate a clear and dramatic shift in sentiment.

The analyst is quick to emphasize, however, that one week doesn’t make a trend.  “We have to wait another week to see whether this was simply event driven or if this is the beginning of a new trend,” he says.

The current risk-aversion experienced by retail investors is compounded by the ugly truth that stocks are currently overvalued.  Shawn Tully of Fortune made this very clear in a May 17 commentary, wherein he provided us with a sage bit of prognostication:

Here’s how I see the odds.  The chances are about one in three that we suffer a huge, wrenching correction in the next year or two similar to the one in 1987.  That possibility is so high because stocks are so startlingly expensive.  Another high probability event is that markets go on a long sideways grind, with smaller drops along the way.  What’s extremely unlikely is that the market rises substantially from current levels and stays there for any extended period.

Whatever happens in the next couple of years, the odds are overwhelming that investors who buy stocks today will reap puny returns for 10 years.  For example, if you’d purchased shares at today’s PE of 22 in early 2003, you would have gotten a return of around 3% a year, barely enough to compensate for inflation, let alone buy the blood pressure medication you’d need to survive the scary ride of stock ownership.

Now let’s look out a decade or two.  The evidence is extremely strong that price matters, and matters a lot:  except in rare cases, buying stocks when they are pricey — when the Shiller PE exceeds 20 — leads to puny returns ten years later.

Not that you’d ever know that from the happy talk from Wall Street.  So screen the noise out, and follow the numbers.  They’ll eventually get better for investors.  But to get back there, we may revisit October of 1987.

Considering the unlimited number of awful news events unfolding in America and around the world right now, we could be headed for a market crash much worse that that of October, 1987.  Cheers!




Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

On April 15, I discussed the disappointing performance of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC).  The vapid FCIC hearings have featured softball questions with no follow-up to the self-serving answers provided by the CEOs of those too-big–to-fail financial institutions.

In stark contrast to the FCIC hearings, Tuesday brought us the bipartisan assault on Goldman Sachs by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  Goldman’s most memorable representatives from that event were the four men described by Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post as “The Fab Four”, apparently because the group’s most notorious member, Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, has become the central focus of the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman.   Tourre’s fellow panel members were Daniel Sparks (former partner in charge of the mortgage department), Joshua Birnbaum (former managing director of Structured Products Group trading) and Michael Swenson (current managing director of Structured Products Group trading).  The panel members were obviously over-prepared by their attorneys.  Their obvious efforts at obfuscation turned the hearing into a public relations disaster for Goldman, destined to become a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Although these guys were proud of their evasiveness, most commentators considered them too cute by half.  The viewing public could not have been favorably impressed.  Both The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein as well as Tunku Varadarajan of The Daily Beast provided negative critiques of the group’s testimony.  On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see the Senators on the Subcommittee doing their job so well, cross-examining the hell out of those guys and not letting them get away with their rehearsed non-answers.

A frequently-repeated theme from all the Goldman witnesses who testified on Tuesday (including CEO Lloyd Bankfiend and CFO David Viniar) was that Goldman had been acting only as a “market maker” and therefore had no duty to inform its customers that Goldman had short positions on its own products, such as the Abacus-2007AC1 CDO.  This assertion is completely disingenuous.  When Goldman creates a product and sells it to its own customers, its role is not limited to that of  “market-maker”.  The “market-maker defense” was apparently created last summer, when Goldman was defending its “high-frequency trading” (HFT) activities on stock exchanges.  In those situations, Goldman would be paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves to buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying Goldman to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) was to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail (Ma and Pa) investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  That type of market-making bears no resemblance to the situations which were the focus of Tuesday’s hearing.

Coincidentally, Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading resulted in allegations 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.)  The Zero Hedge website focused on the language of the disclaimer Goldman posted on its “GS360” portal.  Zero Hedge found some language in the GS360 disclaimer which could arguably have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Goldman witnesses were repeatedly questioned as to what, if any, duty the firm owed its clients who bought synthetic CDOs, such as Abacus.  Alistair Barr of MarketWatch contended that the contradictory answers provided by the witnesses on that issue exposed internal disagreement at Goldman as to what duty the firm owed its customers.  Kurt Brouwer of MarketWatch looked at the problem this way :

This distinction is of fundamental importance to anyone who is a client of a Wall Street firm.  These are often very large and diverse financial services firms that have — wittingly or unwittingly — blurred the distinction between the standard of responsibility a firm has as a broker versus the requirements of an investment advisor.  These firms like to tout their brilliant and objective advisory capabilities in marketing brochures, but when pressed in a hearing, they tend to fall back on the much looser standards required of a brokerage firm, which could be expressed like this:

Well, the firm made money and the traders made money.  Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

The third party referred to indirectly would be the clients who, all too frequently, are left out of the equation.

A more useful approach could involve looking at the language of the brokerage agreements in effect between Goldman and its clients.  How did those contracts define Goldman’s duty to its own customers who purchased the synthetic CDOs that Goldman itself created?  The answer to that question could reveal that Goldman Sachs might have more lawsuits to fear than the one brought by the SEC.



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