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Goldman Sachs In The Crosshairs

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Last December, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

Fortunately, the tide seems to have turned with the recent release of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee report on the financial crisis.  The two-year, bipartisan investigation, led by Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has given rise to new hope that the banks responsible for causing the financial crisis – particularly Goldman Sachs – could face criminal prosecution.  Tom Braithwaite of the Financial Times put it this way:

The Senate report criticised rating agencies, regulators and other banks.  But Goldman has drawn particular focus.  Eric Holder, attorney-general, said this month the justice department was looking at the report “that deals with Goldman”.

Will Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless initiate criminal proceedings against President Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions?  I doubt it.  Nevertheless, the widespread meme that no laws were violated by Goldman or any of the other Wall Street megabanks, is coming under increased attack.  Matt Taibbi recently wrote an excellent piece for Rolling Stone entitled, “The People vs. Goldman Sachs”, which took a humorous jab at those who deny that the financial crisis resulted from illegal activity:

Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money.  We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit.  Goldman isn’t a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals – it’s an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn’t left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes.  If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana.  Caught, but still free:  above the law.

Taibbi focused on the easiest case to prosecute:  a perjury charge against Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein for his testimony before the Levin-Coburn Senate Subcommittee.  Blankfein denied under oath that his firm had a “short” position, betting against the very Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that Goldman had been selling to its customers.  As Taibbi pointed out, this conflict of interest was the subject of a book by Michael Lewis entitled, The Big Short.  At issue is the response Blankfein gave to the question about whether Goldman Sachs had such a short position:

“Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market.  The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008.  We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.”

As Tom Braithwaite explained in the Financial Times, Senator Levin expressed concern that Blankfein could defend a perjury charge, based on his use of the words “consistently or significantly” in the above-quoted response.  Levin’s concern is that those words could be deemed significantly equivocal as to prevent the characterization of Blankfein’s response as a denial that Goldman had such a short position.  Nevertheless, the last sentence of the response is an unqualified, compound statement, which could support a perjury charge:

We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.

I would be very amused to watch someone make the specious argument that Goldman’s $13 billion short position was not “massive”.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is moving ahead to pursue an investigation concerning the role of the Wall Street banks in causing the financial crisis.  Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times provided this explanation of Schneiderman’s current effort:

The New York attorney general has requested information and documents in recent weeks from three major Wall Street banks about their mortgage securities operations during the credit boom, indicating the existence of a new investigation into practices that contributed to billions in mortgage losses.

*   *   *

It is unclear which parts of the byzantine securitization process Mr. Schneiderman is focusing on. His spokesman said the attorney general would not comment on the investigation, which is in its early stages.

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The requests for information by Mr. Schneiderman’s office also seem to confirm that the New York attorney general is operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.

By opening a new inquiry into bank practices, Mr. Schneiderman has indicated his unwillingness to accept one of the settlement’s terms proposed by financial institutions – that is, a broad agreement by regulators not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Schneiderman has said in recent weeks that signing such a release was unacceptable.

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It is unclear whether Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation will be pursued as a criminal or civil matter.

Are the banksters running scared yet?  John Carney of CNBC’s NetNet blog, noted some developments, which could signal that some potential “persons of interest” might be seeking cover:

A Warning Sign:  CFOs Resigning

The chief financial officers of both Wells Fargo and Bank of America recently resigned.  JPMorgan Chase replaced its CFO last year.  While each of these moves has been spun as benign news by the banks, it could be a warning sign that something is deeply amiss.

Hope springs eternal!


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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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