03 May 2010

A Summary of the Goldman Sachs Fraud Case, and the Downfall of Icons

"Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu' il a été proprement fait."

(The secret of great returns which are difficult to explain is a crime that has not yet been discovered because it has been carefully executed."

Honoré de Balzac, Pere Goriot

There is quite a bit of spin surrounding the Goldman Sachs deal. The best debunking of the spin around the nature and quality of the SEC's case was written by Barry Ritholz.

One of the best summaries of what the deal actually encompassed is excerpted below by Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi.
"Here's the Cliffs Notes version of the scandal: Back in 2007, Harvard-educated hedge-fund whiz John Paulson (no relation to then-Treasury secretary and former Goldman chief Hank Paulson) smartly decided the housing boom was a mirage. So he asked Goldman to put together a multibillion-dollar basket of crappy subprime investments that he could bet against. The bank gladly complied, taking a $15 million fee to do the deal and letting Paulson choose some of the toxic mortgages in the portfolio, which would come to be called Abacus.

What Paulson jammed into Abacus was mortgages lent to borrowers with low credit ratings, and mortgages from states like Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California that had recently seen wild home-price spikes. In metaphorical terms, Paulson was choosing, as sexual partners for future visitors to the Goldman bordello, a gang of IV drug users, Haitians and hemophiliacs, then buying life-insurance policies on the whole orgy. Goldman then turned around and sold this poisonous stuff to its customers as good, healthy investments.

Where Goldman broke the rules, according to the SEC, was in failing to disclose to its customers – in particular a German bank called IKB and a Dutch bank called ABN-AMRO – the full nature of Paulson's involvement with the deal. Neither investor knew that the portfolio they were buying into had essentially been put together by a financial arsonist who was rooting for it all to blow up.

Goldman even kept its own collateral manager – a well-known and respectable company called ACA – in the dark. The bank hired the firm to approve the bad mortgages being selected by Paulson, but never bothered to tell ACA that Paulson was actually betting against the deal. ACA thought Paulson was long, when actually he was short. That led to the awful comedy of ACA staffers holding meeting after meeting with Goldman and Paulson, and continually coming away confused as to why their supposedly canny financial partners kept kicking any decent mortgage out of the deal. In one ACA internal e-mail, the company wonders aloud why Paulson excluded mortgages issued by Wells Fargo – a bank that traditionally created high-quality mortgages. "Did [they] give a reason why they kicked out all the Wells deals?" the quizzical e-mail reads."

Matt Taibbi, The Feds Vs. Goldman

This is fraud, pure and simple. Goldman did not stand by and allow ACA to make its picks. Goldman and Paulson aggressively influenced the selection process, vetoing the good mortgages, and manipulating ACA, setting them up to be the fall guy in what is clearly a premeditated fraud.

The final defense being offered, after the smokescreens and misstatements of what happened have been pulled away, is that there can be no fraud when you are selling to a 'qualified investor' and making a market.

Goldman was not making a market. They were actively creating inherently dangerous products, and then recommending and selling them to their customers, qualified investors or not. It was fraud, and Goldman is a disreputable firm, that has been shown to engage in fraud across many markets and countries and venues. This particular scam with ACA is small change compared to the setting up of AIG, and the foul bailout ripped from the public with the collusion of the NY Fed.

Anyone who looked at their trading results, many standard deviations out of the norm, would have to know that there was some sort of fraud and market manipulation involved. It is the Bernie Madoff syndrome; the professionals all knew he was cheating somehow, but were more than willing to go along with it and turn a blind eye while it was to their advantage. And Goldman had the politicians in their pocket, and so they were powerful, not to be crossed. Almost as powerfully connected as the Fed's house bank, J. P. Morgan.

Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger have come out recently in defense of Goldman, attempting to paint this fraud as the work of a single rogue trader. That of course is a part of the spin, the carefully thought out and premeditated fraud which had ACA and then Fabrice Tourree as the designated scapegoats.

Warren holds quite a bit of Goldman Sachs stock. And all he and Charlie have shown is that once you strip away the trappings and the masks, the ornamentation and the legend, what you are left with is someone who is willing to lie down with pigs when the money is right. So the question is not what kind of man Warren Buffet is, but rather, what is his price.

When the tide goes out, we indeed see who is naked, and who is not. And it is not a pretty picture.