The Corner

Re: Goldman Sacked

There seems to be some confusion over what the Goldman Sachs-SEC lawsuit is about. This isn’t just about the fact that Goldman sold its clients some bonds and then later bet against them. In my view, that wouldn’t be so bad. Goldman would be playing two independent roles in that story — broker on one side, trader on the other — and following independent strategies to hedge against market risk. Micromanaging investment banks’ hedging strategies could have all sorts of undesirable unintended consequences.

But the fraud alleged here is more serious than that, and it concerns the way Goldman structured and sold a particular bond, a structured product known as a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO). These products are not like ordinary stocks and bonds, which are pretty straightforward investments. They’re made up of the cash flows of a variety of underlying assets — in this case, pools of mortgages. There was a heavy demand for these products during the housing boom, and investment banks such as Goldman were under pressure to keep churning them out. The charge against Goldman is that at least one of these products, a CDO called Abacus 2007-AC1, was built to fail.

The outside consultant Goldman hired to select which mortgages would go into the CDO, a hedge-fund manager named John Paulson, is now known as one of the most famous housing shorts ever — he made an estimated $3.7 billion betting that these kinds of mortgage-backed bonds would go bad. So it is pretty disturbing that Goldman would bring him in as an “independent manager” to help it construct a CDO and not disclose this fact to the CDO’s buyers.

It would be like holding a basketball game, letting a Vegas sharp secretly select the players on one of the teams, and then presenting it to the public as a fair game. The sharp would have an incentive to select the worst players for his team and then bet against it. According to the SEC, that is exactly what Paulson and Goldman did:

According to the SEC’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the marketing materials for the CDO known as ABACUS 2007-AC1 (ABACUS) all represented that the RMBS portfolio underlying the CDO was selected by ACA Management LLC (ACA), a third party with expertise in analyzing credit risk in RMBS. The SEC alleges that undisclosed in the marketing materials and unbeknownst to investors, the Paulson & Co. hedge fund, which was poised to benefit if the RMBS defaulted, played a significant role in selecting which RMBS should make up the portfolio.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that after participating in the portfolio selection, Paulson & Co. effectively shorted the RMBS portfolio it helped select by entering into credit default swaps (CDS) with Goldman Sachs to buy protection on specific layers of the ABACUS capital structure. Given that financial short interest, Paulson & Co. had an economic incentive to select RMBS that it expected to experience credit events in the near future. Goldman Sachs did not disclose Paulson & Co.’s short position or its role in the collateral selection process in the term sheet, flip book, offering memorandum, or other marketing materials provided to investors.

If true, the SEC’s charges are pretty serious — which might be why Goldman’s stock is taking a beating on the news.

Update: Or not serious — Henry Blodget writes that “Goldman Sachs will have to write a big check, and then it will be fine.” And he would know.

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Illegal leaks of classified information should be treated as a serious offense. But they would be easier to prevent if less information were classified.