With Banks Under Fire, Some Expect a Settlement: NYTimes.com

From left, Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times; Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News; Ramin Talaie for The New York Times

From left, Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general; Robert Khuzami, of the S.E.C.; and Preet Bharara, of the United States attorney’s office. The agencies are investigating Wall Street.

By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ and ERIC DASH

Published: May 13, 2010

It is starting to feel as if everyone on Wall Street is under investigation by someone for something.

News on Thursday that New York State prosecutors are examining whether eight banks hoodwinked credit ratings agencies opened yet another front in what is fast becoming the legal battle of a decade for the big names of finance.

Not since the conflicts at the center of Wall Street stock research were laid bare a decade ago, eventually resulting in a $1.4 billion industrywide settlement, have so many investigations swirled across the financial landscape.

Nearly two years after Washington rescued big banks with billions of taxpayer dollars, half a dozen government agencies are still trying, with mixed success, to peel back the layers of the collapse to determine who, if anyone, broke the rules.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, the United States attorney’s office and more are examining how banks created, rated, sold and traded mortgage securities that turned out to be some of the worst investments ever devised.

Virtually all of the investigations, criminal as well as civil, are in their early stages, and investigators concede that their job is daunting. The S.E.C. has been examining major banks’ mortgage operations since last summer, but so far, it has filed a civil fraud claim against just one big player: Goldman Sachs. Goldman has vowed to fight.

But legal experts are already starting to handicap potential outcomes, not only for Goldman but for the broader industry as well. Many suggest that Wall Street banks may seek a global settlement akin to the 2002 agreement related to stock research. Indeed, Wall Street executives are already discussing among themselves what the broad contours of such a settlement might look like.

“I would be stunned if any of these cases go to trial,” said Frank Partnoy, a professor of law at the University of San Diego. “I think Wall Street needs to put this scandal behind it as quickly as possible and move on.”

As part of the 2002 settlement, 10 banks paid $1.4 billion total and pledged to change the way their analysts and investment bankers interacted to prevent conflicts of interest. This time, the price of any settlement would probably be higher and also come with a series of structural reforms.

David Boies, chairman of the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, represented the government in its case against Microsoft and is now part of a federal challenge to California’s same-sex marriage ban. He said a settlement by banks might be painful but would ultimately be something Wall Street could live with. “The settlement may be bad for everyone, but not disastrous for anyone,” he said.

A settlement also would let the S.E.C. declare victory without having to bring a series of complex cases. The public, however, might never learn what really went wrong.

“The government doesn’t have the personnel to simultaneously prosecute several investment banks,” said John C. Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor.

The latest salvo came on Thursday from Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York attorney general. His office began an investigation into whether banks misled major ratings agencies to inflate the grades of subprime-linked investments.

Many Americans are probably already wondering why this has taken so long. The answer is that these cases are tricky, like the investments at the center of them.

But regulators also concede that they were reluctant to pursue banks aggressively until the financial industry stabilized. The S.E.C., for one, is now eager to prove that it is on its game after failing to spot the global Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard L. Madoff, or head off the Wall Street excesses that nearly sank the entire economy.

The stakes are high for both sides. At a minimum, the failure to secure a civil verdict, or at least a mammoth settlement, would be another humiliation for regulators.

Wall Street wants to put this season of scandal behind it. That is particularly so given the debate over new financial regulations that is under way on Capitol Hill. The steady flow of new allegations could strengthen calls for tougher rules.

Even worse would be a criminal charge, which could put a firm out of business even if that firm were ultimately found not guilty, as was the case with the accounting giant Arthur Andersen after the fraud at Enron.

“No firm in the financial services field has the stomach for a criminal trial,” Mr. Coffee said.

Bankers have been reluctant until now to take their case to the public. But that is changing as Wall Street chieftains like Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman take to the airwaves and New York politicians warn that the city’s economy will be endangered by the attack on some of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers.

“In New York, Wall Street is Main Street,” Gov. David A. Paterson has said. “You don’t hear anybody in New England complaining about clam chowder.”

There are broader political consequences as well. At the top, there is President Obama, who was backed by much of Wall Street in 2008. Many of those supporters now privately say they are disillusioned and frustrated by his attacks on their industry, which remains a vital source of campaign contributions for both parties.

Closer to home, the man who hopes to succeed Mr. Paterson, Mr. Cuomo, is painting himself as the new sheriff of Wall Street. Another attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, rode a series of Wall Street investigations to the governor’s mansion in 2006.

But ultimately, it is what Wall Street does best — making money — that is already on trial in the court of public opinion.

Put simply, the allegations against Wall Street were prompted by evidence that the firms may have devised and sold securities to investors without telling them they were simultaneously betting against them.

Wall Street firms typically play both sides of trades, whether to help buyers and sellers of everything from simple stocks to complicated derivatives complete their transactions, or to make proprietary bets on whether they would rise or fall.

These activities form half of the four-legged stool on which Wall Street’s profits and revenue rest, the others being advising on mergers and acquisitions and helping companies issue stocks, bonds and other securities.

“This case is a huge deal. It has the potential to be the mother of all Wall Street investigations,” said Mr. Partnoy of the University of San Diego. “The worry is that the government will go after dealings that Wall Street thought were insulated from review.”

Even some Wall Street executives concede that all the scrutiny makes proprietary trading a bit dubious. “The 20 guys in the room with the shades drawn are toast,” one senior executive of a major bank said.

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Spitzer & Black: Questions from the Goldman Scandal

Spitzer & Black: Questions from the Goldman Scandal

Monday, 04/26/2010 – 6:37 am by Eliot Spitzer and William Black 

money-question-150Spitzer and Black argue that the Goldman revelations underscore the need for serious financial reform.

For those who have spent years investigating fraud, it was no surprise to hear that Goldman Sachs, the (self-described) jewel of Wall Street, is the latest firm to emerge from the financial crisis with tarnished reputation. According to a lawsuit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Goldman misrepresented to its customers the quality of the toxic assets underlying a complex financial derivative known as a “synthetic collateralized debt obligation (CDO).”

As you may now have heard, the story involves a pair of Paulsons. As CEO of Goldman, Hank Paulson oversaw the buying of large amounts of CDOs backed by largely fraudulent “liar’s loans.” When he became U.S. Treasury Secretary, he went on to launch a successful war against securities and banking regulation. Hank Paulson’s successors at Goldman saw the writing on the wall and began to “short” CDOs. They realized that they had an unusual, brief window of opportunity to unload their losers on their customers. Being the very model of a modern investment banking firm, they thought that blowing up their customers would be fine sport.

John Paulson (unrelated), who controls a large hedge fund, also wanted to short CDOs and he, too, recognized that there was a narrow window for doing so. The reason there was a profit opportunity was that the “market” for toxic mortgages only appeared to be a functioning market. It was, in reality, a massive bubble in which ratings and “market” prices were grotesquely inflated. The inflated prices were continuing only because the huge players knew that the prices and races were fictional and were covering it up through the financial equivalent of “don’t ask; don’t tell.” According to the SEC complaint:

In January 2007, a Paulson employee explained the company’s view, saying that “rating agencies, CDO managers and underwriters have all the incentives to keep the game going, while ‘real money’ investors have neither the analytical tools nor the institutional framework to take action.”

We know from Bankruptcy Examiner Valukas’ report on Lehman that the Federal Reserve knew that the “market” prices were delusional and refused to require entities like Lehman to recognize their losses on “liar’s loans” for fear that it would expose the cover up of the losses. Valukas reports that Geithner explained to him when interviewed (p. 1502) that:

The challenge for the Government, and for troubled firms like Lehman, was to reduce risk exposure, and the act of reducing risk by selling assets could result in “collateral damage” by demonstrating weakness and exposing “air” in the marks.

Goldman and John Paulson worked together. One of the key things to understand about shorting is that it is extremely valuable if other major players short similar targets at the same time. By helping Paulson take advantage of Goldman’s customers (the ones that lacked “the analytical tools” to avoid being hosed), Goldman not only earned a substantial fee, but also aided its overall strategy of shorting the toxic paper.

Goldman created a deal in which John Paulson played a major role in selecting the toxic paper that would underlie the investment. He picked assets “most likely to fail – quickly” and studies show that he was particularly good at picking the losers. At this juncture, there is some dispute as to whether ACA was complicit with John Paulson and Goldman in picking losers (ACA initially invested in the synthetic CDO, but then transferred the risk of loss to German and English taxpayers).

What isn’t in dispute is that Goldman, ACA, and Paulson all failed to disclose to purchasers of the synthetic CDO that it was designed to be most likely to fail. The representation was the opposite: that the assets were picked by an independent entity with their interests at heart (ACA). Goldman claims it’s a victim because while it intended to sell its entire position in the synthetic CDO to its customers, it was unable to sell a chunk. One feels the firm’s pain. Goldman tried to blow up its customers to the tune of over $1 billion, but were unable to sell them the last $90 million in exposure.

The Goldman scandal raises several important questions: Did John Paulson and ACA know that Goldman was making these false disclosures to the CDO purchasers? Did they “aid and abet” what the SEC alleges was Goldman’s fraud? Why have there been no criminal charges? Why did the SEC only name a relatively low-level Goldman officer in its complaint? Where are the prosecutors?

In a December New York Times op ed, we, along with Frank Partnoy, asked for the public disclosure of AIG emails and key documents so that we can investigate the deceptive practices exposed by the Goldman case. Goldman used AIG to provide the CDS on most of these synthetic CDO deals (though not the particular one that is the subject of the SEC complaint), and Hank Paulson used tax payer money to secretly bail out Goldman when AIG’s deceptive practices drove it to failure.

The SEC’s Goldman fraud complaint points to fundamental problem in the financial sector that has been at the root of the financial crisis — one that still exists today. The market is not transparent. It has been fraudulently manipulated to enrich managers. Investors lack clear information to make decisions about what they are buying. A continuing absence of real consumer protections makes people like those trying to obtain mortgages before the crash understand that they were, in many cases, being ripped off. According to internal Goldman Sachs e-mails, the company vice president, 31-year old Fabrice Tourre, did not really understand the complex deals he was making. And yet we note that many of these Goldman-style deals were “insured” by AIG. Without transparency, regulators cannot properly see all these kinds of deals in the aggregate. So they can neither stop the fraud nor prevent catastrophic results.

We applaud the SEC lawsuit, but it will not solve the problem. Unless our financial system is reformed to put adequate protections and checks and balances in place, we can expect this kind of fraud to continue. Financial executives will continue to take risks they do not understand. Those who control the flow of capital will continue to churn out profits with socially disastrous consequences.

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