SEC Charges Goldman with Fraud

Press release here. Complaint here. The allegation is that Goldman failed to disclose the role that John Paulson’s hedge fund played in selecting residential mortgage-backed securities that went into a CDO created by Goldman. Here’s paragraph 3 of the complaint:

“In sum, GS&Co arranged a transaction at Paulson’s request in which Paulson heavily influenced the selection of the portfolio to suit its economic interests, but failed to disclose to investors, as part of the description of the portfolio selection process contained in the marketing materials used to promote the transaction, Paulson’s role in the portfolio selection process or its adverse economic interests.”

The problem is that the marketing documents claimed that the securities were selected by ACA Management, a third-party CDO manager, when in fact the selection decisions were influenced by Paulson’s fund. Goldman had a duty to disclose that influence, especially since Paulson was simultaneously shorting the CDO. (According to paragraph 2 of the complain, he bought the credit default swaps from Goldman itself. I used to wonder about this; if he bought the CDS from another bank, then Goldman could claim it didn’t know he was shorting the CDO, implausible as that claim might be. But in this case Goldman must have known.)

It seems like the key will be proving that Paulson influenced the selection of securities enough that it should have been in the marketing documents. Paragraphs 25-35 include quotations from emails showing that Paulson was effectively negotiating with ACA over the composition of the CDO, so it’s pretty clear he had influence. The defense will presumably be that ACA had final signoff on the securities, and Paulson was just providing advice, so Paulson’s role did not need to be disclosed. (I don’t know what kind of standard will be applied here.)

The complaint also alleges that Goldman misled ACA into thinking that Paulson had a long position in the CDO via the equity tranche, while in fact Goldman knew all along that he would short the debt tranches. It seems pretty clear that that’s what ACA believed. The implication is that had ACA realized that Paulson was shorting the CDO, they would not have gone along with the deal.

One of the things I say now and then that most annoys people is that the financial crisis was not caused by criminal behavior. (Note: The “Prayer for the Relief” at the end of the complaint only asks for civil penalties, but I suppose this does not preclude a criminal action — someone who’s a real lawyer could answer that.) My general line is that I’m sure there was some bad behavior that rose to the level of criminal liability — like lying in disclosure documents — but that it wasn’t necessary for the crisis, and we could have had the crisis without any criminal activity at all. (For example, since most investors weren’t even reading the disclosure documents, Goldman could have said that Paulson was involved in the security selection, and then everything would have been hunky-dory.) For the most part, the ideological takeover and the resulting non-regulatory environment that we discuss in 13 Bankers were enough to do the job.

And I don’t think this action contradicts my general point. I would love it if the SEC could nail banks for some of the CDOs they created, but I’m still betting that the vast majority will not create legal liability for them.

The type of transaction involved — in which a hedge fund makes a CDO as toxic as possible in order to then short it — is similar to the Magnetar trade, which I discussed earlier. One thing we learn from paragraph 5 is that Paulson sure knew how to pick ‘em:

“The deal closed on April 26, 2007. Paulson paid GS&Co approximately $15 million for structuring and marketing ABACUS 2007-AC1. By October 24, 2007, 83% of the RMBS in the ABACUS 2007-AC1 portfolio had been downgraded and 17% were on negative watch. By January 29, 2008, 99% of the portfolio had been downgraded. As a result, investors in the ABACUS 2007-AC1 CDO lost over $1 billion. Paulson’s opposite CDS positions yielded a profit of approximately $1 billion for Paulson.”

And once again, no doubt to the annoyance of many, I don’t blame Paulson. It’s Goldman that had the duty to its investors, not Paulson.

Fabrice Tourre of Goldman, however, who is named as a defendant? Well, he will forever be identified by the email quoted in paragraph 18, whatever it means:

“At the same time, GS&Co recognized that market conditions were presenting challenges to the successful marketing of CDO transactions backed by mortgage-related securities. For example, portions of an email in French and English sent by Tourre to a friend on January 23, 2007 stated, in English translation where applicable: ‘More and more leverage in the system, The whole building is about to collapse anytime now…Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab[rice Tourre]…standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!’ Similarly, an email on February 11, 2007 to Tourre from the head of the GS&Co structured product correlation trading desk stated in part, ‘the cdo biz is dead, we don’t have a lot of time left.’”

Originally published at The Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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