This is really a remarkable story. In today’s Boston Globe, Annie Linskey reports that banksters from JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup have threatened to withhold payoffs (let’s not be too squeamish about what we call these payments) to Senate Democrats unless they can get Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to shut up.
Warren has asked her supporters to raise $30,000 to make up the difference.
Interesting to see that Warren Buffett’s take on Goldman Sachs is essentially the same as mine. Goldman is being investigated on charges that it did not disclose to investors that hedge-fund manager John Paulson helped put together an investment vehicle that he then bet against.
Buffett’s view, writes Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times, is that such information is irrelevant as long as investors knew what they were buying. Buffett put it this way:
For the life of me, I don’t see whether it makes any difference whether it was John Paulson on the other side of the deal, or whether it was Goldman Sachs on the other side of the deal, or whether it was Berkshire Hathaway on the other side of the deal….
It’s very strange to say, at the end of the transaction, that if the other guy is smarter than you, that you have been defrauded. It seems to me that that’s what they are saying.
The scandal that nearly brought down the entire financial system wasn’t what was illegal — it was what was legal.
I think you have it just right. The ideologues, especially some New York Times reporters and liberal columnists, would like to deem Goldman’s conduct “fraud” of either the civil and/or criminal variety. From time to time, a sane and informed voice peeks through the miasma and realizes what is really going on — the SEC is trying to salvage is reputation by blaming the economic melt-down on fraudsters, rather than on the incompetence of Congress, the SEC, the Treasury Department, the Fed (why did Alan Greenspan keep interest rates so low for so long? one might usefully ask) and other regulators or would-be regulators.
While there was doubtless some fraud (for example, in the writing or sub-prime mortgages to home purchasers without adequate income or even jobs), a large measure of the blame for the meltdown goes to our government, that allowed the casino to proceed and that even provided low-interest-rate money to help finance it. Those of us who took notice, as the price of houses on our respective blocks continued to escalate to the point where we never could have bought our homes had we not done so years earlier (and way beyond what we knew the houses to be worth), realized something was amiss. But the big boys on Wall Street, blinded by the huge paydays and bonuses, just kept betting more and more.
The creation of synthetic vehicles, the only purpose of which appears to have been to magnify the amount of the bet without requiring a huge amount of capital to make the bet, made the situation infinitely worse, for the vehicles were so non-transparent that they achieved higher ratings from the rating agencies (or the underlying securities did) than they intrinsically deserved. And so the combination of incredible leverage, plus non-transparency of the underlying securities, was a formula for disaster. This is the great failure of government regulators (as well as the independent rating agencies, by the way, such as Standard & Poor, Moody’s, and so forth).
What bothers me is that the SEC is being allowed to get away with absolving its own grotesque errors and incompetence by shouting “fraud.” You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but….there comes a time when the game is up. To prevent this from happening again, sane government regulation of these markets is required, period.
Watch Silverglate talk about Goldman its similarities to the case of Michael Milken, whom Silverglate represented.
Keep an eye on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s case against Goldman Sachs. It’s hard to imagine a less sympathetic defendant than Goldman. That may be the problem, because evidence is already emerging to suggest regulators are concocting violations in order to punish sleazy but legal behavior.
In today’s New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum offers a useful analysis of the SEC’s civil suit against Goldman, which stands accused of defrauding investors. The story quotes experts who point out that those investors were fully informed about what they were buying. The only thing investors didn’t know was that a hedge-fund manager named John Paulson helped pick what went into the investment vehicles and then bet they would lose money, to the great benefit, as it turned out, of Goldman’s shareholders. [Note: The previous sentence has been corrected since this item was first posted.]
Elsewhere in the Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin asks, “Why was Goldman, or any regulated bank, allowed to create and sell a product like the synthetic collateralized debt obligation at the center of this case?” The key word in that sentence may be “allowed.”
The Goldman case seems similar to one investigated recently by ProPublica and the NPR program “This American Life” involving Magnetar, a hedge fund that created collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that it then bet against. Magnetar has been accused of deliberately making those CDOs as risky as possible and then shorting them, running up many tens of millions in profits when they failed. (Magnetar denied the accusation.)
According to the report, Magnetar’s dealings may have single-handedly extended the housing bubble for at least a year, making the subsequent crash much deeper than it otherwise would have been. Yet not only has there been no hint that there was anything illegal going on, but Magnetar itself is still in business.
(And by the way, if you haven’t heard the report, you should download the podcast. It is a rare model of clarity about an exceedingly murky subject. You will come away, as I did, actually knowing something about what CDOs are and why they were so harmful to the economy.)
Although the charges Goldman faces are civil rather than criminal, the story calls to mind my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate’s book “Three Felonies a Day,” which details the expansive reach of federal prosecutors who use vague laws (“conspiracy” is a favorite) in order to punish people and corporations they have targeted.
The news media ought to follow Appelbaum’s lead and be on alert against getting spun by tales of wrongdoing at Goldman. The real outrage may prove to be not what’s illegal but what’s legal. Perhaps a better story is whether the massive financial-regulation bill now being considered by Congress would outlaw the sort of behavior that made Goldman and Magnetar clients even richer than they already were — while leaving the economy in ruins.