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April 19, 2010

Goldman in the crosshairs

goldman-sachs-fbi-doj The inevitable SEC action against Goldman Sachs took the financial system by storm on Friday, so the weekend has been a feast of blogosphere analysis on the implications of the lawsuit. The best way to follow daily developments in the case is over at Clusterstock where Joe Weisenthal and Henry Blodget have their fingers on the blogosphereís pulse in regard to the SEC lawsuit.

The best analysis of the lawsuit that Iíve read in the blogosphere to date comes from Larry Ribstein, Erik Gerding and UHís Craig Pirrong. Read their posts and you will have a good understanding of the issues involved in the case.

Frankly, the SEC action against Goldman looks a lot more about public relations than effective regulation. As Blodget pointed out on Friday morning, the timing of the filing pushed the highly embarrassing SEC Inspectorís report on the SECís bungling of the investigation into Stanford Financial off the publicís radar screen. One would hope that the SECís due diligence in regard to its action against Goldman is better than its research into Stanford Financial, which was widely known in Houston financial and legal circles to be a sketchy outfit for over a decade before it blew up last year.

The key to the SEC's case is that Goldman apparently did not disclose to ACA nor IKB and ABN knew that uber-mortgage short specialist John Paulson was placing bets against the underlying securities upon which the synthetic CDO was based at the same time as Paulson was helping Goldman and ACA choose the underlying securities.

Thus, the theory goes, Paulson presumably had an incentive to enhance the failure of the securities. Accordingly, the SEC contends that Goldman and Paulson structured the deal to lose, that Goldman knew the investors wouldn't buy if they knew that, and that Goldman didn't disclose those details because it was making fees all over the place.

My sense is that the case is far from a slam dunk (see also here and here) for the SEC, but it probably doesn't make any difference. If Goldman defends itself and loses, then the trial penalty is that private civil lawsuits by other investors will use the judgment in favor of the SEC to establish liability against Goldman (interestingly, Goldman elected not to disclose its receipt of the Wells Notices related to the SEC lawsuit). Although Goldman could manage the payment of an SEC fine, damages in those civil lawsuits could seriously harm the firm.

Thus, my sense is that Goldman has to settle with the SEC, and probably for a good chunk of change to make the SEC look good. That will likely suit Goldman just fine because it would continue to distract the public from the far larger travesty, which was the way in which the federal government bailed Goldman out from its massive risk of loss in regard to AIG.

From a policy standpoint, the SEC action is a part of the Obama Administration's public relations campaign to promote federal regulation of the derivatives markets, a point that Professor Ribstein makes in this post:

In other words, the SEC, under pressure to come up with something on the eve of Congress's final push toward financial regulation comes with a case that the complaint makes clear is much more about the creation of systemic risk than about securities fraud.

This reflects, in part, the new Wall Street, more than three quarters of a century after the securities laws were enacted. Financial regulation is now much more about sophisticated market intermediaries than about individual investors who need somebody to ensure they have the truth about securities.

This is not to say that securities fraud is irrelevant. However, the SEC has struggled on that front Ė the Bank of America settlement, Madoff, Stanford.

And so now we are left with . . . Goldman.

Inasmuch as such regulation will allow federal regulators to exercise the same judgment in regard to derivatives regulation that it applied to regulating the likes of Stanford Financial and Bernie Madoff, count me as decidedly unconvinced that this development constitutes progress.

However, one positive aspect about the SECís complaint is that it provides a stark reminder to investors of the risk of doing business with the likes of Goldman. As Arnold Kling has been saying for years, perhaps it wouldnít be such a bad thing if investors didnít rely so much on the chauffered investment bankers of Wall Street and their friends in government.

Posted by Tom at April 19, 2010 12:01 AM |

Comments

I was hoping you'd post on this. I guessed what your opinion might be, but looked forward to your scan of the blogosphere for good reads.

Posted by: Howell Gwin Author Profile Page at April 19, 2010 10:18 AM

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