Friday, May 21, 2010

The War on Wall Street

When President Obama signs the new financial regulation act the government will assume sweeping new powers over Wall Street. The passage of this bill did not occur in a vacuum. The administration carefully laid the groundwork by inculcating public fear that the great financial houses betray investors by rigging securities to fail. Exhibit A: the SEC's recent fraud case against Goldman Sachs.
The agency's complaint alleges that Goldman Sachs defrauded the investors in its Abacus 2007-AC1 fund by not disclosing the role played in the fund's creation by John Paulson, a hedge fund operator who stood to make an immense profit if the fund failed. It might be a great conspiracy case-if the SEC could come up with a plausible conspiracy.
Mr. Paulson wanted to make a billion dollar wager that subprime-backed mortgages would collapse. So he went to Goldman Sachs, which, like the other major financial houses, is in the business of creating such customized gambling products for clients.
For a $15 million fee from Mr. Paulson, Goldman created Abacus 2007-AC1. It provided exposure to a portfolio of 90 subprime home mortgage-backed securities. If the underlying securities did not default, those who took the long side of Abacus would collect handsome profits. If the housing bubble burst, those who took the short side would win heavily.
Goldman found three participants to bet long-ACA Capital Holdings, a bond insurer, IKB Deutsche Industriebank (a Germany-based specialist in mortgage securities), and itself. ACA went long on the deal. It sold a $900 million credit default swap on Abacus and even invested about $40 million in the Abacus deal itself. ACA's wholly owned subsidiary, ACA Management, had sole authority to pick every one of the 90 securities in the portfolio. IKB bought $150 million worth of Abacas's notes, and Goldman put up $90 million to complete the financing.
Mr. Paulson was the lone short, buying ACA's credit default swap from Goldman. All four participants in the Abacus deal had the same data about the 90 underlying securities. What separated them was their opinion of the direction of the housing market. Mr. Paulson felt it was headed toward a collapse; ACA considered this so unlikely that it gave nearly 20 to 1 odds on its credit default swap. Mr. Paulson won the bet.
So where is the fraud? The SEC says Goldman withheld material information from ACA and IKB by not disclosing the history of the deal, including Paulson's role in the creation of Abacus. Of course, ACA knew someone was short the deal, since it sold Goldman a $900 million credit default swap precisely for that purpose. Goldman did not say that Mr. Paulson was that counterparty. But his identity may not have been a mystery to ACA.
Mr. Paulson's top lieutenant in the deal, Paolo Pellegrini, testified to the SEC in its investigation of the matter in 2008 that he had informed ACA Management that Paulson's hedge fund was betting against the transaction. If so-and Mr. Pellegrini had no reason to perjure himself since he had no obligation to disclose anything-ACA possessed the information that Goldman withheld, and went ahead with the deal. IKB bank, which bought Abacus's AAA-rated notes, may not have known about Mr. Paulson's role in Abacus.
The real issue here turns on the term "material," which the SEC defines as facts an investor would reasonably want to know before making an investment. The agency contends that Mr. Paulson's role in suggesting securities to ACA was "material." Prior to this case, the SEC did not always consider a deal's history material, taking the position in hundreds of other such deals that how a fund was constructed, including how its rating was achieved with rating agencies, did not require disclosure. That was before Wall Street became a political bete noire.
Nevertheless, the SEC voted in split decision (all the Republicans voting against) to accuse Goldman of civil fraud. It alleges that Mr. Paulson "heavily influenced" ACA Management to pick losers but provides no theory as to why ACA Management, whose corporate parent was risking $940 million, would do anything but pick the least risky subprime bonds. As it turned out, the subprime securities ACA picked for the portfolio failed. But so did the vast majority of securities based on subprime mortgages. Since 99% of them were marked down by the rating agencies by the end of 2008, Abacus would have likely suffered the same fate had ACA picked 90 other such securities.
ACA's losses on Abacus were less than 5% of the $22 billion in losses it suffered in its other subprime funds (in which Mr. Paulson was not involved). When the time came to pay off the Abacus wager, ACA, hit by $68 billion in credit default swaps, couldn't make good. Its Abacus debt fell to the Dutch bank ABN-AMRO, which had back-stopped ACA. The Royal Bank of Scotland, which had the misfortune of merging with the Dutch bank, paid Mr. Paulson.
No one can fault the SEC for wanting to restore faith in Wall Street by ferreting out financial frauds. But its case against Goldman Sachs does not add up. It implies a conspiracy without co-conspirators. If Goldman had designed its own fund to fail, it could have retained the credit default swap it got from ACA for its own account rather than selling it to Mr. Paulson. Instead, it invested $90 million of its own money into Abacus. Goldman's records showed it lost $75 million (after taking its $15 million fees into account). The SEC has issued no complaint against Mr. Paulson in this deal.
Not only is there no motive or logic for Goldman to have sabotaged its own fund, but the SEC complaint fails to cite any evidence it did. Nevertheless, it has brilliantly succeeded in implanting that idea in the media. On April 18, Paul Krugman stated in his New York Times column that "the S.E.C. is charging that Goldman created and marketed securities that were deliberately designed to fail, so that an important client could make money off that failure. That's what I would call looting." In fact, the SEC complaint never alleges that Goldman deliberately designed any securities to fail.
Even though the widely echoed "designed to fail" charge is an invention, it helped convert a civil case of nondisclosure into one of Grand Theft Wall Street in the public imagination. The message-Wall Street deliberately betrays investors-served a political end. It helped provide cover for the government's desire to manage the financial universe.

(This piece was in Wall Street Journal May 22)