How Goldman Secretly Bet on the U.S. Housing Crash

McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Sun, Nov. 01, 2009

Greg Gordon | McClatchy Newspapers

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November 01, 2009 01:17:44 AM

WASHINGTON — In 2006 and 2007, Goldman Sachs Group peddled more than $40 billion in securities backed by at least 200,000 risky home mortgages, but never told the buyers it was secretly betting that a sharp drop in U.S. housing prices would send the value of those securities plummeting.

Goldman’s sales and its clandestine wagers, completed at the brink of the housing market meltdown, enabled the nation’s premier investment bank to pass most of its potential losses to others before a flood of mortgage defaults staggered the U.S. and global economies.

Only later did investors discover that what Goldman had promoted as triple-A rated investments were closer to junk.

Now, pension funds, insurance companies, labor unions and foreign financial institutions that bought those dicey mortgage securities are facing large losses, and a five-month McClatchy investigation has found that Goldman’s failure to disclose that it made secret, exotic bets on an imminent housing crash may have violated securities laws.

“The Securities and Exchange Commission should be very interested in any financial company that secretly decides a financial product is a loser and then goes out and actively markets that product or very similar products to unsuspecting customers without disclosing its true opinion,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor who’s proposed a massive overhaul of the nation’s banks. “This is fraud and should be prosecuted.”

John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor who served on an advisory committee to the New York Stock Exchange, said that investment banks have wide latitude to manage their assets, and so the legality of Goldman’s maneuvers depends on what its executives knew at the time.

“It would look much more damaging,” Coffee said, “if it appeared that the firm was dumping these investments because it saw them as toxic waste and virtually worthless.” [Read more…]

Dylan Ratigan Breaks Down the TARP Fiasco

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Matt Taibbi: “Wall Street’s Naked Swindle”

Big Banks Get Big Time Changes

Jun 17, 7:13 PM (ET)

hp3By JIM KUHNHENN and MARTIN CRUTSINGER

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON (AP) – From simple home loans to Wall Street’s most exotic schemes, the government would impose and enforce sweeping new “rules of the road” for the nation’s battered financial system under an overhaul proposed Wednesday by President Barack Obama.

Aimed at preventing a repeat of the worst economic crisis in seven decades, the changes would begin to reverse a determined campaign pressed in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan to cut back on federal regulations.

Obama’s plan would do little to streamline the alphabet soup of agencies that oversee the financial sector. But it calls for fundamental shifts in authority that would eliminate one regulatory agency, create another and both enhance and undercut the authority of the powerful Federal Reserve.

The new agency, a consumer protection office, would specifically take over oversight of mortgages, requiring that lenders give customers the option of “plain vanilla” plans with straightforward and affordable terms. Lenders who repackage loans and sell them to investors as securities would be required to retain 5 percent of the credit risk – a figure some analysts believe is too low.

In all, the Obama’s broad proposal cheered consumer advocates and dismayed the banking industry with its proposed creation of a regulator to protect consumers in all their banking transactions, from mortgages to credit cards. Large insurers protested the administration’s decision not to impose a standard, federal regulation on the insurance industry, leaving it to the separate states as at present. Mutual funds succeeded in staying under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission instead of the new consumer protection agency.

Obama cast his proposals as an attempt to find a middle ground between the benefits and excesses of capitalism.

“We are called upon to put in place those reforms that allow our best qualities to flourish – while keeping those worst traits in check,” Obama said.

The president’s plan lands in the lap of a Congress already preoccupied by historic health care legislation, consideration of a new Supreme Court justice and other major issues. Still, Obama has set an ambitious schedule, pushing lawmakers to adopt a new regulatory regime by year’s end.

“We’ll have it done this year,” pledged Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

“Absolutely,” agreed Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

But fissures quickly developed.

Dodd, who had been at Obama’s side in the East Room of the White House for the announcement, raised questions about one of the plan’s key features – giving the Federal Reserve authority to oversee the largest and most interconnected players in the financial world.

“There’s not a lot of confidence in the Fed at this point,” Dodd said.

Obama’s proposal would require the Federal Reserve, which now can independently use emergency powers to bail out failing banks, to first obtain Treasury Department approval before extending credit to institutions in “unusual and exigent circumstances,” a change designed to mollify critics who say the Fed should be more accountable in exercising its powers as a lender of last resort.

But the proposal also would do away with a restriction imposed on the Fed in 1999 when Congress lifted Depression-era restrictions that allowed banks to get into securities and insurance businesses. The Fed, as the regulator for the larger financial holding companies, had been prohibited from examining or imposing restrictions on those firms’ subsidiaries. Obama’s proposal specifically lifts that restriction, giving the Fed the ability to duplicate and even overrule other regulators. At the same time, the new consumer agency would take away some of the Fed’s authority.

Fed defenders argue that none of the major institutional collapses – AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros., Merrill Lynch or Countrywide – were supervised by the Federal Reserve. Critics argue the Fed failed to crack down on dubious mortgage practices that were at the heart of the crisis.

Administration officials concede their plan responds to the current crisis- in national security terms, it prepares them to fight the last war. But they also insist that a central tenet of their plan is a requirement that from now on financial institutions will have to keep more money in reserve – the best hedge against another meltdown.

That may appear to be a no-brainer: If banks and other large institutions have more money, they won’t be vulnerable if their risky bets go bad.

However, banking regulators have been arguing for years over implementation of an international standard for bank capital. Geithner said Wednesday hoped to move on enhanced capital standards “in parallel with the rest of the world.”

Obama’s overall plan, laid out in an 88-page white paper, was the result of extensive consultations with members of Congress, regulators and industry groups and represented a compromise from bolder ideas the administration ended up abandoning because of heavy opposition.

The plan had its share of winners and losers, both inside and outside government.

Sheila Bair, the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., lost her campaign to have a regulatory council, not the Fed, regulate large firms whose failure could undermine the entire system. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro also had expressed support for Bair’s push for a more powerful risk council.

The regulatory overhaul ended up eliminating only one agency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, generally considered a weak link among current banking regulators. The OTS oversaw the American International Group, whose business insuring exotic securities blew up last fall, prompting a $182 billion federal bailout.

The failure to merge all four current banking agencies into one super regulator could open the door for big banks to continue to exploit weak links in the current system. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a leading Democratic voice on Wall Street issues, praised the administration’s plan but said he would consider further consolidation.

“We’re removing one major agency-shopping opportunity, but there’s a real potential for others,” said Patricia McCoy, a law professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied bank failures.

Associated Press writers Marcy Gordon, Anne Flaherty, Jeannine Aversa and Stevenson Jacobs contributed to this report.

The Quiet Coup :: Simon Johnson

The Quiet Coup

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The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

SIMON JOHNSON

ATLANTIC MAGAZINE

One thing you learn rather quickly when working at the International Monetary Fund is that no one is ever very happy to see you. Typically, your “clients” come in only after private capital has abandoned them, after regional trading-bloc partners have been unable to throw a strong enough lifeline, after last-ditch attempts to borrow from powerful friends like China or the European Union have fallen through. You’re never at the top of anyone’s dance card.

The reason, of course, is that the IMF specializes in telling its clients what they don’t want to hear. I should know; I pressed painful changes on many foreign officials during my time there as chief economist in 2007 and 2008. And I felt the effects of IMF pressure, at least indirectly, when I worked with governments in Eastern Europe as they struggled after 1989, and with the private sector in Asia and Latin America during the crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over that time, from every vantage point, I saw firsthand the steady flow of officials—from Ukraine, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, and elsewhere—trudging to the fund when circumstances were dire and all else had failed.

Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately needed help when its short-term-debt rollover scheme exploded in the summer of 1998; the Indonesian rupiah plunged in 1997, nearly leveling the corporate economy; that same year, South Korea’s 30-year economic miracle ground to a halt when foreign banks suddenly refused to extend new credit.

But I must tell you, to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work. Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.

No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. When a country like Indonesia or South Korea or Russia grows, so do the ambitions of its captains of industry. As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon—correctly, in most cases—that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise.

In Russia, for instance, the private sector is now in serious trouble because, over the past five years or so, it borrowed at least $490 billion from global banks and investors on the assumption that the country’s energy sector could support a permanent increase in consumption throughout the economy. As Russia’s oligarchs spent this capital, acquiring other companies and embarking on ambitious investment plans that generated jobs, their importance to the political elite increased. Growing political support meant better access to lucrative contracts, tax breaks, and subsidies. And foreign investors could not have been more pleased; all other things being equal, they prefer to lend money to people who have the implicit backing of their national governments, even if that backing gives off the faint whiff of corruption. [Read more…]

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