My first reaction, upon reading about the SEC’s complaint against Goldman Sachs was to shrug. Basically, the SEC claims that Goldman failed to disclose a conflict of interest in a deal the firm arranged, that perhaps Goldman even misdirected and misimplied and failed to correct impressions that were untrue but helpful in getting the deal done. If that’s the worst the SEC could dig up, I thought, there’s way too much that’s legal. Had you asked me, early Friday afternoon, what would happen, I would have pointed to the “global settlement” seven years ago. Then as now, investment banks were caught fibbing to keep the deal flow going (then via equity analysts who hyped stocks they privately did not admire). The settlement got a lot of press, the banks were slapped with fines that sounded big but didn’t matter, promises were made about “chinese walls” and stuff, nothing much changed.
But Goldman’s PR people have once again proved themselves to be masters of ineptitude. Haven’t those guys ever heard, “it’s not the crime, but the cover up”? The SEC threw Goldman a huge softball by focusing almost entirely on the fibs of a guy who calls himself “the fabulous Fab” and makes bizarre apocalyptic boasts. Given the apparent facts of this case, phrases like “bad apple” and “regret” and “large organization” and “improved controls” would have been apropos. It’s almost poignant: The smart thing for Goldman would be to hang this fab Fab out to dry, but whether out of loyalty or arrogance the firm is standing by its man.
But Goldman’s attempts to justify what occurred, rather than dispute the facts or apologize, could be the firm’s death warrant. The brilliant can be so blind.
The core issues are simple. Goldman arranged the construction of a security, a “synthetic CDO”, which it then marketed to investors. No problem there, that’s part of what Goldman does. Further, the deal wasn’t Goldman’s idea. The firm was working to serve a client, John Paulson, who had a bearish view of the housing market and was looking for a vehicle by which he could invest in that view. Again, no problem. I’d argue even argue that, had Goldman done its job well, it would have done a public service by finding ways to get bearish views into a market that was structurally difficult to short and prone to overpricing.
Goldman could, quite ethically, have acted as a broker. Had there been some existing security that Paulson wished to sell short, the firm might have borrowed that security on Paulson’s behalf and sold it to a willing buyer without making any representations whatsoever about the nature of the security or the identity of its seller. Apparently, however, the menu of available securities was insufficient to express Paulson’s view. Fine. Goldman could have tailored a security or derivative contract to Paulson’s specifications and found a counterparty willing to take the other side of the bet in full knowledge of the disagreement. Goldman needn’t (and shouldn’t) proffer an opinion on the substantive economic issue (was the subprime RMBS market going to implode or not?). Investors get to disagree. But it did need to ensure that all parties to an arrangement that it midwifed understood the nature of the disagreement, the substance of the bet each side was taking. And it did need to ensure that the parties knew there was a disagreement.
Goldman argues that the nature of the security was such that “sophisticated investors” would know that they were taking one of two opposing positions in a disagreement. On this, Goldman is simply full of it:
Extensive Disclosure Was Provided. IKB, a large German Bank and sophisticated CDO market participant and ACA Capital Management, the two investors, were provided extensive information about the underlying mortgage securities. The risk associated with the securities was known to these investors, who were among the most sophisticated mortgage investors in the world. These investors also understood that a synthetic CDO transaction necessarily included both a long and short side. [bold original, italics mine]
The line I’ve italicized is the sole inspiration for this rambling jeremiad. That line is so absurd, brazen, and misleading that I snorted when I encountered it. Of course it is true, in a formal sense. Every financial contract — every security or derivative or insurance policy — includes both long and short positions. Financial contracts are promises to pay. There is always a payer and a payee, and the payee is “long” certain states of the world while the payer is short. When you buy a share of IBM, you are long IBM and the firm itself has a short position. Does that mean, when you purchase IBM, you are taking sides in a disagreement with IBM, with IBM betting that it will collapse and never pay a dividend while you bet it will succeed and be forced to pay? No, of course not. There are many, many occasions when the interests of long investors and the interests of short investors are fully aligned. When IBM issues new shares, all of its stakeholders — preexisting shareholders, managers, employees — hope that IBM will succeed, and may have no disagreement whatsoever on its prospects. Old stakeholders commit to pay dividends to new shareholders because managers believe the cash they receive up front will enable business activity worth more than the extra cost. New shareholders buy the shares because they agree with old stakeholders’ optimism. The existence of a long side and a short side need imply no disagreement whatsoever.
So why did Goldman put that line in their deeply misguided press release? One word: derivatives. The financially interested community, like any other group of humans, has its unexamined clichés. One of those is that derivatives are zero sum contests between ‘long’ investors and ‘short’ investors whose interests are diametrically opposed and who transact only because they disagree. By making CDOs, synthetic CDOs sound like derivatives, Goldman is trying to imply that investors must have known they were playing against an opponent, taking one side of a zero-sum gamble that they happened to lose.
Of course that’s bullshit. Synthetic CDOs are constructed, in part, from derivatives. (They are built by mixing ultrasafe “collateral securities” like Treasury bonds with credit default swap positions, and credit default swaps are derivatives.) But investments in synthetic CDOs are not derivatives, they are securities. While the constituent credit default swaps “necessarily” include both a long and a short position, the synthetic CDOs include both a long and a short position only in the same way that IBM shares include both a long and a short position. Speculative short interest in whole CDOs was rare, much less common than for shares of IBM. Investors might have understood, in theory, that a short-seller could buy protection on a diversified portfolio of credit default swaps that mimicked the CDO “reference portfolio”, or could even buy protection on tranches of the CDO itself to express a bearish view on the structure. But CDO investors would not expect that anyone was actually doing this. It would seem like a dumb idea, since CDO portfolios were supposed to be chosen and diversified to reduce the risk of loss relative to holding any particular one of its constituents, and senior tranches were protected by overcollateralization and priority. Most of a CDO’s structure was AAA debt, generally viewed as a means of earning low-risk yield, not as a vehicle for speculation. Synthetic CDOs were composed of CDS positions backed by many unrelated counterparties, not one speculative seller. Goldman’s claim that “market makers do not disclose the identities of a buyer to a seller” is laughable and disingenuous. A CDO, synthetic or otherwise, is a newly formed investment company. Typically there is no identifiable “seller”. The investment company takes positions with an intermediary, which then hedges its exposure in transactions with a variety of counterparties. The fact that there was a “seller” in this case, and his role in “sponsoring” the deal, are precisely what ought to have been disclosed. Investors would have been surprised by the information, and shocked to learn that this speculative short had helped determine the composition of the structure’s assets. That information would not only have been material, it would have been fatal to the deal, because the CDO’s investors did not view themselves as speculators.
I have little sympathy for CDO investors. Wait, scratch that. I have a great deal of sympathy for the beneficial investors in CDOs, for the workers whose pensions won’t be there or the students at colleges strapped for resources after their endowments were hit. But I have no sympathy for their agents and delegates, the well-paid “professionals” who placed funds entrusted them in a foolish, overhyped fad. But what investment managers believed about their hula-hoop is not what Goldman now hints that they believed. Investors in synthetic CDOs did not view themselves as taking one side of a speculative gamble against a “short” holding opposite views. They had a theory about their investments that involved no disagreement whatsoever, no conflict between longs and shorts. It went like this:
There is a great deal of demand for safe assets in the world right now, and insufficient supply at reasonable yields. So, investors are synthesizing safe assets by purchasing riskier debt (like residential mortgage-backed securities) and buying credit default swaps to protect themselves. All that hedging is driving up the price of CDS protection to attractive levels, given the relative safety of the bonds. We might be interested in capturing those cash flows, but we also want safe debt. So, we propose to diversify across a large portfolio of overpriced CDS and divide the cash flows from the diversified portfolio into tranches. If we do this, those with “first claims” on the money should be able to earn decent yields with very little risk.
I don’t want to say anything nice about that story. The idea that an investor should earn perfectly safe, above-risk-free yields via blind diversification, with little analysis of the real economic basis for their investment, is offensive to me and, events have shown, was false. But this was the story that justified the entire synthetic CDO business, and it involved no disagreement among investors. According to the story, the people buying the overpriced CDS protection, the “shorts” were not hoping or expressing a view that their bonds would fail. They were hedging, protecting themselves against the possibility of failure. There needn’t have been any disagreement about price. The RMBS investors may have believed that they were overpaying for protection, just as CDO buyers did, just as we all knowingly and happily overpay for insurance on our homes. Shedding great risk is worth accepting a small negative expected return. That derivatives are a zero-sum game may be a cliché, but it is false. Derivatives are zero-sum games in a financial sense, but they can be positive sum games in an economic sense, because hedgers are made better off when they shed risk, even when they overpay speculators in expected value terms to do so. (If there are “natural” hedgers on both sides of the market, no one need overpay and the potential economic benefits of derivatives are even stronger. But there are few natural protection sellers in the CDS market.)
Goldman claims to have lost money on the CDO it created for Paulson. Perhaps the bankers thought Paulson was a patsy, that his bearish bets were idiotic and they were doing investors no harm by hiding his futile meddling. Perhaps, as Felix Salmon suggests, the employees doing the deal had little reason to care about whether the part of the structure Goldman retained performed, as long as they could book a fee. It is likely that even if Paulson had had nothing to do with the deal, the CDO would still have failed, given how catastrophically idiotic RMBS-backed CDOs were soon revealed to be.
But all of that is irrelevant, assuming the SEC has the facts right. Investors in Goldman’s deal reasonably thought that they were buying a portfolio that had been carefully selected by a reputable manager whose sole interest lay in optimizing the performance of the CDO. They no more thought they were trading “against” short investors than investors in IBM or Treasury bonds do. In violation of these reasonable expectations, Goldman arranged that a party whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of investors would have significant influence over the selection of the portfolio. Goldman misrepresented that party’s role to the manager and failed to disclose the conflict of interest to investors. That’s inexcusable. Was it illegal? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Given the amount of CYA boilerplate in Goldman’s presentation of the deal, maybe they immunized themselves. But the firm’s behavior was certainly unethical. If Goldman cannot acknowledge that, I can’t see how investors going forward could place any sort of trust in the firm. Whatever does or does not happen in Washington D.C., Goldman Sachs needs to reform or die.