The (Investment) House Always Wins

April 22nd, 2010 by Phil Mattera

Goldman Sachs, which has long prided itself on being one of the smartest operators on Wall Street, has apparently decided that the best way to defend itself against federal fraud charges is to plead incompetence. The firm is taking the position that it is not guilty of misleading investors in a 2007 issue of mortgage securities because it allegedly lost money – more than $90 million, it claims – on its own stake in the deal.

In fact, Goldman would have us believe that it took a bath in the overall mortgage security arena. This story line is a far cry from the one put forth a couple of years ago, when the firm was being celebrated for anticipating the collapse in the mortgage market and shielding itself – though not its clients. In a November 2007 front-page article headlined “Goldman Sachs Rakes in Profit in Credit Crisis,” the New York Times reported that the firm “continued to package risky mortgages to sell to investors” while it reduced its own holdings in such securities and bought “expensive insurance as protection against further losses.” In 2007 Goldman posted a profit of $11.6 billion (up from $9.5 billion the year before), and CEO Lloyd Blankfein took home $70 million in compensation (not counting another $45 million in value he realized upon the vesting of previously granted stock awards). Some bath.

Goldman is not the only one rewriting financial history. Many of the firm’s mainstream critics are talking as if it is unheard of for an investment bank to act contrary to the interests of its clients, as Goldman is accused of doing by failing to disclose that it allowed hedge fund operator John Paulson to choose a set of particularly toxic mortgage securities for Goldman to peddle while Paulson was betting heavily that those securities would tank.

In fact, the history of Wall Street is filled with examples in which investment houses sought to hoodwink investors. Rampant stock manipulation, conflicts of interest and other fraudulent practices exposed by the Pecora Commission prompted the regulatory reforms of the 1930s. Those reforms reduced but did not eliminate shady practices. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a series of scandals involving firms on the American Stock Exchange that in 1964 inspired Congress to impose stricter disclosure requirements for over-the-counter securities.

The corporate takeover frenzy of the 1980s brought with it a wave of insider trading scandals. The culprits in these cases involved not only independent speculators such as Ivan Boesky, but also executives at prominent investment houses, above all Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham. Also caught in the net was Robert Freeman, head of risk arbitrage at Goldman, who in 1989 pleaded guilty to criminal charges. When players such as Freeman and Milken traded on inside information, they were profiting at the expense of other investors, including their own clients, who were not privy to that information.

During the past decade, various major banks were accused of helping crooked companies deceive investors. For example, in 2004 Citigroup agreed to pay $2.7 billion to settle such charges brought in connection with WorldCom and later paid $1.7 billion to former Enron investors. In 2005 Goldman and three other banks paid $100 million to settle charges in connection with WorldCom.

In other words, the allegation that Goldman was acting contrary to the interest of its clients in the sale of synthetic collateralized debt obligations was hardly unprecedented.

What’s not getting much attention during the current scandal is that in late 2007 Goldman had found another way to profit by exploiting its clients, though in this case the clients were not investors but homeowners.

Goldman quietly purchased a company called Litton Loan Servicing, a leading player in the business of servicing subprime (and frequently predatory) home mortgages. “Servicing” in this case means collecting payments from homeowners who frequently fall behind in payments and are at risk of foreclosure. As I wrote in 2008, Litton is “a type of collection agency dealing with those in the most vulnerable and desperate financial circumstances.” At the end of 2009, Litton was the 4th largest subprime servicer, with a portfolio of some $52 billion (National Mortgage News 4/5/2010).

Litton has frequently been charged with engaging in abusive practices, including the imposition of onerous late fees that allegedly violate the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. It has also been accused of being overly aggressive in pushing homeowners into foreclosure when they can’t make their payments.

Many of these complaints have ended up in court. According to the Justia database, Litton has been sued more than 300 times in federal court since the beginning of 2007. That year a federal judge in California granted class-action status to a group of plaintiffs, but the court later limited the scope of the potential damages, resulting in a settlement in which Litton agreed to pay out $500,000.

Meanwhile, individual lawsuits continue to be filed. Many of the more recent ones involve disputes over loan modifications. Complaints in this area persist even though Litton is participating in the Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program and is thus eligible for incentive payments through an extension of the Toxic Assets Relief Program.

There seems to be no end to the ways that Goldman manages to make money from toxic assets.  On Wall Street, as in Las Vegas, the house always wins.

BONUS FEATURE: Federal regulation of business leaves a lot to be desired, but it is worth knowing where to find information on those enforcement activities that are occurring. The Dirt Diggers Digest can help with our new Enforcement page, which has links to online enforcement data from a wide range of federal agencies. The page also includes links to inspection data, product recall announcements and lists of companies debarred from doing business with the federal government.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.