The Goldman Sachs Rogue Money Machine Keeps Humming

January 3rd, 2013 by Phil Mattera

While Congress and the Obama Administration were busy with their fiscal cliff negotiations on New Year’s Eve, Goldman Sachs quietly submitted a batch of filings to the SEC about its own tax initiative. The rogue investment banking firm said it would accelerate the payment of $65 million in stock awards to ten executives, including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, so that they would be subject to 2012 tax rates rather than the expected higher 2013 levels.

Goldman is not the only firm to use the calendar as a form of tax avoidance. Wal-Mart did the same for its shareholders by speeding up the payment of dividends—a boon worth an estimated $180 million for the controlling Walton Family.

Yet there is something particularly galling about this behavior on the part of Goldman, which played such a large role in the financial crisis that, much more than the federal deficit and debt on which Washington is fixated, brought about our current economic problems. Despite facing various federal prosecutions and investor lawsuits, Goldman continues to reward its top people lavishly while begrudging a bit of extra money to Uncle Sam. That is the same the federal government which provided $10 billion in bailout aid and virtually interest-free borrowing to help Goldman get through the crisis (and declined to bring criminal charges against it).

I came across the news about the timing of Goldman’s stock awards just as I was finishing my first Corporate Rap Sheet of the new year, which is about none other than Goldman. I thought I would use this week’s Dirt Diggers to summarize the sordid track record of the firm.

Goldman Sachs, once lionized as the premier “money machine” of Wall Street has in the past few years become synonymous with greed and duplicity. A firm that long prided itself on putting the interests of its clients first was revealed to have repeatedly sold securities that it fully expected to plunge in value. Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s depiction of Goldman as “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” and Greg Smith’s reference to Goldman as “toxic and destructive” in a New York Times op-ed announcing his departure from the firm are two of the most frequently quoted phrases about the financial crisis.

Goldman’s reputation was beginning to unravel even before the financial crisis:

  • In 2003 it paid $110 million as its share of a global settlement by ten firms with federal, state and industry regulators concerning alleged conflicts of interest between their research and investment banking activities.
  • In 2005 the SEC announced that Goldman would pay a civil penalty of $40 million to resolve allegations that it violated rules relating to the allocation of stock to institutional customers in initial public offerings.
  • In 2006 Goldman was one of 15 financial services companies that were fined a total of $13 million in connection with SEC charges that they violated rules relating to auction-rate securities. In another case relating to auction-rate securities brought by the New York State Attorney General, Goldman was fined $22.5 million in 2008.

When the crisis erupted in 2008, Goldman gave in to pressure from federal regulators to convert itself into a bank holding company and received a $5 billion capital infusion from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Goldman also received $10 billion from the federal government’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). During this period, Goldman profited from subprime mortgages through its ownership of Litton Loan Servicing, which it sold in 2011 in the wake of numerous abuse allegations.

The forced restructuring of Wall Street took place largely under the direction of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who resigned as Goldman’s CEO in 2006 to take the post at the request of President George W. Bush. Although Paulson was required to liquidate his sizeable Goldman holdings before moving to Treasury, his actions during the 2008 crisis were widely criticized as working to the benefit of his former firm. Chief among these was the allegation that he allowed Lehman Brothers to collapse while taking pains to bail out insurance giant A.I.G., which had extensive dealings with Goldman and which used its federal support to pay off its obligations at 100 cents on the dollar. In the case of Goldman, this amounted to $12.9 billion.

Goldman soon became the leading symbol of the excesses that led up to the financial meltdown. The Taibbi quote was the most colorful of many unflattering depictions of the firm. Blankfein initially responded to the criticism by making the far-fetched claim that Goldman was doing “god’s work.”  When that did not go over well, he issued an apology for the firm’s mistakes and vowed to spend $500 million to help thousands of small businesses recover from the recession. That did little to rectify the situation.

In April 2010 the SEC accused Goldman of having committed securities fraud when it sold mortgage-related securities to investors without telling them that the investment vehicle, called Abacus, had been designed in consultation with hedge fund manager John Paulson (no relation to Hank Paulson), who chose securities he expected to decline in value and had shorted the portfolio. The Goldman product did indeed fall in value, causing institutional customers to lose more than $1 billion and Paulson to make a bundle. Paulson was not charged, but the SEC did name Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman vice president who helped create and sell the securities.

In July 2010 the SEC announced that Goldman would pay $550 million to settle the Abacus charges. The settlement also required Goldman to “reform its business practices” but did not oblige the firm to admit to wrongdoing. In January 2011 Goldman announced that an internal review of its policies in the wake of the SEC settlement had found that only limited changes were necessary. Others apparently saw matters differently:

  • In November 2010 FINRA fined Goldman $650,000 for failing to disclose that two of its registered representatives, including Fabrice Tourre, had been notified by the SEC that they were under investigation.
  • In March 2011 the SEC announced that it was bringing insider trading charges against former Goldman director Rajat Gupta. He was accused of providing illegal tips, including one about Warren Buffet’s $5 billion investment in Goldman in 2008, to hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam. (Gupta was later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.)
  • In April 2012 the SEC and FINRA fined Goldman $22 million for failing to prevent its employees from passing illegal stock tips to major customers.
  • In July 2012 a federal appeals court rejected an effort by Goldman to overturn a $20.5 million arbitrator’s award to investors in the failed hedge fund Bayou Group who had accused Goldman of helping to perpetuate a Ponzi scheme.
  • That same month, Goldman agreed to pay $26.6 million to settle a suit brought by the Public Employee’s Retirement System of Mississippi accusing it of defrauding investors in a 2006 offering of mortgage-backed securities.

Some good news for Goldman came in August 2012, when the Justice Department decided it would not proceed with a criminal investigation of the firm’s actions during the financial crisis and the SEC dropped an investigation of the firm’s role in a $1.3 billion subprime mortgage deal.  All in all, Goldman has emerged largely unscathed from these controversies. Its reputation may be in tatters, but its rogue money machine keeps humming.

The full Corporate Rap Sheet for Goldman can be found here.

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