Friday, April 16, 2010

SEC charges Goldman Sachs with civil fraud; criminal charges pending?

Goldman Sachs charged with fraud by SEC
(Reuters) -- By Jonathan Stempel and Steve Eder

NEW YORK -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc was charged with fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over its marketing of a subprime mortgage product, igniting a battle between Wall Street's most powerful bank and the nation's top securities regulator.

The civil lawsuit is the biggest crisis in years for a company that faced criticism over its pay and business practices after emerging from the global financial meltdown as Wall Street's most influential bank.

It may also make it more difficult for the industry to beat back calls for reform as lawmakers in Washington debate an overhaul of financial regulations.

Goldman called the lawsuit "completely unfounded," adding, "We did not structure a portfolio that was designed to lose money."

The lawsuit puts Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein further on the defensive after he told the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in January that the bank packaged complex debt, while also betting against the debt, because clients had the appetite.

"We are not a fiduciary," he said.

The case also involves John Paulson, a hedge fund investor whose firm Paulson & Co made billions of dollars by betting the nation's housing market would crash. This included an estimated $1 billion from the transaction detailed in the lawsuit, which the SEC said cost other investors more than $1 billion. Paulson was not charged.

Fabrice Tourre, a Goldman vice president whom the SEC said was mainly responsible for creating the questionable mortgage product, known as ABACUS, was charged with fraud.

Goldman shares slid 12.8 percent on Friday, closing down $23.57 at $160.70 on the New York Stock Exchange. The decline wiped out more than $12 billion of market value, and trading volume topped 100 million shares, Reuters data show.

The news dragged down broad U.S. equity indexes, which fell more than 1 percent. The perceived risk of owning Goldman debt, as measured by credit default swaps, increased. Treasury prices rose as investors sought safe-haven government debt.

MORE SEVERE THAN EXPECTED

"These charges are far more severe than anyone had imagined," and suggest Goldman teamed with "the leading short-seller in the industry to design a portfolio of securities that would crash," said John Coffee, a securities law professor at Columbia Law School in New York.

"The greatest penalty for Goldman is not the financial damages -- Goldman is enormously wealthy -- but the reputational damage," he said, adding that "it's not impossible" to contemplate that the case could lead to criminal charges. Coffee spoke on Reuters Insider...

E-mails from former Washington Mutual Inc CEO Kerry Killinger read aloud during a congressional hearing this week illustrated clients' concerns about working with Goldman.

In 2007, Killinger discussed hiring Goldman or another investment bank to help Washington Mutual find ways to reduce its credit risk or raise new capital, according to one of the e-mails, which Michigan Democratic Sen Carl Levin read during the hearing.

"I don't trust Goldie on this," Levin quoted one of Killinger's e-mails as saying. "They are smart, but this is swimming with the sharks. They were shorting mortgages big-time while they were giving (Countrywide Financial Corp) advice."...MORE...LINK

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