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Goldman Sachs e-mails show bank sought to profit from housing downturn

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Goldman Sachs e-mails show bank sought to profit from housing downturn

Saturday, April 24, 2010

In late 2007 as the mortgage crisis gained momentum and many banks were suffering losses, Goldman Sachs executives traded e-mail messages saying that they would make “some serious money” betting against the housing markets.

The e-mails, released Saturday morning by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, appear to contradict some of Goldman’s previous statements that left the impression that the firm lost money on mortgage-related investments.

In the e-mails, Lloyd C. Blankfein, the bank’s chief executive, acknowledged in November of 2007 that the firm indeed had lost money initially. But it later recovered from those losses by making negative bets, known as short positions, enabling it to profit as housing prices fell and homeowners defaulted on their mortgages. “Of course we didn’t dodge the mortgage mess,” he wrote. “We lost money, then made more than we lost because of shorts.”

In another message, dated July 25, 2007, David A. Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer, remarked on figures that showed the company had made a $51 million profit in a single day from bets that the value of mortgage-related securities would drop. “Tells you what might be happening to people who don’t have the big short,” he wrote to Gary D. Cohn, now Goldman’s president.

The messages were released Saturday ahead of a Congressional hearing on Tuesday in which seven current and former Goldman employees, including Mr. Blankfein, are expected to testify. The hearing follows a recent securities fraud complaint that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman and one of its employees, Fabrice Tourre, who will also testify on Tuesday.

Actions taken by Wall Street firms during the housing meltdown have become a major factor in the contentious debate over financial reform. The first test of the administration’s overhaul effort will come Monday when the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is to call a procedural vote to try to stop a Republican filibuster.

Republicans have contended that the renewed focus on Goldman stems from Democrats’ desire to use anger at Wall Street to push through a financial reform bill.

Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and head of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said that the e-mail messages contrast with Goldman’s public statements about its trading results. “The 2009 Goldman Sachs annual report stated that the firm ‘did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products,’?” Mr. Levin said in a statement Saturday when his office released the documents. “These e-mails show that, in fact, Goldman made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market.”

A Goldman spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Goldman messages connect some of the dots at a crucial moment of Goldman history. They show that in 2007, as most other banks hemorrhaged losses from plummeting mortgage holdings, Goldman prospered.

At first, Goldman openly discussed its prescience in calling the housing downfall. In the third quarter of 2007, the investment bank reported publicly that it had made big profits on its negative bet on mortgages.

But by the end of that year, the firm curtailed disclosures about its mortgage trading results. Its chief financial officer told analysts at the end of 2007 that they should not expect Goldman to reveal whether it was long or short on the housing market. By late 2008, Goldman was emphasizing its losses, rather than its profits, pointing regularly to write-downs of $1.7 billion on mortgage assets and leaving out the amount it made on its negative bets.

Goldman and other firms often take positions on both sides of an investment. Some are long, which are bets that the investment will do well, and some are shorts, which are bets the investment will do poorly. If an investor’s positions are balanced – or hedged, in industry parlance – then the combination of the longs and shorts comes out to zero.

Goldman has said that it added shorts to balance its mortgage book, not to make a directional bet that the market would collapse. But the messages released Saturday appear to show that in 2007, at least, Goldman’s short bets were eclipsing the losses on its long positions. In May 2007, for instance, Goldman workers e-mailed one another about losses on a bundle of mortgages issued by Long Beach Mortgage Securities. Though the firm lost money on those, a worker wrote, there was “good news”: “we own 10 mm in protection.” That meant Goldman had enough of a bet against the bond that, over all, it profited by $5 million.

Documents released by the Senate committee appear to indicate that in July 2007, Goldman’s daily accounting showed losses of $322 million on positive mortgage positions, but its negative bet – what Mr. Viniar called “the big short” – came in $51 million higher.

As recently as a week ago, a Goldman spokesman emphasized that the firm had tried only to hedge its mortgage holdings in 2007 and said the firm had not been net short in that market.

The firm said in its annual report this month that it did not know back then where housing was headed, a sentiment expressed by Mr. Blankfein the last time he appeared before.

“We did not know at any minute what would happen next, even though there was a lot of writing,” he told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in January.

It is not known how much money in total Goldman made on its negative housing bets. Only a handful of e-mail messages were released Saturday, and they do not reflect the complete record.

The Senate subcommittee began its investigation in November 2008, but its work attracted little attention until a series of hearings in the last month. The first focused on lending practices at Washington Mutual, which collapsed in 2008, the largest bank failure in American history; another scrutinized deficiencies at several regulatory agencies, including the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

A third hearing, on Friday, centered on the role that the credit rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch – played in the financial crisis. At the end of the hearing, Mr. Levin offered a preview of the Goldman hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

“Our investigation has found that investment banks such as Goldman Sachs were not market makers helping clients,” Mr. Levin said, referring to testimony given by Mr. Blankfein in January. “They were self-interested promoters of risky and complicated financial schemes that were a major part of the 2008 crisis. They bundled toxic and dubious mortgages into complex financial instruments, got the credit-rating agencies to label them as AAA safe securities, sold them to investors, magnifying and spreading risk throughout the financial system, and all too often betting against the financial instruments that they sold, and profiting at the expense of their clients.”

The transaction at the center of the S.E.C.’s case against Goldman also came up at the hearings on Friday, when Mr. Levin discussed it with Eric Kolchinsky, a former managing director at Moody’s. The mortgage-related security was known as Abacus 2007-AC1, and while it was created by Goldman, the S.E.C. contends that the firm misled investors by not disclosing that it had allowed a hedge fund manager, John A. Paulson, to select mortgage bonds for the portfolio that would be most likely to fail. That charge is at the core of the civil suit it filed against Goldman.

Moody’s was hired by Goldman to rate the Abacus security. Mr. Levin asked Mr. Kolchinsky, who for most of 2007 oversaw the ratings of collateralized debt obligations backed by subprime mortgages, if he had known of Mr. Paulson’s involvement in the Abacus deal.

“I did not know, and I suspect – I’m fairly sure that my staff did not know either,” Mr. Kolchinsky said.

Mr. Levin asked whether details of Mr. Paulson’s involvement were “facts that you or your staff would have wanted to know before rating Abacus.” Mr. Kolchinsky replied: “Yes, that’s something that I would have personally wanted to know.”

Mr. Kolchinsky added: “It just changes the whole dynamic of the structure, where the person who’s putting it together, choosing it, wants it to blow up.”

The Senate announced that it would convene a hearing on Goldman Sachs within a week of the S.E.C.’s fraud suit. Some members of Congress questioned whether the two investigations had been coordinated or linked.

Mr. Levin’s staff said there was no connection between the two investigations. They pointed out that the subcommittee requested the appearance of the Goldman executives and employees well before the S.E.C. filed its case.

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