It is perhaps beyond the ability of an innocent public to believe this, but there is a growing body of evidence that a few mad scientists might have engineered the near-destruction of the American financial system. Except they weren’t scientists, per se – they were unscrupulous, market manipulating hedge fund managers, and we can almost hear them cackling with glee as they haul their ill-gotten billions to the bank.
In a civil suit filed Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud for helping hedge fund manager John Paulson create collateralized debt obligations that he had secretly designed to self destruct. That is, Goldman Sachs, at the direction of Paulson, hand-picked mortgages that were certain to go bad, and stuffed the mortgages (or rather, “synthetic” derivatives of the mortgages) into collateralized debt obligations that temporarily masked the true value of the loans.
Goldman did this for only one reason: to create instruments against which Paulson and other hedge fund clients could bet with virtually no risk. Meanwhile, Goldman cheerfully sold the CDOs to unwitting customers, knowing full well that those customers would be wiped out when the reference loans inevitably defaulted. Goldman and its hedge fund clients also surely knew that the losses on these synthetic CDOs would crash the overall market for CDOs, hobble competing investment banks that had CDOs on their books, and do serious damage to the financial system.
Goldman isn’t the only bank that created these CDOs. Deutsche Bank, UBS, and smaller outfits, such as Tricadia Inc., perpetrated similar scams. All told, well over $250 billion worth of these “synthetic” CDOs were sold into the market in the two years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that a majority of all the CDOs sold during those two years were deliberately designed to implode by hedge fund managers who were betting against both the CDOs and the financial system as a whole.
For more than three years, the media has swallowed the hedge fund party line that our economic troubles were solely caused by mortgage companies lending too much money to undeserving home buyers. No doubt, there was over exuberance and fraud in the world of subprime lending, but that is not the full story. It is now clear that the so-called “real estate bubble” was fueled by an expanding market for CDOs. And the market for CDOs was driven, in turn, by fraudulent deals similar to the ones that Goldman did for Paulson. In short, we witnessed a classic pump-and-dump scheme, only this time it was writ large, on the scale of the U.S. financial system.
I predict that as the details of this doomsday machine come to light, we will see that the hedge funds that profited from it all know each other well. I predict further that it will become apparent that what ties these hedge funds to each other is a common acquaintance with associates of Michael Milken, the famous financial criminal who pioneered the market for CDOs, and whose criminal debt machine nearly brought the economy to ruins in the 1980s.
John Paulson, who launched his career with the assistance of a host of Milken cronies, including Jerome Kohlberg and Leon Levy, is one of the hedge fund managers in this network. He has been described as a genius by the media, and perhaps that is what he is, but we now know that he abides by the Milken code, which has it that there is virtue in a clever con well-orchestrated. And never in history has there been a more profitable con than Paulson’s. His bets against the CDO market – the market that he helped set up to collapse — earned him more than $3 billion over the course of just a few months in 2007.
Another hedge fund in this network is Magnetar Capital, whose chairman and senior partner is Michael Gross, formerly a founding partner of Apollo Management, which is run by Milken’s closest crony Leon Black. Magnetar featured prominently in the Milken network’s attack on biotech company Dendreon (see “The Story of Dendreon” for details). This hedge fund is currently under SEC investigation for helping to manufacture and sell doomsday CDOs that it was simultaneously betting against with credit default swaps. Reporter Yves Smith, who has been working on this story from day one, reckons that Magnetar’s bogus CDOs accounted, incredibly, for between 35% and 60% of the total demand for subprime mortgages in 2006.
Given that the economy was being set up for a collapse by hedge funds in this network, it is not surprising that it was Milken-affiliated hedge fund managers who were most prominently and vigorously shorting Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and other big investment banks that were on the receiving end of the fraudulent CDOs. These hedge fund managers include Greenlight Capital’s David Einhorn (who launched his career with the former top partner of Milken crony Carl Icahn, and likely worked in cahoots with Milken to attack a company called Allied Capital); SAC Capital’s Steven Cohen (who was investigated by the SEC for trading on inside information provided by Milken’s shop at Drexel Burnham); and Third Point Capital’s Dan Loeb (who got his start dealing in Drexel Burnham paper alongside Milken’s former employees at Jeffries & Co.).
It is also important to note that the pump-and-short CDO scam could not have happened without the help of American International Group’s financial products unit, which sold a lot of the credit default swaps that the hedge funds used to bet against the CDOs. That unit at AIG was run by Joseph Cassano, formerly one of Milken’s top lieutenants at Drexel Burnham. Did Cassano know that the CDOs were designed to implode? Perhaps not, but it is safe to assume that his relationships with the hedge funds creating the CDOs influenced his decision to insure them.
It is also a matter of significant interest that Cassano was ordered to stop selling the credit default swaps in 2007, a sure sign that somebody at AIG saw that a cataclysm was imminent, but he did nothing to protect AIG from the massive losses that the cataclysm was sure to entail. When presented with evidence that the CDOs were rotten, Cassano held on to the CDS positions, rather than sell them off to people who, unlike AIG, would not have the resources to pay the hedge funds in the event of defaults.
This is not to suggest that these people hatched some kind of dark conspiracy to destroy America. But it is to suggest that relationships matter a great deal in the world of finance, and there is one network of miscreants that has consistently shown itself willing to profit from crookery, financial destruction and the misery of others.
One thing is certain: we will learn more about this scam in the weeks and months to come. And while news organizations like the New York Times should be commended for bringing bits and pieces of this story to light, their tepid prose fails to convey both the odoriferousness of the short sellers’ misdeeds and the magnitude of a scandal that helped bring the American financial system to its knees.