Tag Archive | "John Paulson"

Goldman’s gold has lost its luster

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Goldman’s gold has lost its luster

The most clichéd, yet satisfying, moment in any movie comes when the brutally bullying antagonist discovers he’s lost that which had empowered his abusive nature. Wait…I take that back. Seeing that fear in the bad guy’s eyes is the second most satisfying movie moment, the first being the inevitable administration of long-overdue justice that follows.

Though evidence has mounted for a while, today it became official: Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) is now on its own, as the guardian angel/demon that once enabled the firm’s assault on our capital markets has clearly severed that relationship. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from the news that Goldman was censured and fined by NYSE and the SEC for specific faults in “execution and clearing” (another way of saying “naked short selling”).

What changed? After all, Goldman is still rich, right?

Well…sort of. Goldman may be flush with cash, but with pressure mounting on politicians to reject any of it in the form of campaign contributions, suddenly that cash doesn’t spend nearly as well as it used to.  At the same time, it’s probably safe to assume Goldman’s allure as a future client has been severely degraded in the eyes of private sector career-minded regulators.

In other words, Goldman’s gold has lost its luster, and with it, the firm’s political ‘juice’. I can only imagine the look on their faces when Goldman brass first realized why their calls were not being returned: their power was gone. And folks with badges were knocking on the door.

Goldman’s role as a facilitator of illegal, short-side market manipulation will never come to symbolize its villainy in the mind of the public the way knowingly selling its clients garbage CDOs on behalf of John Paulson will. But that’s what makes this latest development even more significant: it suggests a sort of “piling on” mentality that was inconceivable just one month ago (keep in mind this is the company that, evidence suggests, successfully lobbied to have even legitimate short selling banned once the practice began to impact its share price). This, in turn, may be an inadvertent signal from regulatory “insiders” that Goldman’s prospects of emerging intact from this storm are slim.

Do not mistake the tone of this post for contentment, for this particular action doesn’t come close to addressing what I suspect is the true breadth and depth of Goldman’s role in short-side market manipulations. Indeed, the bulk of this particular complaint focuses on a few infractions observed over a few weeks in late 2008. Goldman, for its part, attributes the problem to an inconsequential bookkeeping error. If that’s true, a half-million dollar fine for an accounting mistake makes Goldman’s plight seem even more dire.

In the end, what’s most significant about this complaint is the insight it provides into how the system works when inappropriate influence ceases to be a factor in the regulatory process (something we’ve grown accustomed to not seeing): investigators investigate, infractions are cited, penalties applied, juice ignored.

I’m not convinced it’s within human nature to develop a financial markets regulatory paradigm able to consistently achieve this ideal (though I’m certain we can do better than what we’ve got). The alternative is to focus on the other side of the equation by limiting the capacity of any market participant to become so influential the rules cease to apply.

Posted in Featured Stories, Our Captured Federal Regulator the SEC, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (222)

Goldman Sachs, John Paulson, and the Hedge Funds that Pumped and Dumped Our Economy

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Goldman Sachs, John Paulson, and the Hedge Funds that Pumped and Dumped Our Economy

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.

Posted in Featured Stories, The Mitchell ReportComments (91)

John Paulson and the Greatest Pump and Short Fraud Ever

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John Paulson and the Greatest Pump and Short Fraud Ever

By now, everybody knows that the market for collateralized debt obligations was riddled with fraud in the lead-up to the financial crisis. What is less known is the fact that hedge fund managers helped create and inflate the market for these toxic securities specifically so that they could bet against them and profit from the inevitable collapse.

An example of a particularly sordid scheme, orchestrated by hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, was discovered some time ago by David Fiderer, a blogger for the Huffington Post. The information in Fiderer’s blog is rather incriminating, and, of course, the mainstream media is not on the case, so I think it bears repeating.

In a close reading of Wall Street Journal Gregory Zuckerman’s book, “The Greatest Trade Ever”, an otherwise starry-eyed account of Paulson’s bets against the mortgage market, Fiderer discovered this nugget:

“Paulson and [partner Paolo Pellegrini] were eager to find ways to expand their wager against risky mortgages. Accumulating it in the market sometimes proved to be a slow process. So they made appointments with bankers at Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), and other banks to ask if they would create CDOs that Paulson & Co. could essentially bet against.”

As Fiderer explains, Paulson asked the banks to create those CDOs “so that they could be sold to some suckers at close to par. That way, Paulson’s hedge fund could approach some other sucker who would sell an insurance policy, or credit default swap, on the newly minted CDOs. Bear, Deutsche and Goldman knew perfectly well what Paulson’s motivation was. He made no secret of his belief that the CDOs subordinate claims on the mortgage collateral were close to worthless. By the time others have figured out the fatal flaws in these securities which had been ignored by the rating agencies, Paulson could collect up to $5 billion.

“Paulson not only initiated these transactions, he also specified the terms he wanted, identifying which mortgages would be stuffed into the CDOs, and how the CDOs should be structured. Within the overall framework set by Paulson’s team, banks and investors were allowed to do some minor tweaking.”

It is not clear which banks ultimately participated in Paulson’s scam, but Fiderer quotes Bear Stearns trader Scott Eichel as saying that his bank refused. “It didn’t pass the ethics standards;” Eichel said, “it was a reputation issue and it didn’t pass our moral compass. We didn’t think we could sell deals that someone was shorting on the other side.” Bear Stearns’ moral compass was usually pointed towards the darker regions, but perhaps this is why Paulson subsequently became one of the more eager short sellers of Bear Stearns’ stock.

Fiderer continues: “Prior to 2006, there were not many opportunities for naked short selling on subprime securitizations. But in January of that year, investment banks launched a new product, which enabled Paulson to place those bets on a large scale. The ABX index, a sort of Dow Jones Average of subprime mortgage securities, facilitated benchmarking the price of credit default swaps.”

In fact, it was a black box company called the Markit Group that created the ABX index. The banks were minor shareholders in Markit Group and provided data. I have noted in a previous blog that the Markit Group is a dubious outfit to say the least, and there is good reason to suspect that the direction of the ABX index was influenced by hedge fund managers and their allies at the big banks. I do not have evidence that Paulson was one of those hedge funds, but authorities ought to be asking questions.

Fiderer goes on to suggest that bad loans to homeowners were a significant cause of the financial crisis. On this front, I disagree with him. Certainly, some mortgage lenders were unscrupulous, and there was a certain amount of predatory lending, but the conventional wisdom that this is what crashed the economy is simply false.

At the time that the mortgage securities markets began to go south in 2007, defaults on subprime loans had increased only slightly month-to-month, and were in fact considerably lower than in earlier years. In the second quarter of 2007, for example, only 7.7 percent of subprime loans were 30 days past due, slightly up from 6.76 percent in the second quarter of 2006, but considerably lower than the 9.9 percent in the second quarter of 2001.

The problem lied not in the loans themselves, but in the fact that the loans had been packaged (apparently, to a large extent, at the behest of John Paulson and perhaps other bearish billionaires) into fraudulent securities that were traded and probably manipulated by a select number of hedge funds and large banks. In a somewhat similar scheme, hedge funds often pump up the stock of public companies before initiating short selling attacks aimed at demolishing those same companies.

The economy was brought to its knees by a few powerful and eminently dirty players on Wall Street, not by poor people who had the temerity to buy themselves houses.

Posted in Featured Stories, The Deep Capture Campaign, The Mitchell ReportComments (91)

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