As Goldman Turns

For my money, McClatchy’s Goldman series remains the best show these days on business-press Broadway. It’s sort of the “Masterpiece Theater” to Matt Taibbi’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

In previous episodes, Goldman is seen selling defective securities while shorting them at the same time and chasing harried jewelry entrepreneurs and bartenders out of house and home, or trying to. Today’s installment has the Broad Street Bullies dumping the bad stuff on foreign pension funds through a unit based in the lightly regulated Cayman Islands.

The silence from all of Taibbi’s critics in the conventional business press on this is interesting. They went to great lengths to point out that Taibbi’s was the wrong Goldman story. McClatchy’s may be the right one, the wrong one, the old one, the told one—unclear. It certainly is the long one, four parts, videos, sidebars, the whole package treatment. There must be something in there.

In fact, a lot of the criticism leveled at Taibbi would apply here. What McClatchy has so far laid almost entirely at Goldman’s feet was, with the exception of the adroit shorting of the housing market while hogs like Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns were doubling down, Wall Street standard operating procedure. That’s the real problem. It was an entire industry, a whole sector of the economy, implicated, and McClatchy should make that much clearer. While Goldman may now be chasing overleveraged bartenders in San Diego, it is no different in that regard from JP Morgan Chase, new owner of Wamu and Bear Stearns, Bank of America and its Countrywide and Merrill Lynch units, the Lehman bankruptcy trustee, etc. An award-winning art exhibit included model of a block in Newark, N.J., with a lender’s flag flying atop ten of the block’s 18 houses in foreclosure: Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Bank, Chase, Chase, Wamu, New Century, Countrywide, Lehman, etc.

Why pick on Goldman? I guess that’s the downside of survival. And as Taibbi would say, why not?

Today’s installment is not the strongest and will indeed feel familiar to cognoscenti. A sample:

In all, Goldman sold more than $57 billion in risky mortgage-backed securities during a 14-month period in 2006 and 2007, including nearly $39 billion issued from mortgages it purchased. Meanwhile, the firm peddled billions of dollars in complex deals, many of them tied to subprime mortgages, in the Caymans and other offshore locations.

Many of those securities later soured, but the sales allowed Goldman to become the only major U.S. investment bank to escape the brunt of the subprime meltdown.

Bloomberg’s Mark PIttman covered some of this ground last year under a classically weird Bloomberg headline: “Evil Wall Street Exports Boomed With `Fools’ Born to Buy Debt”

But the dates, 2006 and 2007, that McClatchy includes are significant since that’s when mortgage-underwriting deterioration became extreme.

McClatchy’s gotchas here are not blockbusters, though they do indicate Goldman chiseling around the edges:

McClatchy also found at least two instances in which Goldman appeared to mislead investors. In one, the firm said that $65.3 million in securities were backed by safe “prime” mortgages when the same loans had been labeled a cut below prime in a U.S. offering. In the other, Goldman listed $10 million as “midprime” loans when the underlying mortgages had been made to subprime borrowers with shaky finances.

[Goldman spokesman Michael] DuVally said that the descriptions were consistent with the standards set by Moody’s, the bond-rating agency.

And the news service quotes a bond analyst’s report that, in a way, strengthens Goldman’s contention that sophisticated institutions should be able to look out for themselves:

The offering drew a scornful reaction from the bond analyst who warned investment clients to stay away. The analyst’s report, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, described Goldman as “a single underwriter solely interested in pushing its dirty inventory onto unsuspecting and obviously gullible investors.”

If the analyst knew, why didn’t the people who bought the bonds? But the story does have stats the remind us why those kinds of questions don’t end the argument and why this series is needed:

Last spring, the International Monetary Fund projected that global write-downs on “U.S.-originated assets” stemming from the subprime disaster could reach $2.7 trillion.

Not to mention the quote of the day:

Sylvain Raynes, a former analyst for Moody’s Investors Service, the largest U.S. rating firm, likened the Wall Street firms’ relationships with the rating agencies to hiring “a high-class escort service.”

And this strikes me as just flatly important:

McClatchy also learned of a second private Goldman deal, in which it sought in May 2007 via another Cayman company to sell $44.6 million in bonds related to subprime loans written by New Century Financial, a mortgage lender that weeks earlier had careened into bankruptcy after California regulators closed it.

Selling New Century-backed mortgages that late in the game, as cognoscenti should well know, is a serious problem, and a good get from McClatchy.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.