Audit Notes: Goldman’s Marks, Taibbi, Dakota Tea, etc.

I like Bill Cohan’s clearly written column explaining how Goldman marked its mortgage assets lower than everyone else, then aggressively pursued collateral on its insurance contracts, setting off a chain reaction that crashed AIG.

And he’s good to keep reading the FCIC report, which was, as he says, largely buried by many of us in the press before it was properly read.

But I do have a couple problems with the argument. For one thing, nowhere does Cohan contend that Goldman was actually wrong to mark down its mortgage assets. If the argument is that Goldman (which used to be an Audit funder) did it too quickly, I can only wonder: is that even possible, given the assets we’re talking about?

A second problem with the argument is that, by necessity, it sets up Joe Cassano, of all people, as some kind of victim of Goldman’s greedy and unreasonable demands. Does that seem plausible?

Here’s a sample:

The dispute continued into January. Cassano eventually spoke with David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer, to try again to get the money back. “We may have been ahead of the market,” Cassano said Viniar told him, “but the market is coming our way.” Cassano was again incredulous, and wondered if Goldman was “driving the market” down to benefit the short position it had started taking in December 2006 against the mortgage market. “There is nothing trading,” Cassano said. “You can’t even trade by appointment.”

This is unfair, like making us choose between Mothra and Godzilla. Is Goldman’s marking down mortgage assets really the issue? That’s Cassano’s view, but wasn’t the real problem that all those horrendous assets were created (yes, by Goldman, among others) in the first place, and that Cassano then decided to insure them?

Further reading: “Testy Conflict With Goldman Helped Push A.I.G. to Edge,” terrific work by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story that got the story started a year ago. Plus, my thumbs up.

Also: the late Mark Pittman’s piece on Goldman’s contribution to the CDO debacle (updated with fabulous graphics).

—Matt Taibbi is smart to take on the all-important question: where are all the prosecutions from the financial crash/crisis?

And lest you think this is all a hot-aired rant from the left, it’s worth reading his treatment of the strange, and strangely under-covered, case of SEC investigator Gary Aguirre, who lost his job when he tried to interview Wall Street stud John Mack in an insider-trading probe:

Aguirre joined the SEC in September 2004. Two days into his career as a financial investigator, he was asked to look into an insider-trading complaint against a hedge-fund megastar named Art Samberg. One day, with no advance research or discussion, Samberg had suddenly started buying up huge quantities of shares in a firm called Heller Financial. “It was as if Art Samberg woke up one morning and a voice from the heavens told him to start buying Heller,” Aguirre recalls. “And he wasn’t just buying shares — there were some days when he was trying to buy three times as many shares as were being traded that day.” A few weeks later, Heller was bought by General Electric — and Samberg pocketed $18 million.

After some digging, Aguirre found himself focusing on one suspect as the likely source who had tipped Samberg off: John Mack, a close friend of Samberg’s who had just stepped down as president of Morgan Stanley. At the time, Mack had been on Samberg’s case to cut him into a deal involving a spinoff of the tech company Lucent — an investment that stood to make Mack a lot of money. “Mack is busting my chops” to give him a piece of the action, Samberg told an employee in an e-mail.

A week later, Mack flew to Switzerland to interview for a top job at Credit Suisse First Boston. Among the investment bank’s clients, as it happened, was a firm called Heller Financial. We don’t know for sure what Mack learned on his Swiss trip; years later, Mack would claim that he had thrown away his notes about the meetings. But we do know that as soon as Mack returned from the trip, on a Friday, he called up his buddy Samberg. The very next morning, Mack was cut into the Lucent deal—a favor that netted him more than $10 million. And as soon as the market reopened after the weekend, Samberg started buying every Heller share in sight, right before it was snapped up by GE—a suspiciously timed move that earned him the equivalent of Derek Jeter’s annual salary for just a few minutes of work.

Needless to say, the probe didn’t go well, Aguirre was fired, and the SEC eventually paid him a settlement of $755,000 for wrongful dismissal.

Especially chilling for those of us who have covered this kind of thing is to read about the all-star roster of former prosecutors now lined up on Wall Street’s side: Mary Jo White, Eric Dinallo, Gary Lynch, etc.

“It wasn’t just one rotation of the revolving door,” says Aguirre. “It just kept spinning. Every single person had rotated in and out of government and private service.”

This is a smart story. Read the whole thing and be depressed.

—Continuing with a certain, ahem, theme, the WSJ’s Shira Ovide catches Bill Gross going off on his fellow financiers.

As a profession we have failed miserably at our primary function - the efficient and productive allocation of capital

And there’s about 2,000 more words where those came from.

Stan Collender finds a good poll of Tea Party supporters in South Dakota:


As Collender says: “Psst…Tea Party is Just Like Everyone Else…Pass it Around.”

— Finally, Barry Ritholtz does a good job with unemployment numbers: Worse than they look.

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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. Tags: , , , ,