Audit Notes: HuffPo Shines, Libor Lineup, An FT Slip

I don’t know about you, but the best news story I read today on the Levin-Coburn Report wasn’t in the Journal or the Times, Bloomberg or Reuters. It was by William Alden and Shahien Nasiripour in The Huffington Post.

It’s a clear presentation of the report’s findings on Goldman Sachs, led by the fact that Senator Levin wants to refer CEO Lloyd Blankfein and other Goldman execs to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution—something that neither the WSJ nor the Times had in their stories, as I noted earlier today.

The language gets a tad hot at times. For instance, they call Wall Street’s mortgage machine “this parasitic apparatus.” But you know what? It’s a factual description, and it’s better than some bloodless journalese that does more to obscure than to accurately describe it.

Here’s Lloyd Blankfein’s testimony to the committee—the one that may get him prosecuted for perjury:

“Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market,” Goldman chief Blankfein said in testimony before Levin’s panel last year. “The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008.”

“We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients,” he added. Other Goldman executives made similar claims.

And here’s what the Levin-Coburn Report found:

As of December 2006, Goldman had $6 billion in bets that the value of its subprime assets would surge, according to the panel’s report. By February of the next year, its mortgage traders had $10 billion in bets that such securities would collapse.

By June, the firm was net short on subprime borrowers to the tune of $13.9 billion, according to the report.

As more borrowers fell behind on their payments and as the value of securities linked to their mortgages slid, Goldman stayed “net short.” Other banks suffered. But not this one.

“Tells you what might be happening to people without the big short,” Goldman’s chief financial officer David Viniar wrote in a July 2007 email to the firm’s chief operating officer, Gary Cohn.

— The Journal has an interesting scoop, reporting that the government is broadening its investigation of the banks and Libor. It’s now an antitrust inquiry looking at possible collusion:

For the past year, law-enforcement officials have been investigating whether the U.S. and European banks understated their own borrowing costs, which are used to calculate the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. The investigators are now looking into whether the banks effectively formed a global cartel and coordinated how to report borrowing costs between 2006 and 2008…

Roughly $10 trillion in loans and $350 trillion in derivatives are tied to Libor, which affects costs for everything from corporate bonds to car loans. If the rate was kept artificially low, borrowers likely weren’t harmed, though lenders could complain that the rates they charged for loans were too low. Derivatives contracts could be mispriced because of any manipulation of Libor.

According to people familiar with the yearlong probe, U.S. regulators are focusing on Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and UBS, among others, and have sent subpoenas to those banks. The three banks declined to comment.

— The FT has a misleading piece on e-book sales. If you’re not careful, it could have you thinking e-book sales have passed print book sales.

Here’s the headline:

E-books overtake print sales in US

That’s not true. The lede doesn’t help much, either (emphasis mine):

Trouble at bricks-and-mortar book retailers has combined with booming sales of e-readers and tablet computers to make e-books the biggest-selling category of the US publishing industry for the first time, according to data released on Thursday.

In the second graph, if you’re reading closely, you see what the real story is:

Sales of e-books in February tripled over the previous year to $90.3m, the Association of American Publishers reported, exceeding adult paperback sales of $81.2m.

The big missing number here: What percentage of overall book sales e-books now comprise.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,