Audit Notes: Politico’s Goldman PR, ProPublica Vindicated, Mark to Myth

The Huffington Post’s Peter S. Goodman points to a bizarre report in Politico this morning:

Much was made of a brief item in the FCIC report (pg. 378) alleging that Goldman Sachs took $2.9 billion for its own account from a bailed-out AIG. Goldman has long contended that around $14 billion it received from AIG went to clients and counterparties, not to its own balance sheet. FCIC affirmed Goldman’s account on the $14 billion. And according to a person familiar with the matter, the $2.9 billion was no different.

The money was meant to cover AIG’s guarantees on Abacus, a synthetic CDO. Goldman had hedged its exposure to Abacus so the $2.9 billion would have flowed directly to clients. It’s a somewhat mind numbing bit of arcanum in the massive report. But left unchallenged, the FCIC’s description of the $2.9 billon transfer could have re-started the currently defunct argument that Goldman received a “backdoor” bailout from the Uncle Sam.

Uh, that backdoor bailout argument is not currently defunct, nor has it ever been.

How do you take the word of a “person familiar with the matter” (read: an anonymous Goldman executive) here when it directly contradicts what the FCIC found—that these were proprietary trades? Read Shahien Nasiripour’s scoop from yesterday.

— ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein find some interesting information from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report—that hedge fund Magnetar “selected hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets that went into a billion dollar Merrill Lynch mortgage securities deal,” as ProPublica reported in an investigation last year.

This further rebuts Magnetar’s denials that it picked the assets.

Magnetar used a CDO called Norma to create a $600 million bet against subprime mortgage securities, according to the document. The CDO itself took the other side of the bet, and ultimately cost investors in Norma hundreds of millions of dollars. Merrill Lynch underwrote and marketed the $1.5 billion Norma.

According to the commission report, Magnetar made the selections without the knowledge of the manager legally charged with picking the assets for the CDO or the risk department of the bank that helped create the deal.

The collateral manager, NIR Capital Management, was paid to manage the deal and was supposed to be independent of the investment bank and act in the interests of the CDO as a whole. The Norma offering document says that NIR would select the assets that went into the CDO, and no mention is made of other parties’ roles in asset selection.

“When one Merrill employee learned that Magnetar had executed approximately $600 million in trades for Norma without NIR’s apparent involvement or knowledge, she e-mailed colleagues, ‘Dumb question. Is Magnetar allowed to trade for NIR?’ ” according to the report.

— How many business-press stories over the last couple of years (heck, the last couple of decades) could have had this lede:

The banks got what they wanted.

That’s David Reilly in The Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column yesterday looking at how the financial industry knocked down mark-to-market rules yet again. Mark-to-market rules force banks to value their assets at their current market prices rather than valuing them at what the bank thinks they should be worth (which is known as “mark to myth”).

Its decision means banks largely will continue to value loans as they do today, basing values on their original cost less a reserve to reflect the possibility of loss. FASB has yet to decide if the market value for loans will be disclosed on the balance sheet or buried in the footnotes, as they are now.

This isn’t the first time FASB has retreated in the face of opposition. In 2009, under congressional pressure, it watered down mark-to-market rules. Sadly, FASB now seems to be guided by public pressure, rather than striving to see that investors get the most relevant and reliable information.

I don’t know about calling it “public pressure,” but point made.

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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: , , , ,