Audit Notes: ProPublica’s Dead Prez Prospectuses; Citi and Deutsche, Too; Michael Lewis

ProPublica’s Marian Wang advances the WSJ’s scoop on the Morgan Stanley “Dead Presidents” investigation, publishing prospectuses from Citigroup and UBS—the banks that marketed the securities in question—that aren’t exactly heavy on the disclosure.

Citi did not name Morgan Stanley in its disclosure. Goldman didn’t name Paulson in its disclosures either, which Goldman has maintained was a “normal business practice.”

The SEC’s lawsuit indicates that the agency doesn’t think Goldman’s disclosures were sufficient. As for the disclosures made by Citi and UBS, it remains to be seen whether they will pass muster.

Remember, these securities were created by Morgan Stanley so it could bet against them. It seems unlikely that Citi and UBS didn’t know what it was up to there. If it did, it should have disclosed the bank’s role.

Meantime, Felix Salmon is dead on about the media’s responsibility to publish source documents in the Web age. Good for ProPublica for doing so.

— My old colleague Michael Corkery has a helpful primer on the Dead Presidents v. Abacus at the WSJ’s Deal Journal.

And also a sweet lede:

Morgan Stanley likes to think of itself on par with rival Goldman Sachs. Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, the two firms have another thing in common: criminal investigations into their mortgage securities deals.

— And Fox Business News’s Charlie Gasparino breaks news that Citi and Deutsche Bank are caught up in CDO investigations, too:

Sources tell FOX Business that after the SEC initially requested information from all the firms when it began its probe last year, it came back and subpoenaed Citigroup and Deutsche Bank for additional documents, underscoring a heightened level of interest. In the case of Citigroup, the SEC has conducted depositions of senior executives there, these people tell FOX Business. Ironically, the SEC has not asked Morgan Stanley for the same type of additional information since its initial request, even as the Justice Department has begun evaluating the firm’s CDO sales.

As I’ve said before, a settlement would be bad for the public’s right to know, so this isn’t necessarily promising:

The wider interest by the government increases the chances that Wall Street and federal officials may ultimately reach a “global settlement” with the securities industry as it finds a pattern of allegedly improper conduct in the sale of these so-called structured products. In such a settlement, each firm will pay a fine based on the level of alleged misconduct.

— You’ve got to read Michael Lewis’s latest gem at Bloomberg. Normally I recoil from the lame letter-in-someone-else’s-voice column (I’m looking at you, Maureen Dowd), but Lewis is no mortal writer.

The piece is in the form of a memo from a Goldman Sachs (an Audit funder) trader to CEO Lloyd Blankfein on how to handle PR:

In a matter of weeks Fabrice Tourre has gone from non- entity to a potential asset (a “rogue trader” who might have gone quietly so that the firm might survive) to a huge liability (hero on Wall Street, who somehow has managed to portray himself as both a religious martyr and a mere cog in our machine.)

Going forward I suggest that our personnel department reexamine the French male’s ability to subordinate himself. In English there is no “I” in team. It turns out that the French use a different word: equipe.

More seriously:

At the same time, but for different reasons, you should limit your private interaction with the prop traders, especially Jonathan Egol.

The SEC’s complaint focused on one of Jonathan’s Abacus deals and yet failed even to mention Jonathan. Instead they fingered the French guy.

At first I took it as just another sign of Mort stupidity. But now that the Justice Department has gotten involved, and is combing through all the Abacus deals, I wonder. Why is no one yet talking about Jonathan? Why is no one making noises about the deals structured for Jonathan — and not John Paulson — to short them? Is it possible that Jonathan has been helping them to understand our business? Just saying…

Egol would be the guy who figured prominently in the Times’s Christmas Eve investigation of Goldman’s bets against its own products: He created Abacus.

ADDING: Gary Weiss notices a provision that got watered down in the financial-reform bill:

As originally proposed, in the section providing for the now-vanished, bank-funded $50 billion bailout fund, the bill said that the “orderly liquidation authority” overseeing the failed institutions would act under the “strong presumption” that creditors and shareholders will bear the losses,” and, lo and behold, that “management responsible for the condition of the financial company will not be retained.”

But that got dialed all the way back to not-gonna-happen:

The revisions approved last week add an entirely new section that wasn’t there before, Section 213, with the impressive title, “Ban on Senior Executives and Directors.” The title, unfortunately, is the only thing that’s impressive. Section 213 specifies the circumstances in which executives of failed banks can be removed by the Federal Reserve. That can only happen if a senior executive or director has violated a law or regulation, “participated in any unsafe or unsound practice in connection with any financial company,” or engaged in nastiness that indicates dishonesty or “demonstrates willful or continuing disregard by such senior executive or director for the safety or soundness of such company.”

These are certainly good reasons to get rid of a banking executive. In fact, that’s the problem—they’re too good. The Fed needs to get rid of banking executives who are driving their banks into the ground not because they’re rogues or crooks, but because the regulators, in their judgment, feel that these bankers just simply aren’t up to the job.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.