McClatchy Tightens Ties Between Goldman and Predatory Lenders

McClatchy is running a big series on Goldman Sachs that does what other business news organizations have so far failed to do: start from scratch and reexamine where the big bank fits into the mortgage crisis.

(Not that it’s a bad thing, but in contrast, the Journal sticks to the news of the moment this morning with an interesting look at whether Treasury will nix a Goldman plan to cut its tax bill by buying tax credits from Fannie Mae.)

Yesterday’s McClatchy installment reexamined the problems, first, of Goldman’s selling of mortgage-backed securities that turned out to be defective, while, secondly, failing inform its customers that it was making the opposite bet at the same time.

Cognoscenti at Clusterstock pooh-pooh the findings, but that’s a mistake. It is true that this ground was covered early by the Wall Street Journal’s Kate Kelly, “How Goldman Won Big On Mortgage Meltdown,” in December 2007. Bloomberg’s Mark Pittman was also early to take a look at Goldman’s production of defective securities during the Hank Paulson era, and reminded readers that Paulson as Treasury secretary opposed efforts to hold Wall Street firms responsible for buying and repackaging predatory loans.

But the point wasn’t, as Clusterstock has it, whether Goldman publicly warned about the state of the U.S. housing market, which it did. The point is what Goldman and Wall Street knew about the specific state of the loans it was buying and reselling, as yesterday’s McClatchy story makes clear:

In marketing disclosures filed with the SEC regarding each pool of subprime bonds from 2001 to 2007, Goldman listed an array of risk factors that grew over time. Among them was the possibility of a pullback in overheated real estate markets, especially in California and Florida, where the most subprime loans had been made.

Suits filed by the pension funds, however, allege that Goldman made materially false or misleading statements in its public offerings, failing to disclose that many loans were based on inflated appraisals and were bought from firms with poor lending practices.

This seems basic to me.

Today’s McClatchy story—“Goldman takes on new role: taking away people’s homes,”—beautifully illustrates the intimate intertwining of Wall Street and the subprime business. Here, Goldman is shown coping with the consequences of having bought mortgages from Argent Mortgage Co., a unit of Ameriquest Morgage Co. Now, Goldman may feel it is being unfairly tarred for just doing what it is supposed to do—make money—but, sorry, this is a clear case of lying down with dogs and being surprised to wake up with fleas.

Talk about things being no secret. Ameriquest/Argent was one of the rankest outfits in a tawdry business, a boiler room operation par excellance, and a notorious one, thanks, among other things, to under-appreciated investigative work by the Los Angeles Times in 2005. (For more, see our survey of pre-crisis business press coverage, “Power Problem.”)

Now Goldman is in the unlovely position of fighting bartenders and jewelry entrepreneurs who had fallen behind on exploding Argent mortgages.

McClatchy piece also throws a light on the informational asymmetries that define the subprime business. In one case, a couple facing foreclosure has to fight tooth-and-nail simply to learn the identity of their lender, which turns out to have its headquarters at 85 Broad Street.

As the months dragged on, Fabos-Becker finally found a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission confirming that Goldman had bought the mortgages. Then, when a lawyer for MTGLQ showed up at a June 2007 court hearing on the stock battle, U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California demanded to know the firm’s relationship to Goldman, telling the attorney that he hates “spin.”

The lawyer acknowledged that MTGLQ was a Goldman affiliate.

That was an understatement. MTGLQ, a limited partnership, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman that’s housed at the company’s headquarters at 85 Broad Street in New York, public records show.

For good measure, McClatchy has a piece from yesterday that has Goldman jumping into subprime with both feet early:

Soon, the Goldman subsidiary was in the jet stream, dealing with some of the most aggressive and controversial subprime lenders — including Ameriquest (through a subsidiary), New Century, Fremont General, National City and First Franklin.

…and finds a couple of risk managers for a contractor that reviewed the loans who say “everybody knew” what they were funding:

Toy said she concluded that the reviews were mostly “for appearances,” because the Wall Street firms planned to repackage “bogus” loans swiftly and sell them as bonds, passing any future liabilities to the buyers. The investment banks and mortgage lenders each seemed to be playing “hot potato,” trying to pass the risks “before they got burned,” she said.

“There was nobody involved in this who didn’t know what was going on, no matter what they say,” she said. “We all knew.”

Goldman is forced into one of the more unconvincing defenses of the year:

Goldman spokesman [Michael] DuVally said that the firm’s standards for reviewing the loans were “at least as high, if not higher, in 2006 than they were in 2002.”

But he didn’t elaborate on what scrutiny was demanded.

This is new information from McClatchy. Dismissing this kind of work is, again, a mistake.

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

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.