Springtime for Investigations as the SEC Acts

It looks from the newspapers this morning like the dam has finally broken on prosecuting the crisis scandals.

The New York Times does its best to put the Goldman scandal in the C-suite, splashing the lede story across two columns headlined: “Top Leaders at Goldman Had a Role in Mortgages.” It reports separately that Goldman investigations are going viral.

The Wall Street Journal’s page one is dominated by the continuing Goldman Sachs (this is where I say Goldman is an Audit funder) story, including a report on how the SEC is looking at its peers for similarly rigged deals. And on the Money & Investing front, the Journal reports that a Countrywide investigation is coming to a head—at long last.

The Journal’s A1 story on SEC investigations makes it pretty clear that Deutsche Bank ought to start working on its excuses:

From 2005 through late 2006, the U.S. securities arm of Deutsche Bank created several CDOs that sold credit protection on mortgage bonds that the firm’s hedge-fund clients bet against, according to people familiar with the matter. Deutsche Bank facilitated the deals, earning fees, by selling credit-default swaps to the hedge funds and clients. To offset its risk, the bank itself bought swaps that would pay off if mortgages backing the CDOs weakened.

Among the hedge-fund clients was one run by Mr. Paulson, the investor the SEC says helped pick the assets for a Goldman CDO. His firm, Paulson & Co., which reaped billions on the mortgage meltdown, helped choose about 100 mortgage assets for some of Deutsche Bank’s CDOs, traders say. Deutsche Bank used some but not all of his recommendations, according to people familiar with the transactions.

Investors who bought slices of the CDOs weren’t explicitly told about the bets by the hedge funds, though they were shown a list of mortgage bonds on which swaps had been written, according to people familiar with the matter and marketing documents reviewed by The Journal.

Oh yeah—you, too Bank of America Merrill Lynch for your Magnetar deals:

A money manager Merrill had hired to pick the assets to put in Norma told the Journal in 2007 that most had been pre-selected. A review of the assets showed they included swaps bets opposite to the negative wager Magnetar made. As losses increased, Magnetar profited.

The New York Times looks at how Goldman investigations (or at least calls from them) are proliferating, reporting that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is using tough language to call for an investigation of the bank. Two congressmen are asking for a broader investigation into Goldman’s Abacus deals (the SEC zeroed in on just one of more than two dozen). The German government, which owns IKB, one of the banks the SEC says Goldman snookered, is inquiring about the Goldman case, the NYT says. It reports that the UK’s Financial Services Authority also looking into the matter.

The EU is examining Goldman’s actions in the Greece CDS case, in which it helped the country mask its true indebtedness. One thing to be explored is whether Goldman sold Greek bonds knowing the country’s true debt was higher than what its buyers thought.

We’ll be watching press coverage closely, though I’d expect it to be fine now that investigations are out there. The regulators’ actions will embolden the press to push more aggressively into Goldman’s actions, as well as those of its competitors. This is an important consideration.

Felix Salmon disputes my assertion that the Goldman case is a press win, pointing out that the SEC started its Abacus investigation in 2008 and notified Goldman formally of its inquiry in September, while the Times’s investigation didn’t come out until December. And maybe so.

But regulators don’t operate in a vacuum: Press coverage and regulation (and lawmaking, for that matter: See finance reform) go hand in hand. At its best, as in this case, it can be a virtuous circle—regulators pick up on something the press does or vice versa, and push the story along or press coverage makes it more likely that regulators act. We don’t know what facts the Times dug out on Christmas Eve that the SEC didn’t already know, but we do know the regulator is more known these days for its near-comic haplessness than for its competence and aggressiveness.

At its worst, this relationship between press coverage and regulatory enforcement helps explain the failures of both in the years the financial industry went off the rails. One doesn’t work without the other. The press prepares the ground for regulators—and the other way around.

For the public, the Times was there first. That matters.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.