The Levin-Coburn Report Coverage

The WSJ and NYT whiff on possible Goldman Sachs criminal referrals

There’s all kinds of stuff to chew on in the new Levin-Coburn report, which looks like the toughest such report we’ve seen to date on the culprits of the financial crisis. But the coverage is hit or miss.

Check The Wall Street Journal, which puts its story on C1. This one probably hould have gone on A1 of the nation’s business bible rather than, say, “U.S. Says Iran Helps Crackdown In Syria.”

The Journal’s actual story isn’t very good, either. Here’s the poor lede:

Some call the concept of owning a home the American dream.

Wall Street bankers called it something different: “Pigs.” “Crap.” A “white elephant, flying pig and unicorn.”

That analogy doesn’t work. Wall Street bankers weren’t talking about the concept of owning a home. They were talking about the marks to whom they were selling mortgage-backed securities.

And this is more problematic than a weak lede (emphasis mine):

Though lacking evidence of outright fraud, the report shows Wall Street in gritty, day-to-day detail, angling to profit from a booming mortgage market, and then scrambling to cope with its collapse.

It’s just not true that the report lacks evidence of outright fraud. What about Washington Mutual, which the Journal writes about several paragraphs down?

Washington Mutual’s senior management did nothing to stop the lending practices at the lender’s loan offices in Southern California even after the bank conducted an internal investigation in 2005 that found “an extensive level of loan fraud,” according to a Washington Mutual internal memo cited in the Senate report.

WaMu itself found extensive fraud and didn’t do anything about it. There’s also plenty of evidence alleging that Goldman Sachs manipulated prices and deceived investors.

Even more baffling: The Journal doesn’t report that Senator Carl Levin is recommending that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and other Goldman execs be referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution on various matters, including defrauding investors and lying to Congress. This is all the Journal says:

Sen. Levin said Wednesday that he believed some Goldman executives may have misled Congress during a committee hearing in April 2010. He didn’t specify how.

The New York Times doesn’t even note that much in its otherwise fine story. Hello, guys. This is major news.

McClatchy is on it, though. As is Bloomberg:

Senator Carl Levin, releasing the findings of a two-year inquiry yesterday, said he wants the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to examine whether Goldman Sachs violated the law by misleading clients who bought the complex securities known as collateralized debt obligations without knowing the firm would benefit if they fell in value.

The Michigan Democrat also said federal prosecutors should review whether to bring perjury charges against Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and other current and former employees who testified in Congress last year. Levin said they denied under oath that Goldman Sachs took a financial position against the mortgage market solely for its own profit, statements the senator said were untrue.

“In my judgment, Goldman clearly misled their clients and they misled the Congress,” Levin said

And The Huffington Post zeroes in on it, too:

Goldman Sachs executives deceived clients in order to profit off the brewing financial crisis and then misled Congress when asked to explain their actions, concluded a top lawmaker who led a two-year investigation into Wall Street’s role in the meltdown.

Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, will recommend that Goldman executives who testified before his panel, including chairman and chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, be referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, the Michigan Democrat announced Wednesday. Members of the subcommittee will now deliberate Levin’s proposal.

McClatchy’s Greg Gordon writes about the evidence of fraud that the Journal asserts is lacking (emphasis mine)

The subcommittee report, however, accuses Goldman of conflicts of interest in three other deals in which it allegedly withheld key information from clients, the most serious known as Hudson Mezzanine-2006-1.

According to the report, Goldman executives selected the securities that would be included in the $2 billion deal with no input from investors, which included the Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley. Goldman didn’t disclose that it would be holding the “short” position — betting on the default of the securities, even when a representative of one investor, the National Australia Bank, directly asked, it said.

Goldman used the deal “to transfer the risks” of $1.2 billion in risky home loans to investors, the report said. Goldman not only rid itself of risky assets, but also wound up with net profits of $1.35 billion, the report said.

Most interesting of all is this Bloomberg report noting how the Levin-Coburn report say Goldman Sachs engineered a short squeeze by manipulating prices:

The report also says that the mortgage desk reversed its view on how it marked derivatives values based on its position in the market. Clients with short positions complained that Goldman Sachs was undervaluing those bets during the squeeze attempt. After the traders abandoned that strategy in June 2007 and increased their wagers against the mortgage market, other clients complained the firm was overvaluing the short positions.

I’d love to see some more on that.

Finally, it’s newsworthy in itself that this is a bipartisan report agreed to by a liberal senator like Levin and a conservative one like Tom Coburn. Here’s Coburn:

The subcommittee’s findings show “without a doubt the lack of ethics in some of our financial institutions who embraced known conflicts of interest to accomplish wealth for themselves, not caring about the outcome for their customers,” said Coburn. “When that happens, no country can survive and neither can their financial institutions.”

It’s something of a minor miracle in this day and age that a scorching document like this about Wall Street could come out of Congress, much less with Republican support. You’d expect the bipartisanship-worshipping Serious Washington Journalists to devote columns of praise to this coming-together moment.

Something tells me, though, that they won’t. Let’s hope the business press, at least, picks this one apart for some time to come.

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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: , , , ,