Goldman's Game

Matt Taibbi has emerged as one of the country's most compelling writers on financial malfeasance, an achievement that is not limited to his legendary depiction of Goldman Sach as the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

In his latest piece, Taibbi returns to familiar themes:

By the end of 2006, Goldman was sitting atop a $6 billion bet on American home loans. The bet was a byproduct of Goldman having helped create a new trading index called the ABX, through which it accumulated huge holdings in mortgage-related securities. But in December 2006, a series of top Goldman executives — including [David] Viniar, mortgage chief Daniel Sparks and senior executive Thomas Montag — came to the conclusion that Goldman was overexposed to mortgages and should get out from under its huge bet as quickly as possible. Internal memos indicate that the executives soon became aware of the host of scams that would crater the global economy: home loans awarded with no documentation, loans with little or no equity in them. On December 14th, Viniar met with Sparks and other executives, and stressed the need to get "closer to home" — i.e., to reduce the bank's giant bet on mortgages.

Sparks followed up that meeting with a seven-point memo laying out how to unload the bank's mortgages. Entry No. 2 is particularly noteworthy. "Distribute as much as possible on bonds created from new loan securitizations," Sparks wrote, "and clean previous positions." In other words, the bank needed to find suckers to buy as much of its risky inventory as possible. Goldman was like a car dealership that realized it had a whole lot full of cars with faulty brakes. Instead of announcing a recall, it surged ahead with a two-fold plan to make a fortune: first, by dumping the dangerous products on other people, and second, by taking out life insurance against the fools who bought the deadly cars.

The day he received the Sparks memo, Viniar seconded the plan in a gleeful cheerleading e-mail. "Let's be aggressive distributing things," he wrote, "because there will be very good opportunities as the markets [go] into what is likely to be even greater distress, and we want to be in a position to take advantage of them." Translation: Let's find as many suckers as we can as fast as we can, because we'll only make more money as more and more shit hits the fan.

By February 2007, two months after the Sparks memo, Goldman had gone from betting $6 billion on mortgages to betting $10 billion against them — a shift of $16 billion. Even CEO Lloyd "I'm doing God's work" Blankfein wondered aloud about the bank's progress in "cleaning" its crap. "Could/should we have cleaned up these books before," Blankfein wrote in one e-mail, "and are we doing enough right now to sell off cats and dogs in other books throughout the division?"

How did Goldman sell off its "cats and dogs"? Easy: It assembled new batches of risky mortgage bonds and dumped them on their clients, who took Goldman's word that they were buying a product the bank believed in. The names of the deals Goldman used to "clean" its books — chief among them Hudson and Timberwolf — are now notorious on Wall Street. Each of the deals appears to represent a different and innovative brand of shamelessness and deceit.

In the marketing materials for the Hudson deal, Goldman claimed that its interests were "aligned" with its clients because it bought a tiny, $6 million slice of the riskiest portion of the offering. But what it left out is that it had shorted the entire deal, to the tune of a $2 billion bet against its own clients. The bank, in fact, had specifically designed Hudson to reduce its exposure to the very types of mortgages it was selling — one of its creators, trading chief Michael Swenson, later bragged about the "extraordinary profits" he made shorting the housing market. All told, Goldman dumped $1.2 billion of its own crappy "cats and dogs" into the deal — and then told clients that the assets in Hudson had come not from its own inventory, but had been "sourced from the Street."

Hilariously, when Senate investigators asked Goldman to explain how it could claim it had bought the Hudson assets from "the Street" when in fact it had taken them from its own inventory, the bank's head of CDO trading, David Lehman, claimed it was accurate to say the assets came from "the Street" because Goldman was part of the Street. "They were like, 'We are the Street,'" laughs one investigator.

Hudson lost massive amounts of money almost immediately after the sale was completed. Goldman's biggest client, Morgan Stanley, begged it to liquidate the investment and get out while they could still salvage some value. But Goldman refused, stalling for months as its clients roasted to death in a raging conflagration of losses. At one point, John Pearce, the Morgan Stanley rep dealing with Goldman, lost his temper at the bank's refusal to sell, breaking his phone in frustration. "One day I hope I get the real reason why you are doing this to me," he told a Goldman broker.

Goldman insists it was only required to liquidate the assets "in an orderly fashion." But the bank had an incentive to drag its feet: Goldman's huge bet against the deal meant that the worse Hudson performed, the more money Goldman made. After all, the entire point of the transaction was to screw its own clients so Goldman could "clean its books." The crime was far from victimless: Morgan Stanley alone lost nearly $960 million on the Hudson deal, which admittedly doesn't do much to tug the heartstrings. Except that quickly after Goldman dumped this near-billion-dollar loss on Morgan Stanley, Morgan Stanley turned around and dumped it on taxpayers, who within a year were spending $10 billion bailing out the sucker bank through the TARP program.

Still, the allegation that Goldman has been ripping off some of its clients is hardly the most damaging: the firm is, after all, in the business of market-making. And it has also, no doubt, made many of its clients fabulously wealthy. What instead deserves more scrutiny is the ways in which Goldman enriched itself during the chaotic bailout era of the fall and winter of '08-'09, when so many genuinely thought the world was about to end and weren't asking questions when the Fed and Treasury doled out billions upon billions. 

Take this, for example, from Karl Denninger, regarding Goldman's tactic of, essentially, taking out two insurance policies on the same burning house and collecting on both: