When is a Fraud Not a Fraud? (Greece-Goldman Edition)
Posted: 16 Feb 2010 11:41 PM PST
The short answer to the question in the headline is “When there are no rules.”
A headline in a current Bloomberg story illustrates the problem: “Goldman Sachs, Greece Didn’t Disclose Swap, Investors ‘Fooled’.”
“Fooled” is an unusual choice of words, particularly when applied to to presumed grown-ups like institutional investors and international overseers. Bloomberg seems to be mincing around the more obvious F-words, like “fraud” (as in defrauded) or “fleeced.”
Although there is a considerable amount of well-warranted consternation about how Goldman sold swaps to Greece that allowed it to mask how bad its deteriorating finances were from the EU budget police, there has been perilous little discussion of why the fact that this was permissible says there is something very wrong with the rules in place.
The latest twist is that Goldman managed $15 billion of debt sales for Greece after the debt-disguising swaps were in place, and (needless to say) there was no disclosure of the existence of the hidden debt (Bloomberg was able to obtain only six of ten prospectuses in question and found no mention of the swaps; it seems pretty unlikely that the others disclosed their existence). That means investors were hoodwinked. It goes without saying they would have seen Greece as a worse credit risk if they had been in full possession of the facts, and would presumably have required a higher interest rate.
Yet we get amazingly weak statements from the experts quizzed by Bloomberg:
Goldman could face legal liability “if it could be established that they were knowingly hiding risk, and therefore knew or had reason to know that the bond disclosure documents were misleading,” said Thomas Hazen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But that would be a tough hill to climb, in terms of burden of proof. There’d have to be some sort of smoking-gun memo.”
Yves here. I’m not certain how much a US law professor knows about the securities laws that govern this particular offering (as in it most certainly is NOT US securities regs). But there seem to be three issues:
1. What disclosure standards would apply to the Greece bond offering. The offering memorandum, from a legal standpoint, is the issuer’s document, meaning Greece’s, not Goldman’s. So any shortcoming in disclosure is a liability issue for Greece (no joke, the deal manager makes the issuer sign a little letter acknowledging what portions of the offering memo were provided by it, and it is just a few sentences, like the selling price of the bonds, the underwriters’ spread, stuff like that. The description of the issuer and the securities themselves is most assuredly NOT the responsibility of the issuer).
2. OK, but what about this famous due diligence that investment bankers are supposed to perform? Well I have to tell you, even in good old SEC land, it’s less than you might think. In my day, the only thing that seemed to be required was visiting the major facilities of a new issuer (as in a company doing an IPO or first bond offering) and having outside counsel read board minutes (and tell the managers if they saw anything they found troubling).
3. But in this case, we have an interesting conundrum. Goldman clearly HAD TO KNOW the Greek offering documents were incomplete, right? They had arranged those swaps, they knew there was more debt than Greece was ‘fessing up to in its later offering memoranda.
Point 3 is where matters get a bit sticky. Under SEC regs, the failure to mention the swaps or their effect (that there was additional debt that had been deferred) would be a violation. This is a simplification, , but the concept is that the offering documents have to make a full and fair disclosure. That means not only do the statement made need to be accurate as of the date when they were made, but further more, they cannot fail to state a material fact if leaving that information out would be misleading. So question is whether under the regs governing this deal, whether an omission of this sort would also be considered a regulatory violation and/or an investor fraud.
If so, it’s pretty clear Greece defrauded investors. But what about Goldman? Here, Prof. Hazen is far too charitable to Goldman. “Smoking gun memo?” No, you just need to understand how Goldman works. Even though my knowledge is dated, I strongly suspect the firm is still organized more or less the same way, because it was considered a competitive strength and was widely emulated in the industry (t had the effect of creating loyalty to the brand rather than individuals).
Goldman has centralized account management. One person, a relationship manager, is ultimately responsible for selling all products to particular corporate clients and government entities. His full time job is client coverage; he then works with product specialists as needed to get deals done (specialists are also assigned to particular accounts, but the relationship manager is always in the mix. Hank Paulson was one of these relationship managers, called investment banking services). So Goldman cannot pretend that somehow the team that handled the bond offering didn’t know about the swaps deal. That’s unlikely to begin with, given Goldman’s fetish about communication, but structurally impossible (the new business guy would have known about both sets of deals).
In addition, Goldman new business officers (the account managers) are required to document every meeting with the client (this is to protect the firm in case someone is hit by a bus or leaves the firm). This was also a long-standing fetish. In the 1980s, I as a junior account member could ask the library for the “credit memos” as these notes were called. On well-established clients, the meeting notes went back to the 1950s.
So I’m not certain you need a particular memo, even though such documents probably exist. All you need to do is walk through the structure of Goldman relationship management and their usual client communication protocols to establish that it is just not credible that the team working on the bond issues could not have known about the swaps. Then you just need to figure out a legal theory as to why what Goldman did was not kosher (presumably it was an investor fraud, but you’d need the relevant statutes and precedents).
Some people are willing to say in a pretty straightforward fashion that this sort of thing is not right. And if the regs really are so lax that this sort of omission is permissible, that is yet another bit of evidence that deregulation has gone too far (and I fail to understand why investor would be willing to buy paper in a disclosure regime that inadequate, but that is a bigger topic that we will hopefully turn to at another point). From the Bloomberg story:
“Investment banks are guilty of being part of a wider collusion that fudged the numbers to make the euro look like a working currency union,” said Matrix’s [Bill] Blain. “The bottom line is foreign exchange and bond investors bought something sellers knew not to be the case.”
Even before this latest wrinkle, Simon Johnson was quite clear that these deals did not pass the smell test:
Faced with enormous pressure from those eurozone countries now on the hook for saving Greece, the Commission will surely launch a special audit of Goldman and all its European clients…
If the Federal Reserve were an effective supervisor, it would have the political will sufficient to determine that Goldman Sachs has not been acting in accordance with its banking license. But any meaningful action from this direction seems unlikely….
To preserve Goldman, on incredibly generous terms, in the name of saving the financial system was and is hard to defend – but that is where we are. To allow the current government-backed (massive) Goldman to behave recklessly and with complete disregard to the basic tenets of international financial stability is utterly indefensible.
Yves here. Goldman has made a science of being too clever by half, but it may have made a fatal mistake. Governments do not take well to being abused or made to look foolish, and Goldman appears to have done both.