Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Goldman Story

The whole Goldman story has been nothing short of a Bollywood potboiler over the past couple of years. And the best part is that there are no good guys and bad guys here. The more the saga unfolds, the more interesting it looks! But it has brought to the fore the very duplicitous nature of business and regulation, both!

When the whole sub-prime season was on, Goldman beat the Street, so to say. And suddenly people were looking to Goldman to lead the way and show the world how business is done despite a slump in the sector, and a slump in the economy. The CEO was lauded, the world looked in awe as Citigroup was brought down to its knees and almost nationalized and Merill was rescued by the Government and BofA, while in the midst of this carnage, Goldman kept looking extremely strong.

And while all this has been happening, comes news that the CDOs that Goldman had been marketing had underlying instruments that had been chosen by Paulson & Co. a hedge fund that had intentions of shorting these same securities. The implication? Imagine sailing on the high seas in a boat knowing that the boat had a hole in the hull! And now, after the SEC has sued them and there has been sufficient hue and cry over the lack of governance laws, there has been an out of court settlement of sorts. The heads won't roll, the penalty will be at $550 million, and the core issue has now been reduced to a lack of completeness of marketing materials. All this, after Goldman initially denied any of these allegations. How then suddenly did they acquiesce to a settlement at all?

And then comes the insider aspect. Stephen Friedman, former Goldman Chairman and then audit committee chairman was accused of picking up Goldman shares when he was chairman of the Federal Reserve. All this while the Government was busy bailing out AIG and paying people caught in AIG's tentacles. So while the Fed clearly perhaps knew that such a bailout was imminent, they perhaps also knew that Goldman would be a key benefactor! How then could Friedman pick up shares that resulted in him netting a cool $3 mn in paper profits? The case is feeble, since they are looking at a possible exception. But reasoning begs that one understand how a legal exception can preclude common sense! Even if the law allows it because of a loophole, wouldn't a Fed Chief who knows about an imminent windfall not be making use of this inside information when he nets a cool profit through this benefactor? Another lapse in judgment came when another former director let slip news of Berkshire Hathway's $5 bn investment in Goldman. At least he didn't stand for re-election to the board!

While all this has been happening, people have wondered about the law. On one hand, one can see glaring errors of judgment. But they can also see massive loopholes in the law that allow one to simply commit the transgression and still skip away free. So who is the bad guy here? The transgressors themselves, for not having a conscience? Or the lawmakers for leaving laws so lax? We can argue both ways. One can say that transgressors will always exist. And it is up to the regulators to ensure that they don't run riot. But then, what happened to the Classical theory of Economics, that needs the least Governmental intervention? Can that theory effectively be put to rest having fallen prey to the machinations of the human mind?

The debate will forever go on. But till then, the media will have a circus to pry on. Had Merill not gone under, someone would have covered John Thain's multi million dollar loo as a Wall Street Heirloom, rather than glossing over the 'John Fiddled while Wall Street burned' image of Thain. But I guess this is indeed the flip side of capitalism - amazingly good as long as the going is great, but at the ebb of gloom when things go a bit awry.

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