Clients Worried About Goldman’s Dueling Goals
Closing the ranks
Goldman had managed $4.2 billion in debt issuance for the state since 2004, receiving fees for arranging those deals.
A 59-page collection of trading ideas that Goldman put together in 2008, and which was reviewed by The New York Times, shows the firm recommending that customers buy insurance to protect themselves against a debt default by New Jersey. In addition to New Jersey, Goldman advocated placing bets against the debt of eight other states in the trading book. Goldman also underwrote debt for all but two of those states in 2008, according to Thomson Reuters.
Mr. Schaer complained to Mr. Blankfein in a letter in December 2008. A response came back from Kevin Willens, a managing director in Goldman’s public finance unit; he argued that Goldman maintained impermeable barriers between its unit that had helped New Jersey raise debt and another unit that was urging investors to bet against the state’s ability to repay that debt. Mr. Schaer replied that he doubted the barriers were impenetrable.
“New Jersey taxpayers cannot be expected to pay tens of millions of dollars in investment banking fees while another department of the very same firm — albeit one clearly and strategically walled off — actively or aggressively advocates the sale of the very same or similar bonds in the aftermath,” Mr. Schaer wrote.
Mr. Schaer said in an interview that he tried to get regulations passed to prevent banks from playing such dual roles in state finances, but has made little headway.
“I hope the federal government will undertake this problem, and it is a problem,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think the wall — no matter how thick or how tall — will be effective.”
Goldman’s many financial roles have raised concerns well beyond the state level. Over the years, it has played the role of adviser and fund-raiser for a diverse range of countries, while occasionally drawing criticism for simultaneously betting against the ability of some countries, like Russia, to repay their debts.
As Client Positions Sour, Goldman Defends Own
Goldman’s powerful and nimble trading desk has become a reliable fountain of profits for the firm. But it has also instilled fear among some clients who say they believe, as Mr. Killinger and others at Washington Mutual did, that Goldman trades against the interests of some of its clients.
Trading desks make big bets using the firm’s and clients’ money. Goldman’s trading operation has grown so pivotal and influential that many analysts say the firm as a whole now operates more like a hedge fund than an investment bank — another benchmark of the firm’s internal evolution that can create new friction with clients.
For example, if Goldman makes a proprietary bet in a particular market, as it did in early 2007 when it amassed a huge wager against mortgages, what stops it from positioning itself against clients who operate in that market?
Bear Stearns, a now defunct investment bank, is a case in point.
With the housing crisis gathering steam in March 2007, Goldman created and sold to clients a $1 billion package of mortgage-related securities called Timberwolf. Within months, investors lost 80 percent of their money as Timberwolf plummeted.
Arguing is pointless
Bear bought a $300 million slice of Timberwolf through some of its funds, and the investment was disastrous. The funds collapsed under the weight of Timberwolf and other errant investments, beginning a downward spiral for Bear itself that ended a year later with the firm forced into the arms of JPMorgan Chase to prevent a bankruptcy.
Goldman, however, benefited from the problems its securities helped to create, Congressional documents show. Around the same time that Bear was investing in Timberwolf, Goldman was placing a bet that Bear’s shares would fall. Goldman’s short position in Bear was large enough that it would have generated as much as $33 million in profits if Bear collapsed, according to the documents.
Mr. van Praag, a Goldman spokesman, declined in the e-mail message to say how much the firm earned on those bets or whether they were still on when Bear finally collapsed.
Goldman was busy with other clients as well during 2007, including Thornburg Mortgage, a high-end lender. Goldman was one of 22 financial companies that lent money to Thornburg; it was using about $200 million of a Goldman credit line backed by mortgage loans.
In August 2007, Goldman was the first firm to begin aggressively marking down the value of Thornburg assets used as collateral for the loan. Goldman said the assets were not valuable enough to repay the loan if Thornburg defaulted. Goldman demanded more cash to shore up the account.
According to five people briefed on the relationship who requested anonymity because they didn’t want to damage continuing business relationships, Goldman told Thornburg that the request was justified because the value of similar mortgages traded by other parties had been priced at lower levels. But Goldman, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, had not actually seen such trades.
Thornburg officials, however, pushed back on Goldman’s request, questioning the values the firm put on Thornburg’s portfolio. “When we tried to negotiate price, they argued that they were aware of transactions that were not broadly known on the Street,” said a former Thornburg employee briefed on the talks with Goldman. “That was their justification for why they were marking us down as aggressively as they were — that they were aware of things that others were not.”
Even as Goldman pressured Thornburg for cash, a Goldman banker pitched Thornburg to hire the firm to help it raise new funds. Thornburg turned elsewhere.
Thornburg wasn’t the only firm Goldman pressured this way. It made similar demands — using similar arguments — of A.I.G., the insurer that stood behind many of Goldman’s mortgage securities. Ultimately, Goldman’s demands drained the insurer of so much cash that a hobbled A.I.G. required a taxpayer bailout in September 2008. Meanwhile, Goldman had been buying protection against a possible debt default by A.I.G. at the same time that it was pressuring A.I.G. to pay it additional cash. Because Goldman’s own cash demands were weakening A.I.G., Goldman had a front-row seat to the distress the company was experiencing — giving Goldman added insight that buying default insurance on A.I.G. was probably a shrewd investment.
Although Goldman’s financial insight derived from proprietary dealings with A.I.G., and included facts that others in the market most likely didn’t have, Mr. van Praag, the Goldman spokesman, said that his firm was not capitalizing on nonpublic information.
Like A.I.G., Thornburg found that arguing with Goldman was fruitless, because the firm had favorable contracts with Thornburg governing disputes. So Thornburg accepted Goldman’s valuations, but then established credit lines with other banks.
Although Goldman lost a customer, its mortgage unit had gained a victory: the firm could cite the valuations that Thornburg accepted as proper pricing for mortgage securities when it got into similar disputes with other clients.
“If they could move our positions, they could then argue with A.I.G. or some of their other big positions that our marks were where the market was,” the former Thornburg employee said. “They could have this sort of client arbitrage going on.”
Mr. van Praag, the Goldman spokesman, said his firm’s dispute with Thornburg was about differing standards for valuing collateral, nothing more.
“We are a ‘mark to market’ institution and we mark our positions on a daily basis to reflect what we believe is the current value for a security if we decided to sell it,” he said. “Those marks are verified by our controllers department, which is independent from the securities division.”
Goldman said that the mortgage collapse and Thornburg’s financial problems vindicate the posture it took on how to value Thornburg’s collateral. “Subsequent events clearly indicated that our marks were accurate and realistic,” Mr. van Praag said.
Indeed, soon after Goldman demanded more funds from Thornburg, analysts began downgrading its shares on news of the collateral calls. Beaten down by the broader mortgage collapse, Thornburg filed for bankruptcy protection on May 1, 2009.