The story begins in early 2007, at One M&T Plaza, the Buffalo headquarters of M&T Bank, a regional lender with more than $65 billion in assets.
At that time, M&T’s executives had much to crow about. M&T had largely avoided subprime mortgages and other risky loans, and its reputation was bolstered by the fact that its second biggest shareholder was Warren E. Buffett, one of the most successful investors of all time.
But because loan rates were relatively low at that time, M&T began hunting for more profitable assets. It turned to a longtime adviser, Deutsche Bank, which had expanded into the American market with its acquisition of Bankers Trust in 1999.
Representatives of the two banks began discussing possible investments. Sean Whalen, the Deutsche Bank salesman who called M&T Bank that February day in 2007, urged M&T to opt for Gemstone. M&T officials traveled to the Park Avenue offices of HBK Investments, a firm that would manage Gemstone, for a sales presentation.
Within two weeks, M&T invested $82 million in Gemstone VII, the last in a series of seven deals totaling more than $4.3 billion. For the final Gemstone, Deutsche Bank shared $10 million in fees with ratings firms, lawyers and others involved in the transaction.
The $1.1 billion Gemstone VII was typical of the C.D.O.’s that were being offered at that time. It consisted of $500 million of bonds, mostly backed by home loans, and $600 million of credit-default swaps. Deutsche Bank used the swaps to insure bonds on behalf of hedge funds and other clients, paying Gemstone VII premiums that would be passed on to investors like M&T.
But thousands of the loans that backed Gemstone turned out to be deeply troubled. For instance, 3,949 home loans backing one of the mortgage bonds in Gemstone had been made by New Century Financial , which that February disclosed that it had discovered problems in its accounting for delinquent loans.
Many of those mortgages were made without fully verifying the borrowers’ income and assets, and they were made to homeowners in California and Florida, where inflated home prices were already falling. By January 2007, nearly 14 percent of the New Century loans were delinquent or in foreclosure, up from 11 percent in December.
Gemstone insured $30 million of the bonds backed by this pool. In other words, if the bonds lost value — which they subsequently did as more homeowners defaulted — someone stood to make a profit. The bonds were wiped out in 2008. Under the terms of the deal, Gemstone owed Deutsche Bank $30 million. Many other bonds insured through Gemstone also deteriorated rapidly.
Wall Street officials say investment banks served as intermediaries in such swap trades for other clients like hedge funds, but deal documents do not list those players.
Some investors say the collapse of deals like Gemstone is a wakeup call for money managers. “It’s finally dawning on market players and investors that Wall Street’s interest and those of investors have never been aligned,” said Thomas C. Priore, chief executive of ICP Capital, an investment firm that specializes in credit markets. “Investors are beginning to say to themselves: ‘Hey, there is someone who will benefit if this doesn’t go well.’ ”
Others on Wall Street say that investment banks’ potential conflicts should have been apparent. “As an institutional investor, your first duty is to do your own work,” said Ron D’Vari, who is chief executive of NewOak Capital and previously managed the C.D.O. business at BlackRock. “You have to do your own due diligence.”
In its complaint, M&T claims that Deutsche Bank and HBK never disclosed fully what Gemstone was made of or that subprime mortgages were souring fast. The bank “was told that it was receiving high-quality collateral that was triple-A rated and that had been screened for safety, when in fact it received impaired loan collateral,” said Robert J. Lane, a lawyer overseeing the case for M&T.
But Deutsche Bank has asserted that it gave M&T all the information it needed to evaluate Gemstone, including a 390-page offering document with detailed descriptions of the kinds of bonds that would go into Gemstone.
Furthermore, Mr. Whalen e-mailed a list of bonds that would be part of Gemstone to M&T two months before the deal closed. A copy of the message was provided to The New York Times by Deutsche Bank, which declined to comment further. (M&T countered that the list it received was preliminary and carried the disclaimer that the bonds it listed “may or may not be included.”)In its filings, HBK, which declined to comment, added that it could not have deceived M&T because it has lost millions as an investor in Gemstone, too.
The justice hearing the case, John M. Curran of State Supreme Court in Buffalo, is expected to rule soon on a motion to dismiss the case.
While M&T’s losses on Gemstone and similar securities were relatively small, amounting to less than 2 percent of the bank’s investment portfolio, M&T’s chief executive, Robert G. Wilmers, wrote about them at length in his bank’s 2007 annual report.
He lamented the decision to trust others, and said that the fact that some C.D.O.’s paid just 0.25 of a point more than traditional mortgage securities “makes one rue the choice all the more.”
Deutsche Bank, however, emerged relatively unscathed from Wall Street’s misadventures in C.D.O.’s. While other banks, like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, were staggered by bad C.D.O.’s because they retained tens of billions of dollars of the investments, Deutsche Bank has reported only modest losses from its significant involvement in the American housing market.
Analysts say that Deutsche Bank, which is the world’s second largest bank by assets after Royal Bank of Scotland, held on to fewer of the investments it originated, selling more of them to investors like M&T. It also, presciently, bought protection against mortgage bonds at the urging of traders like Mr. Lippmann.
Still, Deutsche Bank has not been immune from the crisis. Last week the bank said it would lose $6.3 billion in the fourth quarter in part because of losses in bond and swaps trading.
The vast majority of investments like Gemstone have deteriorated rapidly. Moody’s Investors Service found that from the start of 2007 until last September, it had downgraded more than $449 billion in securities similar to Gemstone VII, or 82 percent of all those outstanding. Moody’s had downgraded more than three-quarters of C.D.O. securities that it once rated triple-A — which has enraged many investors, who claim that ratings firms like Moody’s failed them.
Curtis D. Ishii, senior investment officer for Calpers, the big California pension fund, says many banks and investors have learned the hard way that no amount of financial engineering can transform bad financial ingredients into good investments.
“You can’t turn manure into filet mignon,” he said. “You just can’t.”