On the day the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Goldman Sachs for securities fraud, shares in the company plunged 12.8 percent, closing at $160.70. The market, it seemed, was finally passing judgment on a decade of high-stakes Wall Street scammery that left America threatening Nigeria, Indonesia and Belarus on the list of the world's most corrupt economies.
A few days later, Goldman announced its first-quarter numbers. Profits were up 91 percent, to a staggering $3.4 billion.
Compensation and bonuses soared to $5.5 billion, up from $4.7 billion in the first quarter of 2009. Battered in the press, Goldman was raking up on the bottom line. So investors once again leapt into Goldman's arms, pushing the stock as high as $166.50, not far from where it was even before news of the SEC suit broke.
Goldman isn't dead – far from it. But this new SEC suit officially places it at the center of a raging national discussion about the hopelessly fucked state of American business ethics. As a halting, first-step attempt at financial regulatory reform makes its way toward a vote in the Senate, the government has finally thrown open the door and let a few of the rottener skeletons tumble out.
On the surface, the failure-to-disclose rap being leveled at Goldman feels like a niggling technicality, the Wall Street equivalent of a tax-evasion charge against Al Capone. The bank will try and – who knows – might even succeed in defending itself in a court of law against these charges. But in the court of public opinion it was doomed the instant the SEC decided to put this ghastly black comedy of a fraud case on the street for everyone to see. Just as Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger will never recover from the image of him (allegedly) waving his dick at a scared 20-year-old coed in the darkened hallway of a Georgia nightclub, Goldman may never bounce back from the SEC's brutal blow-by-blow account of how the bank conspired with a hedge-fund magnate to bend one gullible business partner after another over the edge of the subprime housing market.
Here's the CliffsNotes version of the scandal: Back in 2007, Harvard-educated hedge-fund whiz John Paulson (no relation to then-Treasury secretary and former Goldman chief Hank Paulson) smartly decided the housing boom was a mirage. So he asked Goldman to put together a multibillion-dollar basket of crappy subprime investments that he could bet against. The bank gladly complied, taking a $15 million fee to do the deal and letting Paulson choose some of the toxic mortgages in the portfolio, which would come to be called Abacus.
What Paulson jammed into Abacus was mortgages lent to borrowers with low credit ratings, and mortgages from states like Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California that had recently seen wild home-price spikes. In metaphorical terms, Paulson was choosing, as sexual partners for future visitors to the Goldman bordello, a gang of IV drug users, Haitians and hemophiliacs, then buying life-insurance policies on the whole orgy. Goldman then turned around and sold this poisonous stuff to its customers as good, healthy investments.
Where Goldman broke the rules, according to the SEC, was in failing to disclose to its customers – in particular a German bank called IKB and a Dutch bank called ABN-AMRO – the full nature of Paulson's involvement with the deal. Neither investor knew that the portfolio they were buying into had essentially been put together by a financial arsonist who was rooting for it all to blow up.
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