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The Great American Bubble Machine

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Goldman has denied that it changed its underwriting standards during the Internet years, but its own statistics belie the claim. Just as it did with the investment trust in the 1920s, Goldman started slow and finished crazy in the Internet years. After it took a little-known company with weak financials called Yahoo! public in 1996, once the tech boom had already begun, Goldman quickly became the IPO king of the Internet era. Of the 24 companies it took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time. As a leading underwriter of Internet stocks during the boom, Goldman provided profits far more volatile than those of its competitors: In 1999, the average Goldman IPO leapt 281 percent above its offering price, compared to the Wall Street average of 181 percent.

How did Goldman achieve such extraordinary results? One answer is that they used a practice called "laddering," which is just a fancy way of saying they manipulated the share price of new offerings. Here's how it works: Say you're Goldman Sachs, and Bullshit.com comes to you and asks you to take their company public. You agree on the usual terms: You'll price the stock, determine how many shares should be released and take the Bullshit.com CEO on a "road show" to schmooze investors, all in exchange for a substantial fee (typically six to seven percent of the amount raised). You then promise your best clients the right to buy big chunks of the IPO at the low offering price — let's say Bullshit.com's starting share price is $15 — in exchange for a promise that they will buy more shares later on the open market. That seemingly simple demand gives you inside knowledge of the IPO's future, knowledge that wasn't disclosed to the day trader schmucks who only had the prospectus to go by: You know that certain of your clients who bought X amount of shares at $15 are also going to buy Y more shares at $20 or $25, virtually guaranteeing that the price is going to go to $25 and beyond. In this way, Goldman could artificially jack up the new company's price, which of course was to the bank's benefit — a six percent fee of a $500 million IPO is serious money.

Goldman was repeatedly sued by shareholders for engaging in laddering in a variety of Internet IPOs, including Webvan and NetZero. The deceptive practices also caught the attention of Nicholas Maier, the syndicate manager of Cramer & Co., the hedge fund run at the time by the now-famous chattering television asshole Jim Cramer, himself a Goldman alum. Maier told the SEC that while working for Cramer between 1996 and 1998, he was repeatedly forced to engage in laddering practices during IPO deals with Goldman.

"Goldman, from what I witnessed, they were the worst perpetrator," Maier said. "They totally fueled the bubble. And it's specifically that kind of behavior that has caused the market crash. They built these stocks upon an illegal foundation — manipulated up — and ultimately, it really was the small person who ended up buying in." In 2005, Goldman agreed to pay $40 million for its laddering violations — a puny penalty relative to the enormous profits it made. (Goldman, which has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases it has settled, refused to respond to questions for this story.)

Another practice Goldman engaged in during the Internet boom was "spinning," better known as bribery. Here the investment bank would offer the executives of the newly public company shares at extra-low prices, in exchange for future underwriting business. Banks that engaged in spinning would then undervalue the initial offering price — ensuring that those "hot" opening-price shares it had handed out to insiders would be more likely to rise quickly, supplying bigger first-day rewards for the chosen few. So instead of Bullshit.com opening at $20, the bank would approach the Bullshit.com CEO and offer him a million shares of his own company at $18 in exchange for future business — effectively robbing all of Bullshit's new shareholders by diverting cash that should have gone to the company's bottom line into the private bank account of the company's CEO.

In one case, Goldman allegedly gave a multimillion-dollar special offering to eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who later joined Goldman's board, in exchange for future i-banking business. According to a report by the House Financial Services Committee in 2002, Goldman gave special stock offerings to executives in 21 companies that it took public, including Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and two of the great slithering villains of the financial-scandal age — Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski and Enron's Ken Lay. Goldman angrily denounced the report as "an egregious distortion of the facts" — shortly before paying $110 million to settle an investigation into spinning and other manipulations launched by New York state regulators. "The spinning of hot IPO shares was not a harmless corporate perk," then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer said at the time. "Instead, it was an integral part of a fraudulent scheme to win new investment-banking business."

Such practices conspired to turn the Internet bubble into one of the greatest financial disasters in world history: Some $5 trillion of wealth was wiped out on the NASDAQ alone. But the real problem wasn't the money that was lost by shareholders, it was the money gained by investment bankers, who received hefty bonuses for tampering with the market. Instead of teaching Wall Street a lesson that bubbles always deflate, the Internet years demonstrated to bankers that in the age of freely flowing capital and publicly owned financial companies, bubbles are incredibly easy to inflate, and individual bonuses are actually bigger when the mania and the irrationality are greater.

Nowhere was this truer than at Goldman. Between 1999 and 2002, the firm paid out $28.5 billion in compensation and benefits — an average of roughly $350,000 a year per employee. Those numbers are important because the key legacy of the Internet boom is that the economy is now driven in large part by the pursuit of the enormous salaries and bonuses that such bubbles make possible. Goldman's mantra of "long-term greedy" vanished into thin air as the game became about getting your check before the melon hit the pavement.

The market was no longer a rationally managed place to grow real, profitable businesses: It was a huge ocean of Someone Else's Money where bankers hauled in vast sums through whatever means necessary and tried to convert that money into bonuses and payouts as quickly as possible. If you laddered and spun 50 Internet IPOs that went bust within a year, so what? By the time the Securities and Exchange Commission got around to fining your firm $110 million, the yacht you bought with your IPO bonuses was already six years old. Besides, you were probably out of Goldman by then, running the U.S. Treasury or maybe the state of New Jersey. (One of the truly comic moments in the history of America's recent financial collapse came when Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and left with $320 million in IPO-fattened stock, insisted in 2002 that "I've never even heard the term 'laddering' before.")

For a bank that paid out $7 billion a year in salaries, $110 million fines issued half a decade late were something far less than a deterrent —they were a joke. Once the Internet bubble burst, Goldman had no incentive to reassess its new, profit-driven strategy; it just searched around for another bubble to inflate. As it turns out, it had one ready, thanks in large part to Rubin.

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