Timberwolf, the most notorious of Goldman's scams, was another car whose engine exploded right out of the lot. As with Hudson, Goldman clients who bought into the deal had no idea they were being sold the "cats and dogs" that the bank was desperately trying to get off its books. An Australian hedge fund called Basis Capital sank $100 million into the deal on June 18th, 2007, and almost immediately found itself in a full-blown death spiral. "We bought it, and Goldman made their first margin call 16 days later," says Eric Lewis, a lawyer for Basis, explaining how Goldman suddenly required his client to put up cash to cover expected losses. "They said, 'We need $5 million.' We're like, what the fuck, what's going on?" Within a month, Basis lost $37.5 million, and was forced to file for bankruptcy.
In many ways, Timberwolf was a perfect symbol of the insane faith-based mathematics and blackly corrupt marketing that defined the mortgage bubble. The deal was built on a satanic derivative structure called the CDO-squared. A normal CDO is a giant pool of loans that are chopped up and layered into different "tranches": the prime or AAA level, the BBB or "mezzanine" level, and finally the equity or "toxic waste" level. Banks had no trouble finding investors for the AAA pieces, which involve betting on the safest borrowers in the pool. And there were usually investors willing to make higher-odds bets on the crack addicts and no-documentation immigrants at the potentially lucrative bottom of the pool. But the unsexy BBB parts of the pool were hard to sell, and the banks didn't want to be stuck holding all of these risky pieces. So what did they do? They took all the extra unsold pieces, threw them in a big box, and repeated the original "tranching" process all over again. What originally were all BBB pieces were diced up and divided anew — and, presto, you suddenly had new AAA securities and new toxic-waste securities.
A CDO, to begin with, is already a highly dubious tool for magically converting risky subprime mortgages into AAA investments. A CDO-squared doubles down on that lunacy, taking the waste products of the original process and converting them into AAA investments. This is kind of like taking all the kids who were picked last to play volleyball in every gym class of every public school in the state, throwing them in a new gym, and pretending that the first 10 kids picked are varsity-level players. Then you take all the unpicked kids left over from that process, throw them in a gym with similar kids from all 50 states, and call the first 10 kids picked All-Americans.
Those "All-Americans" were the assets in the Timberwolf deal. These were the recycled nightmare dregs of the mortgage craze — to quote Beavis and Butt-Head, "the ass of the ass."
Goldman knew the deal sucked long before it dinged the Aussies in Basis Capital for $100 million. In February 2007, Goldman mortgage chief Daniel Sparks and senior executive Thomas Montag exchanged e-mails about the risk of holding all the crap in the Timberwolf deal.
MONTAG: "CDO-squared — how big and how dangerous?"
SPARKS: "Roughly $2 billion, and they are the deals to worry about."
Goldman executives were so "worried" about holding this stuff, in fact, that they quickly sent directives to all of their salespeople, offering "ginormous" credits to anyone who could manage to find a dupe to take the Timberwolf All-Americans off their hands. On Wall Street, directives issued from above are called "axes," and Goldman's upper management spent a great deal of the spring of 2007 "axing" Timberwolf. In a crucial conference call on May 20th that included Viniar, Sparks oversaw a PowerPoint presentation spelling out, in writing, that Goldman's mortgage desk was "most concerned" about Timberwolf and another CDO-squared deal. In a later e-mail, he offered an even more dire assessment of such deals: "There is real market-meltdown potential."
On May 22nd, two days after the conference call, Goldman sales rep George Maltezos urged the Australians at Basis to hurry up and buy what the bank knew was a deadly investment, suggesting that the "return on invested capital for Basis is over 60 percent." Maltezos was so stoked when he first identified the Aussies as a target in the scam that he subject-lined his e-mail "Utopia."
"I think," Maltezos wrote, "I found white elephant, flying pig and unicorn all at once."
The whole transaction can be summed up by the now-notorious e-mail that Montag wrote to Sparks only four days after they sold $100 million of Timberwolf to Basis. "Boy," Montag wrote, "that timeberwof [sic] was one shitty deal."
Last year, in the one significant regulatory action the government has won against the big banks, the SEC sued Goldman over a scam called Abacus, in which the bank "rented" its name to a billionaire hedge-fund viper to fleece investors out of more than $1 billion. Goldman agreed to pay $550 million to settle the suit, though no criminal charges were brought against the bank or its executives. But in light of the Levin report, that SEC action now looks woefully inadequate. Yes, it was a record fine — but it pales in comparison to the money Goldman has taken from the government since the crash. As Spitzer notes, Goldman's reaction was basically, "OK, we'll pay you $550 million to settle the Abacus case — that's a small price to pay for the $12.9 billion we got for the AIG bailout." Now, adds Spitzer, "everybody can just go home and pretend it was only $12.4 billion — and Goldman can smile all the way to the bank. The question is, now that we've seen this report, there are a bunch of story lines that seem to be at least as egregious as Abacus. Are they going to bring cases?"
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