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The People vs. Goldman Sachs

Page 6 of 6

Another extraordinary example of Goldman's penchant for truth avoidance came when Joshua Birnbaum, former head of structured-products trading for the bank, gave a deposition to Levin's committee. Asked point-blank if Goldman's huge "short" on mortgages was an intentional bet against the market or simply a "hedge" against potential losses, Birnbaum played dumb. "I do not know whether the shorts were a hedge," he said. But the committee, it turned out, already knew that Birnbaum had written a memo in which he had spelled out the truth: "The shorts were not a hedge." When Birnbaum's lawyers learned that their client's own words had been used against him, they hilariously sent an outraged letter complaining that Birnbaum didn't know the committee had his memo when he decided to dodge the question. They also submitted a "supplemental" answer. Birnbaum now said, "Having reviewed the document the staff did not previously provide me" — his own words! — "I can now recall that ... I believed ... these short positions were not a hedge." (Goldman, for its part, dismisses Birnbaum as a single trader who "neither saw nor knew the firm's overall risk positions.")

When it came time for Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein to testify, the banker hedged and stammered like a brain-addled boxer who couldn't quite follow the questions. When Levin asked how Blankfein felt about the fact that Goldman collected $13 billion from U.S. taxpayers through the AIG bailout, the CEO deflected over and over, insisting that Goldman would somehow have made that money anyway through its private insurance policies on AIG. When Levin pressed Blankfein, pointing out that he hadn't answered the question, Blankfein simply peered at Levin like he didn't understand.

But Blankfein also testified unequivocally to the following:

"Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market. The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008. We didn't have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients."

Levin couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Heck, yes, I was offended," he says. "Goldman's CEO claimed the firm 'didn't have a massive short,' when the opposite was true." First of all, in Goldman's own internal memoranda, the bank calls its giant, $13 billion bet against mortgages "the big short." Second, by the time Sparks and Co. were unloading the Timberwolves of the world on their "unicorns" and "flying pigs" in the summer of 2007, Goldman's mortgage department accounted for 54 percent of the bank's risk. That means more than half of all the bank's risk was wrapped up in its bet against the mortgage market — a "massive short" by any definition. Indeed, the bank was betting so much money on mortgages that its executives had become comically blasé about giant swings on a daily basis. When Goldman lost more than $100 million on August 8th, 2007, Montag circulated this e-mail: "So who lost the hundy?"

This month, after releasing his report, Levin sent all of this material to the Justice Department. His conclusion was simple. "In my judgment," he declared, "Goldman clearly misled their clients, and they misled the Congress." Goldman, unsurprisingly, disagreed: "Our testimony was truthful and accurate, and that applies to all of our testimony," said spokesman Michael DuVally. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Goldman insists that its behavior throughout the period covered in the Levin report was consistent with responsible business practice, and that its machinations in the mortgage market were simply an attempt to manage risk.

It wouldn't be hard for federal or state prosecutors to use the Levin report to make a criminal case against Goldman. I ask Eliot Spitzer what he would do if he were still attorney general and he saw the Levin report. "Once the steam stopped coming out of my ears, I'd be dropping so many subpoenas," he says. "And I would parse every potential inconsistency between the testimony they gave to Congress and the facts as we now understand them."

I ask what inconsistencies jump out at him. "They keep claiming they were only marginally short, that it was more just servicing their clients," he says. "But it sure doesn't look like that." He pauses. "They were $13 billion short. That's big — 50 percent of their risk. It was so completely disproportionate."

Lloyd Blankfein went to Washington and testified under oath that Goldman Sachs didn't make a massive short bet and didn't bet against its clients. The Levin report proves that Goldman spent the whole summer of 2007 riding a "big short" and took a multibillion-dollar bet against its clients, a bet that incidentally made them enormous profits. Are we all missing something? Is there some different and higher standard of triple- and quadruple-lying that applies to bank CEOs but not to baseball players?

This issue is bigger than what Goldman executives did or did not say under oath. The Levin report catalogs dozens of instances of business practices that are objectively shocking, no matter how any high-priced lawyer chooses to interpret them: gambling billions on the misfortune of your own clients, gouging customers on prices millions of dollars at a time, keeping customers trapped in bad investments even as they begged the bank to sell, plus myriad deceptions of the "failure to disclose" variety, in which customers were pitched investment deals without ever being told they were designed to help Goldman "clean" its bad inventory. For years, the soundness of America's financial system has been based on the proposition that it's a crime to lie in a prospectus or a sales brochure. But the Levin report reveals a bank gone way beyond such pathetic little boundaries; the collective picture resembles a financial version of The Jungle, a portrait of corporate sociopathy that makes you never want to go near a sausage again.

Upton Sinclair's narrative shocked the nation into a painful realization about the pervasive filth and corruption behind America's veneer of smart, robust efficiency. But Carl Levin's very similar tale probably will not. The fact that this evidence comes from a U.S. senator's office, and not the FBI or the SEC, is itself an element in the worsening tale of lawlessness and despotism that sparked a global economic meltdown. "Why should Carl Levin be the one who needs to do this?" asks Spitzer. "Where's the SEC? Where are any of the regulatory bodies?"

This isn't just a matter of a few seedy guys stealing a few bucks. This is America: Corporate stealing is practically the national pastime, and Goldman Sachs is far from the only company to get away with doing it. But the prominence of this bank and the high-profile nature of its confrontation with a powerful Senate committee makes this a political story as well. If the Justice Department fails to give the American people a chance to judge this case — if Goldman skates without so much as a trial — it will confirm once and for all the embarrassing truth: that the law in America is subjective, and crime is defined not by what you did, but by who you are.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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