SEC Charges Goldman Sachs Over Subprime-Tied Product

April 16, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Today, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs and one of its vice presidents with selling clients a financial instrument that another client had purposefully designed to fail and had shorted, betting on its collapse:

The SEC alleges that Goldman Sachs structured and marketed a synthetic collateralized debt obligation (CDO) that hinged on the performance of subprime residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). Goldman Sachs failed to disclose to investors vital information about the CDO, in particular the role that a major hedge fund played in the portfolio selection process and the fact that the hedge fund had taken a short position against the CDO.

To simplify how the gambit worked: The hedge fund Paulson & Co. (no relation to former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) handpicked mortgage-backed securities that were doomed to stop performing, being backed with subprime mortgages, and Goldman packaged them into a kind of bond. Paulson bet against the bond, with Goldman acting as the broker; at the same time, Goldman sold the bond to other clients without disclosing that Paulson had engineered the bond to fail.

The SEC filing notes that those other clients lost $1 billion. Goldman had no direct stake in the success or failure of the CDO. It made money either way. Felix Salmon explains:

The scandal here is not that Goldman was short the subprime market at the same time as marketing the Abacus deal. The scandal is that Goldman sold the contents of Abacus as being handpicked by managers at ACA when in fact it was handpicked by Paulson; and that it told Abacus that Paulson had a long position in the deal when in fact he was entirely short.

Goldman Sachs has lost more than $10 billion in market capitalization today, in the wake of these revelations. Good. It can go long markets and it can go short markets. But it can’t lie to its clients. That’s well beyond the pale.

One of the reasons the markets must be so spooked about Goldman? This sort of deal seems to have been ubiquitous during the run-up to the housing crash. This is just one SEC filing. My guess is that more will be forthcoming.