The Case Against Goldman Sachs

The SEC charges that once golden Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs misled its investors. How the rise of traders over bankers led the firm to riskier business

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Years ago, the investment world and its professionals believed in long-term relationships. That meant nurturing the economy and the companies and people in it. Two decades of cheap money, though, helped turn the Street over to the traders. That led to a very different way of doing business. "With a trader, the goal of every minute of every day is to make money," says Philipp Meyer, who worked for UBS as a trader in the late 1990s and early 2000s before going on to write about his time there. "So if running the economy off the cliff makes you money, you will do it, and you will do it every day of every week."

The question is, now that we know what we know about what has become of Wall Street, what do we do about it? The SEC case against Goldman shows that the agency plans to do more to combat fraud. That's a big change. Under former commissioner Christopher Cox, Wall Street was basically self-regulating and the SEC hands-off, which helped enable the greatest Ponzi schemer of all time, Bernie Madoff.

By picking a fight with Goldman — the "great white whale" of Wall Street, as Eliot Spitzer put it on Monday — the SEC is signaling that it has now adopted a feistier approach. "Goldman got picked out because of its stature. When you take on the biggest kid on the block, you are sending a message to everyone on Wall Street that we're not going to back down," says Peter Henning, a former SEC attorney and a professor at Wayne State University Law School. "It's a very aggressive tactic, and in some ways it breaks with past practice."

So, in fact, does the way Goldman is being run. Perhaps the best illustration of the shift on the Street is the career of Goldman's chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein. Back in 1982, when Blankfein, now 55, joined Goldman with a law degree from Harvard and a few years' experience as a tax attorney, the firm was run by two investment bankers, John Whitehead and John Weinberg. Blankfein landed a job in the firm's commodities-trading unit, which Goldman had acquired less than a year before.

Goldman was pretty typical of Wall Street in the 1980s. Investment bankers ran the business and brought in most of the bucks. Salesmen and brokers did pretty well too, buying and selling stocks for clients. Traders, who placed bets with the bank's money, were generally the low men on the totem pole. The one exception was Salomon Brothers, where a band of traders led by Lewis Ranieri — who were raking in money trading Treasury and mortgage bonds — were quickly making Solly the beast on the Street. At Lehman Brothers too, trader Lewis Glucksman forced out investment banker Pete Peterson, who had been running the firm. But a scandal caused Salomon to flame out in the early 1990s. Trading losses at Lehman nearly bankrupted the firm and pushed it into the arms of American Express. Then Long-Term Capital Management nearly brought down the financial system in 1998 when some of its highly leveraged trades collapsed. After an all-hands rescue, the order of Wall Street was restored, temporarily.

At Goldman, Blankfein was rising rapidly by taking more and more risks in its commodities- and currency-trading businesses. In 1995, shortly after he was named head of the firm's commodities business, he reportedly left a meeting of Goldman partners after complaining the firm was not taking enough risks and immediately bet multimillions of Goldman's capital that the dollar would rise. It did, and Blankfein and Goldman made a bundle.

Yet during the 1990s, trading remained a side business for Wall Street. The cash cow was equities and, in particular, initial public offerings (IPOs), for which bankers were paid a sweet 7% of the deal for little more than ushering new companies into the market and at very little risk. In 1998, the year before Goldman went public, just 28% of its revenue came from trading and principal investments. By 2009, it was 76%.

The big change on Wall Street and at Goldman came with the collapse of the dotcom bubble in early 2000. The underwriting and mergers-advisory businesses on which the investment banks had minted money dried up completely. It would be years before the M&A market came back. IPOs never really did. Where was money being made? In trading. Low interest rates following the early-2000s recession made borrowing cheap. That pushed profits in trading, a capital-intensive business, to take off. Firms began shifting more capital to their trading desks. In the first half of the decade, Goldman's so-called value at risk, which measured how much the firm was risking in the market each day, zoomed from an average of $28 million in 2000 to $70 million in 2005.

Traders, aided by a new generation of Ph.D.-type rocket scientists trained in the complex math of higher finance, began refocusing their firms on the products that would make them the most money. One of the most popular of the new bunch was the CDO. As with everything else on Wall Street, the rise of the CDO had to do with bonus checks. Traders' pay was based not just on how much money they made for the firm but on the size of the bet. Turn in a $10 million gain on AAA Treasurys and you got paid a lot more than if you made the same amount trading lower-rated, much riskier junk bonds. The problem was that making big bucks in the well-established Treasury market was nearly impossible. It's too transparent.

As a trader, what you needed was to take a market in which bonds were thinly traded and magically fill it with more-tradeable highly rated AAA material. By the magic of CDOs you could do just that. CDOs are often created out of the lowest-rated, seldom-traded portions of other bond offerings. And by the mid-2000s most of those bonds were backed by home loans to borrowers with poor credit ratings — toxic waste, in the parlance. Subprime-mortgage bonds went into the CDO blender BBB and came out AAA. All of a sudden, traders were making big money.

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