By now you've heard the news that investment bank Goldman Sachs is in some hot water with the government. Today, executives from the firm will testify on Capitol Hill. Will there be drama? Here is a quick guide.
Anxious to be seen as defenders of the American people, lawmakers will be stumbling over each other for the microphone in what promises to be a master class in political grandstanding. There should be plenty of "who... me?" faces made on the receiving end, too. So what's this all about?
On Friday, April 16, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed fraud charges against Goldman Sachs for its alleged role in sinking the entire economy. It all started with crooked dealings in the housing market, led by a swashbuckling young trader named Fabrice (call him "Fab"), who created a neat little trick to swindle people out of billions of dollars. His plan was called Abacus 2007-AC1, and besides sounding like an untreatable deadly virus, he was able to reap millions for himself and a ridiculous amount for Goldman. Fab is not a shy one, either (see emails section below). Goldman is said to have made billions by shorting the housing market, which they knew was on the verge of total collapse, through Collateralized Debt Obligations* (CDOs). From MarketWatch:
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. made $3.7 billion betting against mortgage-related securities as the housing market started to collapse, according to an estimate released Monday by an influential Congressional subcommittee.
One of the securities, known at Timberwolf I, was described as a "shi**y deal" by a senior Goldman executive at the time Thomas Montag, according to an email disclosed Monday by the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Montag is now president of Global Markets at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The Major Players
Fabrice "Fabulous Fab" Tourre: The undisputed star of the show, this 31-year-old French playboy created a great scheme to sell doomed mortgages, sometimes even to orphans and widows. New York ran a profile of him here, and detailed some of his sexcapades here. And hopefully someone will snap a better picture of him than the shitty one that has been circulating through news outlets.
Lloyd Blankfein: Goldman CEO and Chairman, Harvard-educated smarmy bastard. Started his career at Goldman selling gold and took over after the May 2006 departure of Hank Paulson to be Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush. Only redeeming quality? He's down with Al Sharpton.
Put simply: Goldman believes it was just playing by the established rules of the free market, while the SEC jerked off to kiddie porn on the clock. So Goldman may have bet against America, but they sure as hell didn't bet against their own clients, okay? They were merely managing risk. Blankfein's prepared testimony can be read here.
The Digital Paper Trail
The now-famous Goldman emails. Senator Carl Levin released a series of incriminating emails from Goldman employees, on which he will be staking his assault during the hearing. Fab wrote the best ones. But not everyone is ready to hand Blankfein and Co their orange jumpsuits. Reuters' Felix Salmon says of the emails:
There is no scandal whatsoever associated with Goldman Sachs emails released by Senator Levin today. They show Goldman people going about their line of work, doing what Goldman people do, taking long positions, taking short positions, sometimes even taking big short positions. This is what broker-dealers should do if they have decent risk management.
Some of the Goldman emails suggest otherwise. From Fab:
"The whole building is about to collapse anytime now … Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab … standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities [sic]!!!"
What (or Who) is Next?
It will be a long time before we know what, if anything, will happen to the Goldman execs who have been caught up in this scandal. But more banks may soon come under investigation. It's unlikely Goldman was the only firm doing this sort of thing. The Times' Paul Krugman has another idea. Look at the records from the real culprits here, the credit rating agencies:
No, the e-mail messages you should be focusing on are the ones from employees at the credit rating agencies, which bestowed AAA ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of dubious assets, nearly all of which have since turned out to be toxic waste. And no, that's not hyperbole: of AAA-rated subprime-mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006, 93 percent - 93 percent! - have now been downgraded to junk status.
*What the Hell is a CDO?
A Collateralized Debt Obligation, or CDO, in short: "Similar in structure to a collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) or collateralized bond obligation (CBO), CDOs are unique in that they represent different types of debt and credit risk. In the case of CDOs, these different types of debt are often referred to as 'tranches' or 'slices'. Each slice has a different maturity and risk associated with it. The higher the risk, the more the CDO pays."
This is sure to drag on forever, or at least to the point where everyone is so sick of it that nothing really happens and no one will even remember, or care. But as far as political theater goes, this could be great to watch. Blankfein will probably sweat a lot and perhaps try to grin. But the best part is we finally get to see Fabulous Fab in the flesh! Stay tuned.
[Photos of Blankfein via Getty]