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Merrill Lynch Investigated for CDO Deal Involving Magnetar

Hedge Fund Probed

By Marian Wang

ProPublica, June 15, 2011, 3:10 pm

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The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether Merrill Lynch short-changed investors and gave undue influence to the hedge fund Magnetar in the creation of a $1.5-billion mortgage-backed security deal.

The investigation, which was first reported [1] by the Financial Times ($), appears to be the agency’s first probe of Merrill Lynch’s CDO business since the financial crisis. (Check our bank investigations cheat sheet [2] for which other firms are being probed.) Here’s the FT:

The investigation is one of several SEC probes into banks that helped underwrite billions of dollars of collateralised debt obligations, securities comprised of mortgages or derivatives linked to them.

It also marks a broadening of the SEC’s investigation into the role of collateral managers, institutions that help select the assets included in CDOs.

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The deal that the SEC is investigating—a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO, called Norma—was detailed both in our reporting last year [3] and in a report [4] by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released in January. Norma was one of more than two dozen CDO deals [5] done by Magnetar, whose bets against a number of CDOs earned it billions in the waning days of the housing boom.

As the FCIC detailed, Magnetar helped select the assets that went into Norma even though it had a $600 million bet that would pay off substantially if the CDO failed. As we reported [6], Magnetar often invested in the portion of the CDO that was riskiest and hardest for the banks to sell. Banks typically gave such investors—equity investors—more say in how the deal was structured. (Magnetar isn’t named as a target of the investigation and had no responsibility to investors. It has also maintained that it did not have a strategy to bet against the housing market.)

In the offering documents for Norma, there’s no mention of Magnetar’s role in asset selection, according to the FCIC. Investors were told that an independent collateral manager, NIR Capital Management, would be selecting the assets with their best interest in mind. The report concluded: “NIR abdicated its asset selection duties… with Merrill’s knowledge.”

Bank of America

Bank of America, which took over Merrill Lynch in 2008, declined our request for comment. The firm’s general counsel told [4] the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that it was “common industry practice” for equity investors to have input during the asset selection process, though the collateral manager had final say.

NIR Capital Management

NIR Capital Management is also being investigated by the SEC, according to the FT. The firm did not immediately respond to our request for comment. (The Wall Street Journal did an impressively detailed story in 2007 on how NIR came to be manager [7] of the Norma deal.)

Magnetar declined our earlier requests for comment on Norma, but FT reports it has denied claims [1] that it selected the assets for Norma.

Assessment

As we reported, the SEC had launched a probe of Merrill’s CDO business 2007, but that investigation petered out without resulting in any charges.

Conclusion

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Misdirection in Goldman Sachs’s Housing Short

Goldman Sachs appears to be trying to clear its name

By Jesse Eisinger

ProPublica, June 15, 2011, 3:10 pm

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The compelling Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report on the financial crisis [1] is wrong, the bank says. Goldman Sachs didn’t have a Big Short against the housing market.

About The Trade

In this column, co-published with New York Times’ DealBook, I monitor the financial markets to hold companies, executives and government officials accountable for their actions. Tips? Praise? Contact me at jesse@propublica.org

But the size of Goldman’s short is irrelevant.

No one disputes that, by 2007, the firm had pivoted to reduce its exposure from mortgages and mortgage securities and had begun shorting the market on some scale. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t we want banks to reduce their risk when they see trouble ahead, as Goldman did in the mortgage markets?

Nor should shorting itself be seen as a bad thing. Putting money behind a bet that a stock (or bond or commodity or derivative) is overpriced is necessary for the efficient functioning of capital markets. Short-sellers can keep prices from getting out of whack and help deflate bubbles.

The problem isn’t that Goldman went short and reduced risk — it’s how.

It is How … Short?

To establish many of its short positions, the Senate report says, Goldman created new securities, backed them with its good name, and then strung together misleading statements to its customers about what it was actually doing. By shorting the way it did, the bank perverted the market instead of correcting it.

Take Hudson Mezzanine, a $2 billion collateralized debt obligation created by Goldman in 2006 [2]. In marketing material, the firm wrote that “Goldman Sachs has aligned incentives with the Hudson program.”

I suppose that was technically true: Goldman had made a small investment in the C.D.O. and therefore had an aligned incentive with the other investors. But the material failed to mention the firm’s much larger bet against the C.D.O. — a huge adverse incentive to its customers’ interests.

Goldman told investors that the Hudson assets had been “sourced from the Street,” which most investors would understand to mean that Goldman had purchased the assets from other broker-dealers. In fact, all the assets had come from Goldman’s own balance sheet, the Senate report found.

In his April 2010 testimony to the Senate, Goldman’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, argued that Goldman was merely making a market in these securities and derivatives, matching willing and sophisticated buyers and sellers. But, Goldman was acting like an underwriter, not a market maker.

As the underwriter, Goldman threw its marketing muscle behind Hudson Mezzanine and other C.D.O.’s. When the bank’s salespeople ran into trouble selling the securities, they begged for help from the executives who created them. One requested material to give to clients about “how great” the sector was. One needed the aid to get a client to invest, to be “THERE AND IN SIZE,” according to e-mails cited in the report.

Sometimes, Goldman took advantage of the opaque markets. According to the Senate report, Goldman executives had extensive concerns about the prices of its 2007 Timberwolf C.D.O. Goldman sold the C.D.O. securities anyway, often at higher prices than it had them recorded on its books. In summer 2007, Goldman marked some Timberwolf assets at 55 cents on the dollar, but sold similar securities to an Israeli bank at 78.25 cents at the same time, according to the report. Oh, well, tough luck!

Goldman’s Famous Mantra

For decades, Goldman’s famous mantra was to be “long-term greedy” and a central element of that was putting customers first. In these C.D.O.’s, the bank’s customers were “only first in the same way that on Thanksgiving, the turkey is first,” a former C.D.O. professional told me.

Goldman declined to address these specific disclosures from the report. A spokesman maintained the firm fulfilled its obligations to buyers of these kinds of C.D.O.’s, which were made up of derivatives. The customers were large and sophisticated investors who knew that one side had to be long while the other was short. And they knew, or should have known, that Goldman might be on the other side.

“It was fully disclosed and well known to investors that banks that arranged synthetic C.D.O.’s took the initial short position,” a spokesman wrote in an e-mail.

True, but few thought that the bank that had created and hawked the C.D.O.’s expected them to fail.

Goldman’s techniques harmed the capital markets. Goldman brought something into the world that didn’t exist before. Instead of selling something — thereby decreasing the price or supply of it — and giving the market a signal that it was less desirable, Goldman did the opposite. The firm created more mortgage investments and gave the world the signal that there was more demand, for C.D.O.’s and for the mortgages that backed them.

Assessment

By shorting C.D.O.’s, Goldman also distorted the pricing of the underlying assets. The bank could have taken the securities it owned and sold them en masse in a fairly negotiated sale, though it likely would have gotten less for them than it was able to make by shorting the C.D.O.’s it created.

Because of Goldman’s actions, the financial system took greater losses than there otherwise would have been. Goldman’s form of shorting prolonged the boom and made the crisis that followed much worse.

Goldman executives surely hope to change the subject from the firm’s specific actions to a more general discussion of how much and when it shorted. We shouldn’t let them.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/thetrade/item/misdirection-in-goldman-sachss-housing-short/

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Bank Deals Similar to Goldman Sach’s Gone Awry

Other Major Banks Participated, Too?

By Marian Wang, ProPublica – April 16, 2010 1:36 pm EDT

As you may have heard, or read on this ME-P, Goldman Sachs is being sued for fraud [1] by the Securities and Exchange Commission [2] for allegedly misleading investors about a deal that Goldman helped structure and sell. In the civil suit, the SEC specifically faulted Goldman for failing to disclose that a hedge fund was helping create the investment while betting big the deal would fail.

According to the SEC, Goldman Sachs knew about the hedge fund’s bets, knew it played a significant role in choosing the assets in the portfolio, and yet did not tell investors about it. (Goldman Sachs has called the SEC’s accusations “completely unfounded in law and fact.” And in another more detailed statement [3], it said it “did not structure a portfolio that was designed to lose money.”) 

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=Goldman+Sachs&iid=8541566″ src=”0/4/f/8/The_Goldman_Sachs_7d6f.jpg?adImageId=12513388&imageId=8541566″ width=”380″ height=”568″ /]

In ProPublica

As we reported at ProPublica last week, many other major investment banks were doing a similar thing [4].

Investment banks including JPMorgan Chase [5], Merrill Lynch [6] (now part of Bank of America), Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and UBS also created CDOs that a hedge fund named Magnetar was both helping create and betting would fail. Those investment banks marketed and sold the CDOs to investors without disclosing Magnetar’s role or the hedge fund’s interests.

Here is a list of the banks that were involved [7] in Magnetar deals, along with links to many of the prospectuses on the deals, which skip over Magnetar’s role. In all, investment banks created at least 30 CDOs with Magnetar, worth roughly $40 billion overall. Goldman’s 25 Abacus CDOs — one of which is the basis of the SEC’s lawsuit — amounted to $10.9 billion [8].

One reporter Jake Bernstein explained the investment banks’ disclosure failures on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life [9]:

On the Magnetar Hedge Fund

The role of Magnetar, both as equity investor and in their bets against the very CDOs they helped create were not disclosed in any way to investors in the written documents about the deals. Not the marketing materials, not the prospectuses, not in the hundreds of pages that an investor could get to see information about the deal was it disclosed that it was in fact Magnetar who’d helped create the deal, and who’d bet against.

That is, of course, along the lines of what the SEC is suing Goldman Sachs for now. The SEC’s suit also says CDOs like the ones Goldman built “contributed to the recent financial crisis by magnifying losses associated with the downturn in the United States housing market.”

Notably, the SEC did not sue the hedge fund [10] involved in Goldman’s Abacus deals — Paulson & Co. — or its manager, John Paulson. Instead, it’s going after Goldman. And as we pointed out in our reporting, there’s no evidence that what Magentar did was illegal [11].

Assessment

We’ve called the major banks involved in Magnetar CDO deals to see if they were concerned about similar lawsuits. Thus far, Bank of America, Citigroup, Deutsche, Wells Fargo (which bought Wachovia) and UBS have responded and have all declined our requests for comment. Here is Magnetar’s response [12] to our original reporting.

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Behind the Financial Reform Push

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Of Worries on Warring Regulators

By Jeff Gerth, ProPublica – April 14, 2010 12:07 pm EDT

Backers of financial regulatory reform are gearing up for the final stretch in a yearlong effort to construct a new, streamlined architecture. But, recent reports and testimony about the financial crisis suggest a crucial ingredient in any new structure is in short supply: cooperation among the watchdogs.

Office of Thrift Supervision

A proposal to eliminate one regulator seen by many as particularly weak—the Office of Thrift Supervision—could alleviate some friction. A soon-to-be-released federal examination of the Washington Mutual collapse found that OTS resisted efforts by a more skeptical regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to take a closer look at WaMu, according to an account in The New York Times [1].

Reform legislation pending in the Senate [2] (PDF) would also create new agencies, including a financial stability council to assess risk and a consumer protection watchdog. To work as envisioned, the agencies would need new levels of information sharing and decision making. By contrast, history suggests agencies can be stingy with what they know and eager to point blame at sister regulators.

Fall of the House of Lehman

Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that collapsed in September 2008, presents a case in point.

A lengthy examiner’s report [3] for the judge overseeing Lehman’s bankruptcy found that the Federal Reserve Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission kept crucial data from each other even though they had “overlapping” functions. The heads of the Federal Reserve and the SEC reached a formal sharing agreement in July 2008, but the two regulators “did not share all material information that each collected about Lehman’s liquidity.”

SEC Queries

The SEC, asked by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to provide data on Lehman’s commercial real estate exposure and liquidity, “affirmatively declined to share” the information because it was still in draft form, the bankruptcy report found. The reserve bank never turned down an information request from the SEC, but bank officials “did not perceive any duty to volunteer” information about a $7 billion shortfall in Lehman’s liquidity they uncovered in August 2008.

The reason? The report says it was “because the SEC did not always share information” with them. One official at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York told the examiner “there was not a warm audience” for information sharing between the New York Fed and the SEC.

Lehman fell under the scrutiny of the Fed after it was allowed to tap Fed lending facilities, normally reserved for banks, in the spring of 2008.

Oh … the Irony

Ironically, examiners at the Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulated Lehman’s bank subsidiary, concluded in July 2008 that Lehman had violated its own risk limits by placing an “outsized bet” on commercial real estate. But, the OTS appears as a bit player in the autopsy of Lehman’s collapse; top Federal Reserve officials “considered the SEC to be Lehman’s regulator,” the bankruptcy report found.

One of those officials, Timothy Geithner, was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2003 until early 2009, when he became secretary of the Treasury. Shortly after he joined the cabinet, Geithner was asked by a senator about the Fed’s supervisory responsibility [4] in connection with the collapse of institutions like Lehman and the insurance giant AIG.

“I just want to point out,” Geithner told the Senate Finance Committee, “the Federal Reserve was not given responsibility for overseeing investment banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, non-bank financial systems that were a critical part of making this crisis so intense.”

networking_0

Fed Responsibilities

The Fed is responsible for supervising bank holding companies, such as Citigroup. Those holding companies include investment banks and, as a sister regulator quietly pointed out last week, the Fed shared responsibility with the SEC for overseeing the risky practices of Citigroup’s broker dealer.

John C. Dugan, who oversees nationally chartered banks as comptroller of the currency, told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission [5] (PDF) last week that most of the problems that led to a massive bailout for Citigroup took place under the umbrella of the weaker holding company regulated by the Fed—not at Citibank, the banking subsidiary under Dugan’s authority.

Most of the losses, Dugan said at the end of a lengthy report to the commission, were in subprime lending, leveraged loans and the structuring and warehousing of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) that are supervised, either all or in part, “by the Federal Reserve.”

Geithner has acknowledged [6] that he could have done a better job of supervising Citigroup during his tenure at the New York Fed.

Assessment

If the Senate bill becomes law, Geithner would sit atop the new financial stability council, whose members will include representatives of several different agencies—including the Fed, the SEC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

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How One Hedge Fund Helped Keep the Bubble Going

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On the Magnetar Trade

By Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, ProPublica – April 9, 2010 1:00 pm EDT

In late 2005, the booming U.S. housing market seemed to be slowing. The Federal Reserve had begun raising interest rates. Subprime mortgage company shares were falling. Investors began to balk at buying complex mortgage securities. The housing bubble, which had propelled a historic growth in home prices, seemed poised to deflate. And if it had, the great financial crisis of 2008, which produced the Great Recession of 2008-09, might have come sooner and been less severe.

Precise Timing

At just that moment, a few savvy financial engineers at a suburban Chicago hedge fund [1] helped revive the Wall Street money machine, spawning billions of dollars of securities ultimately backed by home mortgages.

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When the crash came, nearly all of these securities became worthless, a loss of an estimated $40 billion paid by investors, the investment banks who helped bring them into the world, and, eventually, American taxpayers.

Yet the hedge fund, named Magnetar for the super-magnetic field created by the last moments of a dying star, earned outsized returns in the year the financial crisis began.

The Magnetar Trade

How Magnetar pulled this off is one of the untold stories of the meltdown. Only a small group of Wall Street insiders was privy to what became known as the Magnetar Trade [2]. Nearly all of those approached by ProPublica declined to talk on the record, fearing their careers would be hurt if they spoke publicly. But interviews with participants, e-mails [3], thousands of pages of documents and details about the securities that until now have not been publicly disclosed shed light on an arcane, secretive corner of Wall Street.

According to bankers and others involved, the Magnetar Trade worked this way: The hedge fund bought the riskiest portion of a kind of securities known as collateralized debt obligations — CDOs. If housing prices kept rising, this would provide a solid return for many years. But that’s not what hedge funds are after. They want outsized gains, the sooner the better, and Magnetar set itself up for a huge win: It placed bets that portions of its own deals would fail.

Chance Enhancement

Along the way, it did something to enhance the chances of that happening, according to several people with direct knowledge of the deals. They say Magnetar pressed to include riskier assets in their CDOs that would make the investments more vulnerable to failure. The hedge fund acknowledges it bet against its own deals but says the majority of its short positions, as they are known on Wall Street, involved similar CDOs that it did not own. Magnetar says it never selected the assets that went into its CDOs.

Magnetar says it was “market neutral,” meaning it would make money whether housing rose or fell. (Read their full statement. [4]) Dozens of Wall Street professionals, including many who had direct dealings with Magnetar, are skeptical of that assertion. They understood the Magnetar Trade as a bet against the subprime mortgage securities market. Why else, they ask, would a hedge fund sponsor tens of billions of dollars of new CDOs at a time of rising uncertainty about housing?

Key details of the Magnetar Trade remain shrouded in secrecy and the fund declined to respond to most of our questions. Magnetar invested in 30 CDOs from the spring of 2006 to the summer of 2007, though it declined to name them. ProPublica has identified 26 [5].

Independent Analysis

An independent analysis [6] commissioned by ProPublica shows that these deals defaulted faster and at a higher rate compared to other similar CDOs. According to the analysis, 96 percent of the Magnetar deals were in default by the end of 2008, compared with 68 percent for comparable CDOs. The study [6] was conducted by PF2 Securities Evaluations, a CDO valuation firm. (Magnetar says defaults don’t necessarily indicate the quality of the underlying CDO assets.)

From what we’ve learned, there was nothing illegal in what Magnetar did; it was playing by the rules in place at the time. And the hedge fund didn’t cause the housing bubble or the financial crisis. But the Magnetar Trade does illustrate the perverse incentives and reckless behavior that characterized the last days of the boom.

Major Players

Magnetar worked with major banks, including Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and UBS. At least nine banks helped Magnetar hatch deals. Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and UBS all did multiple deals with Magnetar. JPMorgan Chase, often lauded for having avoided the worst of the CDO craze, actually ended up doing one of the riskiest deals with Magnetar, in May 2007, nearly a year after housing prices started to decline. According to marketing material and prospectuses [5], the banks didn’t disclose to CDO investors the role Magnetar played.

Many of the bankers who worked on these deals personally benefited, earning millions in annual bonuses. The banks booked profits at the outset. But those gains were fleeting. As it turned out, the banks that assembled and marketed the Magnetar CDOs had trouble selling them. And when the crash came, they were among the biggest losers.

Assessment

Of course, some bankers involved in the Magnetar Trade now regret what they did. We showed one of the many people fired as a result of the CDO collapse a list of unusually risky mortgage bonds included in a Magnetar deal he had worked on. The deal was a disaster. He shook his head at being reminded of the details and said: “After looking at this, I deserved to lose my job.”

Magnetar wasn’t the only market player to come up with clever ways to bet against housing. Many articles and books, including a bestseller by Michael Lewis [7], have recounted how a few investors saw trouble coming and bet big. Such short bets can be helpful; they can serve as a counterweight to manias and keep bubbles from expanding.

Magnetar’s approach had the opposite effect — by helping create investments it also bet against, the hedge fund was actually fueling the market. Magnetar wasn’t alone in that: A few other hedge funds also created CDOs they bet against. And, as the New York Times has reported, Goldman Sachs did too. But Magnetar industrialized the process, creating more and bigger CDOs.

Conclusion

Several journalists have alluded to the Magnetar Trade in recent years, but until now none has assembled a full narrative. Yves Smith, a prominent financial blogger who has reported on aspects of the Magnetar Trade, writes in her new book, “Econned,” [8] that “Magnetar went into the business of creating subprime CDOs on an unheard of scale. If the world had been spared their cunning, the insanity of 2006-2007 would have been less extreme and the unwinding milder.”

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