E-mails show Goldman Sachs boasting as economy melts down

  • By Dan Strumpf Associated Press
  • Saturday, April 24, 2010 2:43pm
  • Business

NEW YORK — E-mails released this morning show top executives at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. boasting about the money the firm was making as the national housing market collapsed in 2007.

The e-mails suggest Goldman benefited from its bets that securities backed by subprime mortgages would lose value.

“Of course we didn’t dodge the mortgage mess,” CEO Lloyd Blankfein wrote in an e-mail dated Nov. 18, 2007, according to the e-mails released today by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “We lost money, then made more than we lost because of shorts.”

Goldman restated its position today that it did not reap huge profit from bets against the market.

Short positions are bets that the market will go down. As the housing bubble burst, Goldman and a few powerful hedge funds took short positions on the market. Many of those bets required other investors to bet the market would rise.

When the market went bust, people with short positions cleaned up.

“We were just smaller in the toxic products,” Goldman’s president, Gary Cohn, writes back to Blankfein that same Sunday evening.

Critics say their bets added fuel to the financial crisis.

One of those bets is at the heart of civil fraud charges the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman this month.

The SEC alleges Goldman misled two investors who bought a complex mortgage-related product that was crafted in part by Paulson &Co., a New York hedge fund led by billionaire John Paulson. The hedge fund manager was betting the product would fail.

The agency says Goldman didn’t disclose Paulson’s role in creating the deal or his negative bet to the investors, IKB Deutsche Industriebank AG, a German bank, and ACA Management LLC, a U.S. bond insurance company.

Separately today, Goldman released a series of e-mails from Fabrice Tourre, the trader at the heart of the SEC charges. In them, Tourre jokes about selling investments to “widows and orphans” when he already expects the market to go bust.

He writes in an e-mail dated March 7, 2007, that Dan Sparks, leader of Goldman’s U.S. subprime business, said the business “is totally dead, and the poor little subprime borrowers will not last so long!!!”

That April, he joked about the bonds the SEC charges he misled clients about.

“I’ve managed to sell a few abacus bonds to widows and orphans that I ran into at the airport, apparently these Belgians adore” the complex investments, Tourre wrote.

The e-mails are in a mixture of French and English, and are to a woman with whom Tourre appeared to be romantically involved. Goldman provided translations.

The same e-mails were excerpted in the SEC’s complaint against Goldman, but the full context was not reported previously.

The subcommittee, whose probe is not connected with the SEC’s, has been investigating the causes of the financial crisis for 18 months. Its fourth and final hearing Tuesday will include testimony from Blankfein and Fabrice Tourre, a trader named in the SEC case.

Goldman has denied wrongdoing and says it will fight the charges. In a statement today, spokesman Lucas Van Praag said the bank lost $1.2 billion in the residential mortgage market during 2007 and 2008.

“As a firm, we obviously could not have been significantly net short since we lost money in a declining housing market,” Van Praag said in a statement. He said the Senate panel “cherry-picked” four e-mail threads out of 20 million pages Goldman provided.

Van Praag is one of the handful of top executives who contributed to the e-mails the Senate committee released today.

Blankfein’s comment about Goldman making more than it lost was a response to an e-mail from Van Praag in which Van Praag discussed a forthcoming New York Times article about the firm. It would show “how we dodged the mortgage mess,” Van Praag explained.

In one, Goldman Chief Financial Officer David Viniar says that in one day the firm made more than $50 million on bets that the housing market would collapse, according to a statement from Levin’s office.

Viniar, also scheduled to testify Tuesday, summed up the position of investors who had not bet against the market:

“Tells you what might be happening to people who don’t have the big short,” Viniar writes in the message dated July 25, 2007.

The e-mails were released by subcommittee chair Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. In a statement, Levin called banks like Goldman “self-interested promoters of risky and complicated financial schemes that helped trigger the crisis.”

Goldman said in its 2009 annual report that its short positions sought to offset its long positions in the mortgage market and did not generate large profits. Through 2006, Goldman “generally was long in exposure” in the mortgage-backed securities market, according to the report, and after taking losses on those securities in 2006 it reduced its exposure.

“Although Goldman Sachs held various positions in residential mortgage-related products in 2007, our short positions were not ‘a bet against our clients,”’ according to the report.

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