Sunday, May 02, 2010

Goldman Sachs, Washington, and the Theater of the Absurd

The following commentary is from the May issue of the Forbes Growth Investor.

Albert Camus was an Algerian French writer linked with a philosophy known as absurdism. His spirit must have been in Washington last week where Congress and Goldman Sachs performed in the Theater of the Absurd.

I have no particular desire to defend Goldman Sachs, a firm full of arrogant, overpaid bankers. In fact, about 15 years ago, Goldman turned down a friend of mine for a job. She was told, "You are very smart, but you are not a guru. We only hire gurus." We got a great laugh out of that comment. Today, I have to wonder, "Where have all the gurus gone?"

The SEC is suing Goldman Sachs for fraud, so you would think Goldman’s attorneys would have advised those called to testify in Congress to keep mum. There can be no doubt that the SEC will use their words against them. Instead, current and former Goldman executives answered questions politicians posed. I use the word "answered" loosely. More often than not, these executives came across as being obviously evasive. Now the Justice Department has jumped into the fray by filing criminal charges against Goldman.

The case against Goldman boils down to three issues: 1) Did the firm have an obligation to disclose who the parties were on both sides of a trade, 2) did it have an obligation to advise one of those parties not to make what appears to be a stupid trade, and 3) did it represent to one of the parties that the securities in question were something other than what they really were? In my opinion, the answer to the first two questions is no. As for the third, we will have to wait and see what the evidence shows.

Whether we are talking stocks, bonds, or houses, by definition, the buyer has a more bullish outlook than the seller does. Only time will tell who guessed right. If you go back to when these infamous trades were made, you will see that it was not obvious to everyone that housing prices were going to collapse. Back in 2004, I was not yet convinced we had a housing bubble. Still, I wrote an article called, Why I Hate Homebuilders arguing that housing prices could fall. A year later, I told NBC Nightly News that homeowners with interest-only subprime mortgages will be shocked by how much their monthly payments will increase. This was a full year before housing prices peaked. At the time, most housing experts still thought prices would never fall.

John Paulson figured out a way to bet against subprime mortgages. I wish I had been smart enough to do that. Goldman Sachs helped Paulson put the instrument together. Those on the other side of the trade were simply wrong.

Furthermore, Goldman’s actions did not cause the housing market to collapse. Housing prices fell simply because irresponsible lenders gave mortgages to unqualified borrowers. Both the lenders and the borrowers knew (or should have known) that these mortgages were designed to blow up if housing prices simply stopped rising. The government bears more responsibility for the mortgage mess than Goldman does. The government thought it was good public policy to encourage home ownership. For years, it urged lenders to make money available to unqualified borrowers. The government used Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to prop up the mortgage market. Will the government take its share of the blame? Of course not. Instead, it will go after Goldman Sachs (and probably several other banks). After all, that is where the money is.