By James Kwak
Actually, two things, both by Steve Randy Waldman.
Part of Goldman’s defense is that it was in the nature of CDOs for there to be a long side and a short side, and the investors on the long side (the ones who bought the bonds issued by the CDO) must have known that there was a short side, and hence there was no need to disclose Paulson’s involvement. Waldman completely dismantles this argument, starting with a point so simple that most of us missed it: a CDO is just a way of repackaging other bonds (residential mortgage-backed securities, in this sense), so it doesn’t necessarily have a short investor any more than a simple corporate bond or a share of stock does. Since a synthetic CDO by construction mimics the characteristics of a non-synthetic CDO, the same thing holds. (While the credit default swaps that go into constructing the synthetic CDO have long and short sides, the CDO itself doesn’t have to.) Here’s the conclusion:
“Investors in Goldman’s deal reasonably thought that they were buying a portfolio that had been carefully selected by a reputable manager whose sole interest lay in optimizing the performance of the CDO. They no more thought they were trading ‘against’ short investors than investors in IBM or Treasury bonds do. In violation of these reasonable expectations, Goldman arranged that a party whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of investors would have significant influence over the selection of the portfolio. Goldman misrepresented that party’s role to the manager and failed to disclose the conflict of interest to investors.”
Waldman follows this up with an analysis of the premium that Goldman extracted from the buy-side investors and transferred to Paulson (in exchange for its own fee). The point here is that Goldman could have simply put Paulson and the buy-side investors together and had Paulson buy CDS on RMBS directly — but that would have affected the price of the deal, because Paulson wanted to take a big short position. So instead, they created the CDO (a new entity) and then drummed up buyers for it, in order to avoid moving the market against Paulson. The advantage of thinking about it this way is it shows what the function of a market maker is and how that differs from the role Goldman played in this transaction.
The posts are long, so sit back and enjoy.
Update: Nemo points out that I misinterpreted Waldman’s post, and Nemo is right, although I think I got the substance of Waldman’s point right. Here is what Waldman says:
“There is always a payer and a payee, and the payee is ‘long’ certain states of the world while the payer is short. When you buy a share of IBM, you are long IBM and the firm itself has a short position. Does that mean, when you purchase IBM, you are taking sides in a disagreement with IBM, with IBM betting that it will collapse and never pay a dividend while you bet it will succeed and be forced to pay? No, of course not. There are many, many occasions when the interests of long investors and the interests of short investors are fully aligned. When IBM issues new shares, all of its stakeholders — preexisting shareholders, managers, employees — hope that IBM will succeed, and may have no disagreement whatsoever on its prospects. . . . The existence of a long side and a short side need imply no disagreement whatsoever.”
So I was clearly wrong when I said, “a CDO is just a way of repackaging other bonds (residential mortgage-backed securities, in this sense), so it doesn’t necessarily have a short investor any more than a simple corporate bond or a share of stock does.”
But — and I don’t think I’m engaging in sophistry here — Waldman’s underlying point is that even though there is a short position, that doesn’t mean that the long and short investors have diametrically opposed interests. That’s true of stocks, and it’s also true of CDOs. And so it’s disingenuous of Goldman to imply that buyers of any CDO always know that there is someone who is actively betting on it to go down in value.