Senate Report: Wall Street and the Anatomy of Financial Collapse

WALL STREET AND THE FINANCIAL CRISIS: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse

  • 646 pages
  • April 13, 2011
  • 5.5 MB


This Report is the product of a two-year bipartisan investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. The goals of this investigation were to construct a public record of the facts in order to deepen the understanding of what happened; identify some of the root causes of the crisis; and provide a factual foundation for the ongoing effort to fortify the country against the recurrence of a similar crisis in the future.

Using internal documents, communications, and interviews, the Report attempts to
provide the clearest picture yet of what took place inside the walls of some of the financial
institutions and regulatory agencies that contributed to the crisis. The investigation found that
the crisis was not a natural disaster, but the result of high risk, complex financial products;
undisclosed conflicts of interest; and the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the
market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.

While this Report does not attempt to examine every key moment, or analyze every
important cause of the crisis, it provides new, detailed, and compelling evidence of what
happened. In so doing, we hope the Report leads to solutions that prevent it from happening


A. Subcommittee Investigation

In November 2008, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations initiated its
investigation into some of the key causes of the financial crisis. Since then, the Subcommittee
has engaged in a wide-ranging inquiry, issuing subpoenas, conducting over 150 interviews and
depositions, and consulting with dozens of government, academic, and private sector experts.
The Subcommittee has accumulated and reviewed tens of millions of pages of documents,
including court pleadings, filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, trustee reports,
prospectuses for public and private offerings, corporate board and committee minutes, mortgage
transactions and analyses, memoranda, marketing materials, correspondence, and emails. The
Subcommittee has also reviewed documents prepared by or sent to or from banking and securities regulators, including bank examination reports, reviews of securities firms,
enforcement actions, analyses, memoranda, correspondence, and emails.

In April 2010, the Subcommittee held four hearings examining four root causes of the
financial crisis. Using case studies detailed in thousands of pages of documents released at the
hearings, the Subcommittee presented and examined evidence showing how high risk lending by
U.S. financial institutions; regulatory failures; inflated credit ratings; and high risk, poor quality
financial products designed and sold by some investment banks, contributed to the financial
crisis. This Report expands on those hearings and the case studies they featured. The case
studies are Washington Mutual Bank, the largest bank failure in U.S. history; the federal Office
of Thrift Supervision which oversaw Washington Mutual’s demise; Moody’s and Standard &
Poor’s, the country’s two largest credit rating agencies; and Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank,
two leaders in the design, marketing, and sale of mortgage related securities. This Report
devotes a chapter to how each of the four causative factors, as illustrated by the case studies,
fueled the 2008 financial crisis, providing findings of fact, analysis of the issues, and
recommendations for next steps.

(4) Investment Bank Abuses:

Case Study of Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank

The final chapter examines how investment banks contributed to the financial crisis,
using as case studies Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, two leading participants in the U.S.
mortgage market.

Investment banks can play an important role in the U.S. economy, helping to channel the
nation’s wealth into productive activities that create jobs and increase economic growth. But in
the years leading up to the financial crisis, large investment banks designed and promoted
complex financial instruments, often referred to as structured finance products, that were at the
heart of the crisis. They included RMBS and CDO securities, credit default swaps (CDS), and
CDS contracts linked to the ABX Index. These complex, high risk financial products were
engineered, sold, and traded by the major U.S. investment banks.

From 2004 to 2008, U.S. financial institutions issued nearly $2.5 trillion in RMBS and
over $1.4 trillion in CDO securities, backed primarily by mortgage related products. Investment
banks typically charged fees of $1 to $8 million to act as the underwriter of an RMBS
securitization, and $5 to $10 million to act as the placement agent for a CDO securitization.
Those fees contributed substantial revenues to the investment banks, which established internal
structured finance groups, as well as a variety of RMBS and CDO origination and trading desks
within those groups, to handle mortgage related securitizations. Investment banks sold RMBS
and CDO securities to investors around the world, and helped develop a secondary market where
RMBS and CDO securities could be traded. The investment banks’ trading desks participated in
those secondary markets, buying and selling RMBS and CDO securities either on behalf of their
clients or in connection with their own proprietary transactions.

The financial products developed by investment banks allowed investors to profit, not
only from the success of an RMBS or CDO securitization, but also from its failure. CDS
contracts, for example, allowed counterparties to wager on the rise or fall in the value of a
specific RMBS security or on a collection of RMBS and other assets contained or referenced in a
CDO. Major investment banks developed standardized CDS contracts that could also be traded
on a secondary market. In addition, they established the ABX Index which allowed
counterparties to wager on the rise or fall in the value of a basket of subprime RMBS securities,
which could be used to reflect the status of the subprime mortgage market as a whole. The
investment banks sometimes matched up parties who wanted to take opposite sides in a
transaction and other times took one or the other side of the transaction to accommodate a client.
At still other times, investment banks used these financial instruments to make their own
proprietary wagers. In extreme cases, some investment banks set up structured finance
transactions which enabled them to profit at the expense of their clients.

Two case studies, involving Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, illustrate a variety of
troubling practices that raise conflicts of interest and other concerns involving RMBS, CDO,
CDS, and ABX related financial instruments that contributed to the financial crisis.
The Goldman Sachs case study focuses on how it used net short positions to benefit from
the downturn in the mortgage market, and designed, marketed, and sold CDOs in ways that
created conflicts of interest with the firm’s clients and at times led to the bank=s profiting from
the same products that caused substantial losses for its clients.

From 2004 to 2008, Goldman was a major player in the U.S. mortgage market. In 2006
and 2007 alone, it designed and underwrote 93 RMBS and 27 mortgage related CDO securitizations totaling about $100 billion, bought and sold RMBS and CDO securities on behalf
of its clients, and amassed its own multi-billion-dollar proprietary mortgage related holdings. In
December 2006, however, when it saw evidence that the high risk mortgages underlying many
RMBS and CDO securities were incurring accelerated rates of delinquency and default,
Goldman quietly and abruptly reversed course.

Over the next two months, it rapidly sold off or wrote down the bulk of its existing
subprime RMBS and CDO inventory, and began building a short position that would allow it to
profit from the decline of the mortgage market. Throughout 2007, Goldman twice built up and
cashed in sizeable mortgage related short positions. At its peak, Goldman’s net short position
totaled $13.9 billion. Overall in 2007, its net short position produced record profits totaling $3.7
billion for Goldman’s Structured Products Group, which when combined with other mortgage
losses, produced record net revenues of $1.1 billion for the Mortgage Department as a whole.
Throughout 2007, Goldman sold RMBS and CDO securities to its clients without
disclosing its own net short position against the subprime market or its purchase of CDS
contracts to gain from the loss in value of some of the very securities it was selling to its clients.
The case study examines in detail four CDOs that Goldman constructed and sold called
Hudson 1, Anderson, Timberwolf, and Abacus 2007-AC1. In some cases, Goldman transferred
risky assets from its own inventory into these CDOs; in others, it included poor quality assets
that were likely to lose value or not perform. In three of the CDOs, Hudson, Anderson and
Timberwolf, Goldman took a substantial portion of the short side of the CDO, essentially betting
that the assets within the CDO would fall in value or not perform. Goldman’s short position was
in direct opposition to the clients to whom it was selling the CDO securities, yet it failed to
disclose the size and nature of its short position while marketing the securities. While Goldman
sometimes included obscure language in its marketing materials about the possibility of its
taking a short position on the CDO securities it was selling, Goldman did not disclose to
potential investors when it had already determined to take or had already taken short investments
that would pay off if the particular security it was selling, or RMBS and CDO securities in
general, performed poorly. In the case of Hudson 1, for example, Goldman took 100% of the
short side of the $2 billion CDO, betting against the assets referenced in the CDO, and sold the
Hudson securities to investors without disclosing its short position. When the securities lost
value, Goldman made a $1.7 billion gain at the direct expense of the clients to whom it had sold
the securities.

In the case of Anderson, Goldman selected a large number of poorly performing assets
for the CDO, took 40% of the short position, and then marketed Anderson securities to its
clients. When a client asked how Goldman “got comfortable” with the New Century loans in the
CDO, Goldman personnel tried to dispel concerns about the loans, and did not disclose the firm’s
own negative view of them or its short position in the CDO.

In the case of Timberwolf, Goldman sold the securities to its clients even as it knew the
securities were falling in value. In some cases, Goldman knowingly sold Timberwolf securities
to clients at prices above its own book values and, within days or weeks of the sale, marked down the value of the sold securities, causing its clients to incur quick losses and requiring some
to post higher margin or cash collateral. Timberwolf securities lost 80% of their value within
five months of being issued and today are worthless. Goldman took 36% of the short position in
the CDO and made money from that investment, but ultimately lost money when it could not sell
all of the Timberwolf securities.

In the case of Abacus, Goldman did not take the short position, but allowed a hedge fund,
Paulson & Co. Inc., that planned on shorting the CDO to play a major but hidden role in
selecting its assets. Goldman marketed Abacus securities to its clients, knowing the CDO was
designed to lose value and without disclosing the hedge fund’s asset selection role or investment
objective to potential investors. Three long investors together lost about $1 billion from their
Abacus investments, while the Paulson hedge fund profited by about the same amount. Today,
the Abacus securities are worthless.

In the Hudson and Timberwolf CDOs, Goldman also used its role as the collateral put
provider or liquidation agent to advance its financial interest to the detriment of the clients to
whom it sold the CDO securities.

The Deutsche Bank case study describes how the bank’s top global CDO trader, Greg
Lippmann, repeatedly warned and advised his Deutsche Bank colleagues and some of his clients
seeking to buy short positions about the poor quality of the RMBS securities underlying many
CDOs. He described some of those securities as “crap” and “pigs,” and predicted the assets and
the CDO securities would lose value. At one point, Mr. Lippmann was asked to buy a specific
CDO security and responded that it “rarely trades,” but he “would take it and try to dupe
someone” into buying it. He also at times referred to the industry’s ongoing CDO marketing
efforts as a “CDO machine” or “ponzi scheme.” Deutsche Bank’s senior management disagreed
with his negative views, and used the bank’s own funds to make large proprietary investments in
mortgage related securities that, in 2007, had a notional or face value of $128 billion and a
market value of more than $25 billion. Despite its positive view of the housing market, the bank
allowed Mr. Lippmann to develop a large proprietary short position for the bank in the RMBS
market, which from 2005 to 2007, totaled $5 billion. The bank cashed in the short position from
2007 to 2008, generating a profit of $1.5 billion, which Mr. Lippmann claims is more money on
a single position than any other trade had ever made for Deutsche Bank in its history. Despite
that gain, due to its large long holdings, Deutsche Bank lost nearly $4.5 billion from its mortgage
related proprietary investments.

The Subcommittee also examined a $1.1 billion CDO underwritten by Deutsche Bank
known as Gemstone CDO VII Ltd. (Gemstone 7), which issued securities in March 2007. It was
one of 47 CDOs totaling $32 billion that Deutsche Bank underwrote from 2004 to 2008.
Deutsche Bank made $4.7 million in fees from Gemstone 7, while the collateral manager, a
hedge fund called HBK Capital Management, was slated to receive $3.3 million. Gemstone 7
concentrated risk by including within a single financial instrument 115 RMBS securities whose
financial success depended upon thousands of high risk, poor quality subprime loans. Many of
those RMBS securities carried BBB, BBB-, or even BB credit ratings, making them among the
highest risk RMBS securities sold to the public. Nearly a third of the RMBS securities contained subprime loans originated by Fremont, Long Beach, and New Century, lenders well known
within the industry for issuing poor quality loans. Deutsche Bank also sold securities directly
from its own inventory to the CDO. Deutsche Bank’s CDO trading desk knew that many of
these RMBS securities were likely to lose value, but did not object to their inclusion in
Gemstone 7, even securities which Mr. Lippmann was calling “crap” or “pigs.” Despite the poor
quality of the underlying assets, Gemstone’s top three tranches received AAA ratings. Deutsche
Bank ultimately sold about $700 million in Gemstone securities, without disclosing to potential
investors that its global head trader of CDOs had extremely negative views of a third of the
assets in the CDO or that the bank’s internal valuations showed that the assets had lost over $19
million in value since their purchase. Within months of being issued, the Gemstone 7 securities
lost value; by November 2007, they began undergoing credit rating downgrades; and by July
2008, they became nearly worthless.

Both Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank underwrote securities using loans from
subprime lenders known for issuing high risk, poor quality mortgages, and sold risky securities
to investors across the United States and around the world. They also enabled the lenders to
acquire new funds to originate still more high risk, poor quality loans. Both sold CDO securities
without full disclosure of the negative views of some of their employees regarding the
underlying assets and, in the case of Goldman, without full disclosure that it was shorting the
very CDO securities it was marketing, raising questions about whether Goldman complied with
its obligations to issue suitable investment recommendations and disclose material adverse

The case studies also illustrate how these two investment banks continued to market new
CDOs in 2007, even as U.S. mortgage delinquencies intensified, RMBS securities lost value, the
U.S. mortgage market as a whole deteriorated, and investors lost confidence. Both kept
producing and selling high risk, poor quality structured finance products in a negative market, in
part because stopping the “CDO machine” would have meant less income for structured finance
units, smaller executive bonuses, and even the disappearance of CDO desks and personnel,
which is what finally happened. The two case studies also illustrate how certain complex
structured finance products, such as synthetic CDOs and naked credit default swaps, amplified
market risk by allowing investors with no ownership interest in the reference obligations to place
unlimited side bets on their performance. Finally, the two case studies demonstrate how
proprietary trading led to dramatic losses in the case of Deutsche Bank and undisclosed conflicts
of interest in the case of Goldman Sachs.

Investment banks were the driving force behind the structured finance products that
provided a steady stream of funding for lenders originating high risk, poor quality loans and that
magnified risk throughout the U.S. financial system. The investment banks that engineered,
sold, traded, and profited from mortgage related structured finance products were a major cause
of the financial crisis.

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