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Clients Worried About Goldman’s Dueling Goals

• New York Times

As the housing crisis mounted in early 2007, Goldman Sachs was busy selling risky, mortgage-related securities issued by its longtime client, Washington Mutual, a major bank based in Seattle.

Although Goldman had decided months earlier that the mortgage market was headed for a fall, it continued to sell the WaMu securities to investors. While Goldman put its imprimatur on that offering, traders in the same Goldman unit were not so sanguine about WaMu’s prospects: they were betting that the value of WaMu’s stock and other securities would decline.

Goldman’s wager against its customer’s stock — a position known as a “short” — was large enough that it would have generated at least $10 million in profits if WaMu collapsed, according to documents recently released by Congress. And by mid-May, Goldman’s bet against other WaMu securities had made Goldman $2.5 million, the documents show.

WaMu eventually did collapse under the weight of souring mortgage loans; federal regulators seized it in September 2008, making it the biggest bank failure in American history.

Goldman’s bets against WaMu, wagers that took place even as it helped WaMu feed a housing frenzy that Goldman had already lost faith in, are examples of conflicting roles that trouble its critics and some former clients. While Goldman has legions of satisfied customers and maintains that it puts its clients first, it also sometimes appears to work against the interests of those same clients when opportunities to make trading profits off their financial troubles arise.

Goldman’s access to client information can also give its traders an advantage that many of the firm’s competitors lack. And because betting against a company’s shares or its debt can create an atmosphere of doubt about a company’s financial standing, Goldman because of its size and its position in the market can help make the success of some of its wagers faits accomplis.

 

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