The Securities and Exchange Commission's settlement of a lawsuit against Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) over a certain subprime mortgage product sold to investors misses a key issue. That is, concerning the company's duty to provide timely and transparent disclosures to its own shareholders about government subpoenas, investigations, and pending enforcement actions against the firm. In this particular case, Goldman did not make timely disclosures about the regulator's investigation and pending lawsuit against the firm, right under the SEC investigator's noses.
Goldman Sachs chooses to keep shareholders in the dark about SEC investigation and pending enforcement action
During the summer of 2008, the SEC started investigating Goldman's marketing of a certain subprime mortgage product, known as ABACUS CDO, to investors who lost over $1 billion from that transaction.
At that time, Goldman Sachs knew that the SEC was investigating its failure to disclose material information to investors in violation of SEC Rule 10b-5 in connection with that transaction. However, Goldman Sachs did not disclose the SEC's investigation in its financial reports.
In July 2009, the SEC sent Goldman Sachs a Wells notice informing Goldman of its intention to file a lawsuit against the company. Still, Goldman Sachs chose not to disclose the SEC's pending enforcement action in its financial reports.
On Friday, April 16, 2010, the SEC filed a surprise lawsuit against Goldman Sachs and Executive Director Fabrice Tourre alleging securities fraud in connected with the company's marketing of the ABACUS CDO to investors. That day, Goldman Sachs shares plummeted from $183.31 per share to $160.30 per share or about 13%, wiping out about $12 billion of shareholder wealth.
Clearly, investors deemed the surprise news of the SEC complaint against the company as material information, unlike the management team running Goldman Sachs.
Goldman Sachs settles SEC charges
Yesterday, Goldman Sachs settled SEC charges against the firm. According to the SEC's press release:
...Goldman, Sachs & Co. will pay $550 million and reform its business practices to settle SEC charges that Goldman misled investors in a subprime mortgage product just as the U.S. housing market was starting to collapse.
In agreeing to the SEC's largest-ever penalty paid by a Wall Street firm, Goldman also acknowledged that its marketing materials for the subprime product contained incomplete information.
In a news conference, Director of SEC Enforcement Robert Khuzami spoke about Goldman's duty to provide full and transparent disclosure to its customers but ignored the company's duty to likewise provide such disclosures to its own shareholders:
They acknowledge that their marketing materials for the ABACUS CDO contained incomplete information, and that they failed to disclose both Paulson & Company's role in the portfolio selection process, and that Paulson's economic interests were adverse to CDO investors.
The settlement also contains forward-looking reforms. Goldman has agreed to tighten internal controls and assess the roles and responsibilities of Goldman personnel and others to insure that disclosures in future offerings of mortgage and CDO products are full and accurate.
In agreeing to the settlement, we also took into account that Goldman is engaging in a broad-based self-assessment of their overall business practices that will increase transparency, evaluate and remediate conflicts, and take other steps that collectively will reduce the chances that investors in the future will be misled.
This resolution achieves the goals of accountability, punishment for past misconduct and prospective reforms that are the hallmark of a successful outcome.
Today's settlement is a stark reminder that there will be a heavy price to be paid if firms violate the principles fundamental to our securities laws - full disclosure, honest treatment and fair dealing - and those principles do not change, even if the product is complex or the investor sophisticated.
By ignoring Goldman's failure to inform shareholders in a timely manner about the SEC's investigation of the company and then pending enforcement action, the SEC is sending a message that surprising investors about investigations and enforcement actions is fair game. Moreover, a resolution requiring self-assessment is meaningless, as anyone not sleeping soundly through the last decade should know.
Friday, news of the settlement sent Goldman shares 4.43% higher to close at $145.22 per share, still far lower than its $181.31 price per share the day before the SEC filed its complaint against the company.
Disclaimer: I am a convicted felon and a former CPA. As the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie, I helped Eddie Antar and other members of his family mastermind one of the largest securities frauds uncovered during the 1980's. I committed my crimes in cold-blood for fun and profit, and simply because I could.
If it weren't for the efforts of the FBI, SEC, Postal Inspector's Office, US Attorney's Office, and class action plaintiff's lawyers who investigated, prosecuted, and sued me, I would still be the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie today.
There is a saying, "It takes one to know one." Today, I work very closely with the FBI, IRS, SEC, Justice Department, and other federal and state law enforcement agencies in training them to identify and catch white-collar criminals.
I do not seek or want forgiveness for my vicious crimes from my victims. I plan on frying in hell with other white-collar criminals for a very long time.
Recently, I exposed financial reporting violations by Overstock.com (NASDAQ: OSTK) as an independent whistleblower. The Securities and Exchange Commission is now investigating Overstock.com and its CEO Patrick Byrne for securities law violations (Details here, here, and here).
In addition, the SEC is now investigating possible GAAP violations by Bidz.com (NASDAQ: BIDZ) after I alerted them about the company's inventory accounting practices.
Disclosure: I do not own Goldman Sachs securities long or short.