The SEC and Paulson in 2004

by Chris Sturr | October 03, 2008

In today’s New York Times, an interesting piece about a deal struck between the SEC and five investment banks to provide them with “an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments.” One of the banks was Goldman Sachs, headed by Henry Paulson.

The Reckoning
Agency’s ’04 Rule Let Banks Pile Up New Debt, and Risk
By STEPHEN LABATON

“We have a good deal of comfort about the capital cushions at these firms at the moment.” — Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, March 11, 2008.

As rumors swirled that Bear Stearns faced imminent collapse in early March, Christopher Cox was told by his staff that Bear Stearns had $17 billion in cash and other assets — more than enough to weather the storm.

Drained of most of its cash three days later, Bear Stearns was forced into a hastily arranged marriage with JPMorgan Chase — backed by a $29 billion taxpayer dowry.

Within six months, other lions of Wall Street would also either disappear or transform themselves to survive the financial maelstrom — Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to commercial banks.

How could Mr. Cox have been so wrong?

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28, 2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency’s failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

Here’s the really interesting bit:

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

Over the following months and years, each of the firms would take advantage of the looser rules. At Bear Stearns, the leverage ratio — a measurement of how much the firm was borrowing compared to its total assets — rose sharply, to 33 to 1. In other words, for every dollar in equity, it had $33 of debt. The ratios at the other firms also rose significantly.

The 2004 decision for the first time gave the S.E.C. a window on the banks’ increasingly risky investments in mortgage-related securities.

But the agency never took true advantage of that part of the bargain. The supervisory program under Mr. Cox, who arrived at the agency a year later, was a low priority.

Read the rest of the article.

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