Three and half years ago, a New York hedge fund manager with a bearish view on the housing market was pounding the pavement on Wall Street.
Eager to increase his bets against subprime mortgages, the investor, John A. Paulson, canvassed firm after firm, looking for new ways to profit from home loans that he was sure would go sour.
Only a few investment banks agreed to help him. One was Deutsche Bank. The other was the mighty Goldman Sachs.
Mr. Paulson struck gold. His prescience made him billions and transformed him from a relative nobody into something of a celebrity on Wall Street and in Washington.
But now his brassy bets have thrust Mr. Paulson into an uncomfortable spotlight. On Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Goldman for neglecting to tell its customers that mortgage investments they were buying consisted of pools of dubious loans that Mr. Paulson had selected because they were highly likely to fail.
By betting against the pool of questionable mortgage bonds, Mr. Paulson made $1 billion when they collapsed just a few months later, the S.E.C. said. Investors, who bought what regulators are essentially calling a pig in a poke, lost the same amount.
'Have always been forthright'
Mr. Paulson, 54, was not named as a defendant in the S.E.C. suit, but his role in devising the instrument that caused $1 billion in losses for Goldman’s customers is detailed in the complaint. Robert Khuzami, the director of enforcement at the S.E.C., explained that, unlike Goldman, the manager of the hedge fund, Paulson & Company, had not made misrepresentations to investors buying the security, known as a collateralized debt obligation.
“While it’s unfortunate that people lost money investing in mortgage-backed securities, Paulson has never been involved in the origination, distribution or structuring of such securities,” said Stefan Prelog, a spokesman for Mr. Paulson, in a statement. “We have always been forthright in expressing our opinion as to the quality of the underlying mortgages. Paulson has never misrepresented our positions to any counterparties.
“There’s no question we made money in these transactions. However, all our dealings were through arm’s-length transactions with experienced counterparties who had opposing views based on all available information at the time. We were straightforward in our dislike of these securities, but the vast majority of people in the market thought we were dead wrong and openly and aggressively purchased the securities we were selling.”
Still, the details unearthed by the S.E.C. in its investigation show a deep involvement by Mr. Paulson in the creation of the investment, known as Abacus 2007-AC1. For example, he approached Goldman about constructing and marketing the debt security.
After analyzing risky mortgages made on homes in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada, where the housing markets had overheated, Mr. Paulson went to Goldman to talk about how he could bet against those loans. He focused his analysis on adjustable-rate loans taken out by borrowers with relatively low credit scores and turned up more than 100 loan pools that he considered vulnerable, the S.E.C. said.
Mr. Paulson then asked Goldman to put together a portfolio of these pools, or others like them that he could wager against. He paid $15 million to Goldman for creating and marketing the Abacus deal, the complaint says.
One of a small cohort of money managers who saw the mortgage market in late 2006 as a bubble waiting to burst, Mr. Paulson capitalized on the opacity of mortgage-related securities that Wall Street cobbled together and sold to its clients. These instruments contained thousands of mortgage loans that few investors bothered to analyze.
Instead, the buyers relied on the opinions of credit ratings agencies like Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings. These turned out to be overly rosy, and investors suffered hundreds of billions in losses when the loans underlying these securities went bad.
Mr. Paulson personally made an estimated $3.7 billion in 2007 as a result of his hedge fund’s performance, and another $2 billion in 2008.
He was also treated like a celebrity by members of a Congressional committee that invited him to testify in November 2008 about the credit crisis. At the time, none of the lawmakers asked how he had managed to set up his lucrative trades; they seemed more interested in getting his advice on how to solve the credit crisis.
A Queens-born graduate of New York University and the Harvard Business School, Mr. Paulson went to Wall Street in the early 1980s just as the biggest bull market in history was starting. He joined Bear Stearns in 1984 as a junior executive in the investment banking unit.
Ten years later, he started his hedge fund with $2 million of his own capital. During the technology-stock bubble of the late 1990s, Mr. Paulson took a negative stance on high-flying shares and profited handsomely for himself and his clients.
By the end of 2008, Mr. Paulson’s assets under management had risen to $36.1 billion. In an early 2009 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Paulson talked about his success. “We are very proud of our performance last year,” he said. “We provided an oasis of profitable returns for our investors in a year where there were few sources of gains.”
His investors, which included pension funds, endowments, wealthy families and individuals, were huge beneficiaries of his strategy, Mr. Paulson added. “They made four times as much as we did,” he said.
Mr. Paulson and his investment program was the subject of the 2009 book by Gregory Zuckerman “The Greatest Trade Ever.” Mr. Zuckerman wrote that Mr. Paulson did not think there was anything wrong with working with various banks to create troubled investments that he could then bet against.
“Paulson told his own clients what he was up to and they supported him, considering it an ingenious way to grow the trade by finding more debt to short,” Mr. Zuckerman wrote. “After all, those who would buy the pieces of any C.D.O. likely would be hedge funds, banks, pension plans or other sophisticated investors, not mom-and-pop investors.”
Late last year, Mr. Paulson donated $20 million to the Stern School of Business at New York University and $5 million to Southampton Hospital in Long Island’s East End, where he bought a $41 million home in early 2008. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Amid criticism of investment strategies that profited from mortgage defaults, home foreclosures and other miseries, Mr. Paulson has also given $15 million to the Center for Responsible Lending for a center devoted to providing foreclosure assistance to troubled borrowers.
At the time of the donation, Mr. Paulson said of the center and its work, “We are pleased to help them provide legal services to distressed homeowners, many of whom have been victimized by predatory lenders.”
This story, "," first appeared in The New York Times.