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Goldman fuels rising financial reform pressure

Goldman Sachs faced rising regulatory and legal pressure on Monday as allegations that the bank duped clients fueled momentum for regulatory reform on both sides of the Atlantic.
/ Source: Reuters

Goldman Sachs faced rising regulatory and legal pressure on Monday as allegations that the bank duped clients fueled momentum for regulatory reform on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shares in the Wall Street powerhouse fell again and the cost of insuring its debt rose as investors struggled to assess how big a hit Goldman and the rest of the financial industry would take from the fraud charges.

The White House predicted on Monday that financial reform legislation would get strong bipartisan support. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also said that the Obama administration had no intention of watering down the legislation in order to court wavering Republicans.

President Barack Obama plans to go to New York City on Thursday to press the case for financial reform.

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman on Friday over its marketing of a subprime mortgage product, igniting a battle between Wall Street's most powerful bank and the top securities regulator. Goldman has denied the charges.

"If nothing else, higher regulatory scrutiny could lead to a more cautious work force at Goldman and curtail future revenue generation if it persists," analysts at FBR Research said in a research note. The firm removed Goldman from its "top picks" list.

The civil fraud case cast a shadow over what had been expected to be a blockbuster earnings announcement from Goldman on Tuesday. The 141-year-old bank for the first time said its co-general counsel, Greg Palm, would join its earnings call alongside Chief Financial Officer David Viniar.

And the only individual named in the SEC lawsuit is taking some time off, Goldman said on Monday. Frenchman Fabrice Tourre, the self-described "fabulous Fab," remains a Goldman employee, a spokeswoman for the bank said. The 31-year-old has made a "personal decision to take a bit of time off," she said.  

The SEC complaint included emails in which Tourre — now based in London — appeared to exult in the products he was creating.

"Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created...," he wrote in one.

In a sign that there might not be an immediate wave of similar cases, CNBC reported that a former lieutenant of hedge fund manager John Paulson had told investors that he did only one deal of the type in the Goldman case. The SEC alleges that Goldman created the synthetic collateralized debt obligation in question at Paulson's behest, and that Paulson made millions by betting against it.

The SEC has said investors were kept in the dark about the fact that Paulson was shorting the CDO. One of those investors, German bank IKB, said it was reviewing all of its financial transactions in the run-up to the crisis. The bank said it might consider taking legal steps but had no grounds for action so far.

The Dusseldorf-based bank nearly collapsed in 2007 and lost almost all of its $150 million in the Goldman mortgage securities product.

Deutsche Bank and UBS led a 2 percent slide across European bank shares on Monday as investors feared regulators would probe deeper into past deals throughout the industry.

Britain and Germany said they could also pursue Goldman. The UK financial regulator said it was looking at the circumstances of the SEC's charges, as was Germany's BaFin, which said it was considering possible damage claims.

"All this suggests you should not buy into a sector where the regulators are about to move the goal posts," said Bruce Packard, an analyst at Seymour Pierce in London.

"Even if they don't, the pitch surface is so uneven that if the goal posts aren't moved, unfortunately we might see a few more broken legs in future."

The prospect of a wider probe unsettled investors across the sector.

In the United States, Democrats tried to use the Goldman allegations to their advantage as they press for congressional approval of the most sweeping package of financial regulatory reforms since the Great Depression.

Senator Christopher Dodd said he was hopeful that agreement would be reached on a bill and claimed that his proposal would have stopped the type of activity alleged in the SEC's suit against Goldman.

And EU market regulation chief Michel Barnier said that if Goldman was found to have committed fraud, it would reinforce the need for Europe to act to regulate derivatives.

Goldman shares were down 1.2 percent, or $1.91, at $158.79 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, underperforming the Amex Securites Broker/Dealer index, which was off 0.56 percent.

The cost of insuring Goldman's debt with credit default swaps rose to $135,000 a year to insure $10 million in debt for five years.

By 1213 GMT the STOXX Europe 600 bank sector was down 1.4 percent at 225.5 after falling as low as 224.1. The index reversed sharply late on Friday after the SEC probe was announced, wiping out a 3 percent gain on the week.

Robert Khuzami, head of the SEC's enforcement division, referring to deals such as Goldman's, said he was looking "very closely at these products and transactions."

The SEC is investigating if deals arranged by other banks may have misled investors, and among the firms that created mortgage deals that soured were Deutsche Bank and UBS, the Wall Street Journal said.

Deutsche Bank shares were down 2.2 percent and UBS fell 1.7 percent.

The SEC has been asking banks for information about marketing of CDOs for some time, industry sources said, and it sent subpoenas to Goldman, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse and others, the Financial Times added.

Investors, ranging from banks to pension funds and local governments, lost billions of dollars on the complex structured products, and many are considering legal action.

Royal Bank of Scotland was one of the few stocks to gain, rising 4.1 percent. RBS paid Goldman $840 million in August 2008 to unwind a position built up by ABN Amro, some of whose operations RBS had acquired, and could seek to claw back some of that payment if the SEC's case against Goldman succeeds.