Greed Is Awful

06.26.14

Too Big to Jail: Confessions of a Goldman Sachs Brat

We might never have heard of Deeb Salem if he hadn’t sued Goldman over a too-small $8.25M bonus. But now we know how much they made betting against their customers—and got away with it.

Greed seemed to reach a ridiculous extreme this month when a former Goldman Sachs trader filed suit because he got a bonus of only $8.25 million in 2010.

Deeb Salem felt he should have received $13 million.

Really.

The 35-year-old’s suit had already been dismissed in February by an arbitration panel, one of whose members described the case as “bullshit.”

Salem himself is described by his former employer as a ridiculous character who makes unsubstantiated claims about supposed promises made to him.

Goldman further notes that even if what Salem says were true, it would have no legal bearing, as bonuses are awarded at the firm’s discretion.

Salem’s lawyer failed to return repeated calls for comment.

To be fair, Salem is right to contend that bonuses are usually pegged to performance.

And by his estimation he helped Goldman earn billions.

Which raises the question of where all that money came from.

As recounted by Salem in a routine Goldman self-review and confirmed by numerous other documents subpoenaed by congressional investigators, the bank made billions betting against—or “going short” on—the bigger-than-big mortgage securities market it helped to create.

And, the resulting congressional report says, Goldman did so even as it pushed customers to buy some of the very securities it was wagering against.

“Goldman knowingly sold high risk, poor quality mortgage products to clients around the world, saturating financial markets with complex, financially engineered instruments that magnified risk and losses when their underlying assets began to fail,” the report says.

Not surprisingly, Goldman denied everything.

Here is what Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Co-President Gary Cohn said in a 2010 letter to the firm’s own shareholders:

“The firm did not generate enormous net revues or profits by betting against residential mortgage-related products, as some have speculated.”

But here is what Deeb Salem said in his self-review:

“The game plan [was] to put on an enormous directional short. The results of that are obvious.”

As Salem later explained to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the results in question were huge profits. They were in fact of such magnitude that he received a $15 million bonus in 2009, reportedly more than Blankfein was awarded.

“Let’s be very clear: I was one of the most sought-after investment professionals in the mortgage industry.”

“I am as competitive as Michael Jordan. I don’t just want to win; I want to win every time and I want to steamroll the opposition,” Salem said of himself in his self-review.

Salem insists in his suit that he was led to believe he would receive a $13 million bonus in 2010. That would have been before the subcommittee found Salem’s self-review among papers it obtained as part of a probe into the financial crisis.

Goldman seems to have been particularly irked that Salem had written of a “short squeeze,” a scheme in which he and his comrades sought to lower artificially the price of short positions with the hope of prompting investors holding them to sell. The next step was for Goldman to buy them, but the housing securities market began to deteriorate even more rapidly than anticipated. The scheme was abandoned and Goldman just began snapping up short positions at the prevailing price so as to increase quickly its bet against the market.

“This strategy seemed do-able and brilliant,” Salem nonetheless wrote of the scuttled scheme in his self-review.

Emails that the subcommittee obtained along with the self-review show that Salem had a terse reply when a Goldman salesman reported that a customer wanted to buy a short position.

“Too late,” Salem replied as he busily bought them for Goldman.

Salem subsequently insisted to Congress that there had been no such scheme. The subcommittee’s final report notes that “Mr. Salem denied that [he and his colleagues] ever intended to squeeze the market, and claimed that he had wrongly worded his self-evaluation. He said that reading his self-evaluation as a description of an intended short squeeze put too much emphasis on ‘words.’”

Among the schemes that did go forward to completion was an offering of mortgage-related securities called Hudson 1. Goldman told investors that these securities had been assembled “from the street,” suggesting that they came from various Wall Street brokers. Goldman also indicated that it was investing in the offering.

In truth, the securities were ones that Goldman already owned but which were proving iffy at best. Salem personally selected 40 percent of the securities from the Goldman inventory.

And while Goldman had invested $6 million in the offering, what it did not tell investors was that it was betting $2 billion that the securities would tank.

Goldman gave the investors no inkling of how it viewed the market’s immediate future. The subcommittee cites emails written by a senior Goldman exec before the Hudson 1 sale.

“Bad and getting worse…get out of everything…stay on the short side…Game over…bad news everywhere…the business is totally dead.”

The subcommittee sums up this scheme, saying: “When marketing the Hudson securities, Goldman misled investors by claiming its investment interests were aligned with theirs, when it was the sole short party and was betting against the very securities it was recommending… By holding 100% of the short position at the same time it solicited clients to buy the Hudson securities, Goldman created a conflict of interest with its clients, concealed the conflict from them, and profited at their expense.”

In a further conflict of interest, Goldman served as the liquidation agent for the investors, tasked with selling the securities when their value began to plummet in 2008. The primary Hudson investor, Morgan Stanley, pressed Goldman to sell.

“Goldman, however, delayed selling the assets for months,” the report notes. “As the assets dropped in value, Goldman’s short position increased in value. Morgan Stanley’s representative reported to a colleague that when Goldman rejected the firm’s request to sell the poorly performing Hudson assets, ‘I broke my phone.’ He also sent an email to [Goldman] saying: ‘[O]ne day I hope I get the real reason why you are doing this to me.’ Morgan Stanley lost nearly $960 million on its Hudson investment.”

That and much more went into Goldman’s coffers.

“Goldman pocketed nearly $1.7 billion in gross revenues from Hudson 1, all of which was at the expense of the investors to whom it had sold the Hudson securities,” the report notes.

At the end of the subcommittee’s two-year investigation, the chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), declared, “In my judgment, Goldman clearly misled their clients and they misled the Congress.”

“We will be referring this matter to the Justice Department and the SEC,” Levin said.

Anybody who saw Martha Stewart convicted and sentenced to prison for lying to a federal agent had cause to figure that at least somebody at Goldman might be in trouble. But the Department of Justice subsequently announced that it found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Translation: Goldman was too big to jail.

The SEC was already pursuing a civil action against Goldman for a hustle similar to Hudson 1, this one prominently involving mid-level executive Fabio “Fabulous Fab” Tourre. Goldman settled for a $550 million fine without being required to admit any wrongdoing. Tourre insisted on going to a trial, where the evidence against him included an email to a girlfriend in which he jokingly referred to the true state of the mortgage market.

“Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab...Standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!!!”

A jury found against Tourre, and the 35-year-old was fined $825,000, becoming the one person held responsible for the financial crisis. Goldman’s role was soon all but forgotten.

As for that other 35-year-old, Salem, he might never have reached public notice, even though he appears to have made a far greater contribution to Goldman’s fortunes and therefore the economy’s near destruction than fall guy Fab. Salem then chose to file a suit saying his $8.25 million was not enough and he wanted the $13 million even if an arbitration panel had found against him.

His lawyer, Jonathan Sack, attached a transcript of the Feb. 25 arbitration hearing to the lawsuit even though such proceedings are generally considered confidential. New York State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten predictably granted Goldman’s predictable motion to have it sealed. But that was not before at least one reporter got a look at it, as Salem’s lawyer almost certainly intended.

Salem is reported by Bloomberg to have told the panel that the promise of the big bonus had kept him at Goldman when he received offers to go elsewhere.

“Let’s be very clear: I was one of the most sought-after investment professionals in the mortgage industry,” Salem reportedly said. “I had the opportunity throughout the course of my career and throughout—from that day, from almost every month that I was at Goldman, to leave for other opportunities.”

Goldman’s lawyer allowed during the arbitration hearing that Salem “is very good at trading” and had been paid more than $35 million in his six years with the firm.

“He made a ton of money,” the lawyer said. “He’s not entitled to more simply because he would like to have been paid more. If that were the case, you’d have traders and bankers in here every day of the week.”

At one point in the hearing, Salem reportedly sought to garner some sympathy by saying his mother had been living with him after her house burned down and that he had told her not to worry because he was getting a $13 million bonus.

He apparently failed to mention that the house in question was the family’s second home, on Martha’s Vineyard, and that his father is a prominent cardiologist in Boston.

Salem prepped at Phillips Academy before proceeding to Princeton, which makes his greed less understandable than that of Blankfein, a postal worker’s son who attended Thomas Jefferson High School in the roughest corner of Brooklyn before landing at Harvard by virtue of hard work and brilliance.

Salem the prep school kid felt so slighted by a paltry $3 million bonus in 2011 that he left the firm. He is now at a hedge fund called GoldenTree Asset Management.

In proof of just how low high society can sink, photos online show Salem at such snazzy events as the Young Patrons of Lincoln Center. He can be seen smiling as if he had not made millions by joining Goldman in betting against its customers and contributing to an economic crisis that caused hardship and heartache to untold numbers of honest people.

Only the greedy say that greed is good and there is no shaming of the shameless.