Is the SEC colluding with banks on CDO prosecutions?

By Felix Salmon
October 20, 2011
Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein get an astonishing on-the-record admission today, from a Citigroup flack, that that might indeed be the case:


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Is the SEC colluding with Wall Street’s biggest banks to let them off lightly with respect to their dodgy CDOs? Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein get an astonishing on-the-record admission today, from a Citigroup flack, that might indeed be the case:

The bank says it has settled all of its potential liability to a key regulator – the Securities and Exchange Commission — with a $285 million payment that covers a single transaction, Class V Funding III…

[The SEC] made no mention of the dozens of similar collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, Citi sold to investors before the crash.

A bank spokesman said the SEC would not be examining any of those deals. “This means that the SEC has completed its CDO investigation(s) of Citi,’’ the spokesman asserted in an e mail.

The SEC, of course, denies this — but it carries the ring of truth. Just look at the SEC’s own list of CDO prosecutions to date: there’s exactly one enforcement action per bank.

And the idea is held more broadly, too — look for instance at Peter Henning’s article on the subject today.

The settlement — in which the financial firm agreed to pay $285 million without admitting or denying guilt — appears to be of little concern to Citigroup investors. They’re likely to be happy that the bank has put the issue to rest.

What makes Henning think that Citigroup has put this issue to rest? As Eisinger and Bernstein demonstrate, Citi had lots of synthetic CDOs — not just Class V Funding III — where someone other than the ostensible CDO manager was intimately involved in choosing the contents, and had a vested interest in picking securities which were extremely likely to fail.

There’s every indication, here, that the banks are doing nod-and-a-wink deals with the SEC. The SEC brings its single strongest case, and the banks agree to a nine-figure fine, on the implicit understanding that the fine covers all their other CDO deals as well. That saves the SEC from having to laboriously put together a separate case for each CDO deal, and it allows the banks to put much of their contingent liability behind them.

But if that is going on, it’s a scandal. For one thing, it’s incredibly unfair to everybody who bought one of the dodgy CDOs which is not prosecuted. Investors in Class V Funding III, for instance, are getting all their money back as a result of this latest settlement. But what about investors in Citi’s other synthetic CDOs, like Adams Square Funding II, or Ridgeway Court Funding II, or even Class V Funding IV? Not to mention the $6.5 billion of Magnetar deals, where — according to all ProPublica’s reporting — Magnetar was intimately involved in choosing what went in and what didn’t. The big sin, remember, in both the Goldman and Citi deals, was one of disclosure: the banks didn’t disclose to investors that the short side of the trade was hand-picking the contents of the deal. And you just know that there were dozens of deals — not just one per bank — where that key disclosure was missing.

Is the SEC trying to protect the banks it’s meant to be prosecuting? Is it quietly agreeing on a one-prosecution-per-bank model? If so, we should be told. And if not, it had better bring prosecution #2 against someone pretty soon. Because right now the pattern is decidedly fishy.

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