Friday, April 16, 2010

SEC Sues Goldman Sachs; Is the Tide Turning?

There was only one piece of news today that mattered and it was the enormous disclosure that the SEC has initiated a civil lawsuit against the leading investment bank in America: Goldman Sachs.

The case alleges fraud by Goldman Sachs in the marketing and selling of certain mortgage-backed securities selected by hedge fund Paulson & Co. Investors lost $1 billion, though Paulson, allegedly aided by Goldman Sachs, made bets (credit defaults swaps or CDS) against the securities and made $1 billion by being on the opposite side of the transaction.

Obviously, the SEC has targeted only one instance of alleged fraud in the marketing of mortgage-backed securities which consisted primarily of sub-prime mortgages, though the case may serve as a test for many more lawsuits to follow. What's apparent from the government's position is that Goldman Sachs will be brought under severe scrutiny in the arcane area of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), at last seeking to pull back the veil of secrecy surrounding the financial instruments which eventually resulted in a massive collapse of the financial industry and the larger economy.

Should the government prevail against Goldman, the implications could be severe. It's not as though Goldman's marketers were the only Wall Street big wheels who were involved in the sale of such securities. Other banks and financial institutions may find themselves on the receiving end of the government's wrath, notably Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, while JP Morgan Chase may receive something of a pass. Bank of America may be culpable after its acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2008, while Citigroup and Morgan Stanley merged their brokerage units in January, 2009 under the Smith Barney moniker.

With all of this potential litigation weighing in the background, investors scurried out of Goldman Sachs and other financial stocks en masse on Friday. Goldman Sachs (GS) closed at 160.70, down 23.57 points (12.79%). Other financial stocks suffered declines ranging between 5 and 10%, but the broader market was noticeably spooked, sending all the major indices tumbling into the red. As such, investors were granted the perfect opportunity to bail out and head to the sidelines for the time being, though these lawsuits could take years in which to unravel.

It is worth noting that today's tumble nearly wiped out all of the gains for the week. The news could not have come at a worse time, right in the midst of earnings season. The potential for billions of dollars being vaporized is once again front and center as scandalous lawsuits will almost surely put a lid on further advances and may actually serve to focus investors on other less-than-satisfactory economic news.

Dow 11,018.66, -125.91 (1.13%)
NASDAQ 2,481.26, -34.43 (1.37%)
S&P 500 1,192.13, -19.54 (1.61%)
NYSE Composite 7,584.62, -135.04 (1.75%

The extraordinary nature of todays trade was evident in the internals. Declining issues trumped advancers, 4991-1524. New highs slipped back to 464, though there were only 39 new lows. Volume was at the highest level in months, nearly double the normal volume on the NYSE alone.

NYSE Volume 9,108,087,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,878,199,000

The Goldman news spared no markets. Crude oil dropped $2.27, to $83.24. Gold was hammered, losing $23.40, to $1,136.30. Silver was battered down 76 cents, closing at $17.67 per ounce.

One can only wonder about the timing of the SEC suit and its effect on the markets. Was it mere coincidence that stocks had become ridiculously overbought in recent days or was this yet another well-timed assault on the senses by the money moguls?

Only time will tell, but this is certainly not a time to be very confident in buying stocks. Again.

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