24 Apr 2010, 00:00

Goldman Sachs e-mails show bank sought to profit from housing downturn

Goldman Sachs e-mails show bank sought to profit from housing downturn

By Zachary A. Goldfarb

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, April 24, 2010; 11:43 AM

But the prevailing view of executives, as described in the paper, was not that the housing market was headed into a prolonged decline. They were not looking to short the market overall. That would have entailed making such large bets against mortgage securities that the firm would turn a profit if the market as a whole collapsed, which in fact it did.

The document acknowledges that Goldman at times shorted the overall market but describes those periods as temporary while the firm was rebalancing its portfolio to limit losses if mortgage securities were to lose more value.

At some moments, executives were actually considering making new bets, buying potentially undervalued securities that could pay off when the mortgage market turned around. A day after Viniar met with traders and risk managers, he wrote to Tom Montan, co-head of the securities division, saying, “There will be very good opportunities as the markets goes into what is likely to be even greater distress and we want to be in position to take advantage of them.”

The back-and-forth over which way the market would go, and how to invest in it, continued into 2007.

On March 14, Goldman co-president Jon Winkelried e-mailed Sparks and others asking what the bank was doing to protect itself from a decline in prices of not just subprime loans, but also other loans traditionally considered less risky. Sparks replied that the firm was trying to have “smaller” exposure to those loans also.

But managing director Richard Ruzika took issue with that answer a few days later, saying that Goldman might be overestimating the decline in housing. “It does feel to me like the market in general underestimated how bad it could get. And now could be overestimating where we are heading,” he wrote in an e-mail. “While undoubtedly there will be some continued spillover, I’m not so convinced this is a total death spiral. In fact, we may have terrific opportunities.”

Sparks later endorsed that optimistic view, suggesting as late as August 2007 that Goldman begin buying more mortgage securities.

The bank did not immediately follow that path, and by Nov. 30, 2007, Goldman had largely canceled out its exposure to subprime mortgages by increasing its bets that the market would continue to slide, according to the document.

But by that account, Goldman also continued to have $13.5 billion in exposure to safer, prime mortgages. That cost the bank. In 2008, the firm lost $1.7 billion on investments in residential mortgages.