So much for nailing that call on Goldman Sachs (GS) after the company settled with the SEC last year. The investment bank agreed to pay a $550 million fine last year on charges that the company engaged in fraud while selling mortgage-related investment products. The stock fell to around $130 per share at the height of the scare last July before rebounding nicely to the $175 area early in 2011. And yet here we are nearly a full year later and other lawyers are looking to get into the game. Unrelenting articles in the financial media from publications such as Rolling Stone don’t help either.
Unfortunately, I thought we had gotten past this issue, at least to the same magnitude as in 2010. Wishful thinking on my part. Most of the GS stock I bought for clients last year remains in their accounts, so this latest sell-off related to additional fraud investigations by the New York U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Justice Department has been painful. And with the 2012 election cycle ramping up, what better time to go after the big Wall Street banks yet again?
The interesting thing is, the issues haven’t changed much since last year. It is still fairly difficult to proof Goldman Sachs committed fraud because the clear evidence that they lied directly to those buying their mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008 is scarce. People assume that since Goldman identified a bubble about to burst, while others didn’t, means that Goldman must have broken the law. And maybe they did, although the evidence I have seen is flimsy (even experts agreed that the SEC didn’t have a strong case). It could just be that Goldman Sachs is smarter than most of the other players in the marketplace (a theory that has been born out for years, by the way). Every transaction requires a willing buyer and a willing seller, which means there will be a winner and a loser in every trade. Just because Goldman was the winner does not mean that they defrauded the other party in the transaction.
As was repeated numerous times during the Congressional hearings prompted by the SEC investigation last year, Goldman Sachs acts as a market maker and a securities underwriter in these deals, not as a fiduciary. As a result, they are not required to put their customers’ interests ahead of their own when selling securities. All they must insure is that the investors know what they are getting and how much they are paying. Whether or not it is a good investment for them is up to the buyer to decide, not Goldman Sachs to advise them on. If there is evidence that Goldman lied to the buyers about what they were getting, then clearly the legal issue is only going to get worse for them, but again, there is hardly any evidence of that.
Even the SEC case, which resulted in Goldman agreeing to a large settlement, Â revolved around Goldman omitting data pertaining to which people structured the deal. All of the details of the security, including what exactly the buyer was getting, were disclosed and known by all parties involved. There has to be personal responsibility, right? If you choose to buy something and are told exactly what it is ahead of time, it should be your responsibility to decide if it is a good investment or not, and if it turns out not to be, you should expect to lose money.
Now, I am not going to pretend to know exactly what evidence will lead to what legal outcomes over the next year regarding these mortgage-backed security transactions. All I can say is that Goldman stock is now all the way back to where it was during the height of the SEC worries last year. It has given back the entire 40-point gain that was recouped after that case was closed. The company continues to have the smartest people in the investment banking universe and be the premiere firm to do business with. Their profits remain strong and the stock trades near tangible book value after the recent correction. Goldman Sachs since their IPO in 1999 has proven again and again they can create shareholder value in all market cycles. Consider the chart below, which shows GS’s book value per share growth since the company went public more than a decade ago. As you can see, the company is run superbly well, which usually warrants a sizable premium to book value.
For long term investors it appears to be a great buying opportunity, the same conclusion I made at about this time last year. Of course, if the stock should rebound 40 points again after more lawsuits are resolved, perhaps it would be wise to take some more money off the table, as this issue doesn’t seem like it will be going away anytime soon.
Full Disclosure: Clients of Peridot Capital were long shares of GS at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time