Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mismarking CDO Case Not Earth-Shattering

Last week, after President Obama announced a purportedly new initiative, see here and here, to combat fraud, government law enforcement officials, criticized for their lack of activity, promised action in the very near future. It is not clear whether the indictment returned Wednesday in the Southern District of New York for crimes committed four years ago is the action referred to. It certainly is not an earth-shattering case.

On Wednesday, three former Credit Suisse traders were indicted for inflating the worth of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to avoid recognition of market losses and thereby increase their bonuses. See here.

The CDOs consisted of pooled, presumably at least in part subprime, mortgages that were sold to investors in packages by presumably reputable institutions with high ratings provided by presumably reputable credit agencies. The presence of large amounts of overvalued CDOs in firm inventories is considered by some a major cause of the financial crisis.

Unlike securities such as listed stocks, there was no liquid market for these mortgage securities and therefore no easily ascertainable market value. Some financial firms were hesitant to mark down these failing obligations because it would considerably decrease reported earnings. Here, it is alleged -- and two of the three indicted have pleaded guilty -- that the traders knowingly concealed the loss in value and secured a bogus evaluation from a friendly small investment bank in order to support the inflated value of the securities. The overvaluation -- or failure to recognize the loss -- resulted in increased compensation for the traders, whose year-end bonuses were based considerably on the profits of their groups.

This case is interesting for several reasons. It is one of the relatively few brought so far that concern alleged criminal wrongdoing after the financial crisis arose. Most previous criminal prosecutions involving failed mortgages have focused on the origination of mortgages and comparatively small-time people such as aggressive mortgage brokers, perjurious buyers and conniving lawyers, and not their securitization.

It is also one of the few instances in which employees of a major financial institution have been prosecuted criminally in a case related to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, it would be a stretch to say that this overvaluation, discovered and corrected by Credit Suisse in days, had a major impact.

This is one of the rare criminal accusations, to my knowledge, involving mismarking or deliberately overvaluing illiquid assets in order to inflate profits. These valuations have a major effect on the profit and loss statements of financial institutions, including hedge funds, and the consequent bonuses or incentive compensation of traders and managers. False marking, often using evaluations by supposed experts or comparable institutions of the worth of securities with no easily-defined market value, is an area which deserves more governmental scrutiny and probably more governmental legal action.

Of course, care must be taken to distinguish deliberate falsity from good faith but erroneous evaluation in this uncertain area.

(goldman)

February 4, 2012 in Current Affairs, Fraud, Mortgage Fraud, Prosecutions, Securities | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In the News & Around the Blogosphere

Monday, January 30, 2012

New Financial Unit Raises Questions

Virtually every presidential State of the Union speech, or its gubernatorial equivalent, calls for tougher criminal laws and/or new investigative resources.  President Obama's address last week was no exception.  The President called for the establishment of a new unit "to crack down on large scale fraud and protect people's investments."  As blog editor Ellen S. Podgor wondered, see here, it was unclear how this unit would differ from the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force established in 2009.  I too asked whether this purportedly new unit was anything other than a repackaged version.

The announcement of a new prosecutorial unit also was perhaps an unintended implicit admission that existing federal law enforcement agencies had been less than successful in dealing with serious alleged crimes which some believed had caused the financial crisis.  Both Attorney General Eric Holder and SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami defended their record, stating that not every mistake is a violation of law.  Holder said, "We also have learned that behavior that is reckless or unethical is not necessarily criminal," a statement which (aside from leading me to ask why it had taken him so long to realize it) should be painted on the walls of every prosecutorial office.

The principal apparent structural difference between this unit, entitled the Unit on Mortgage Origination and Security Abuses ("UMOSA"), and the prior one is, besides its more focused jurisdiction, that this is a joint task force of both federal and state officials.  One of its co-chairs -- albeit one of five, four being DOJ or SEC officials -- is New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has shown his independence and aggressiveness toward Wall Street by pushing for stronger sanctions against financial institutions for robo-signing and other improprieties committed after the crisis arose.

Generally, joint federal-state task forces are a one-way street.  The feds take the best criminal cases and leave the dregs to the state.  One purported justification for such selection is that federal laws and rules of evidence make it easier for federal prosecutors to bring cases and win convictions.  Schneiderman has indicated somewhat to the contrary -- that New York and other state laws give state attorneys general greater means to bring both civil and criminal prosecutions.

The idea of combining federal and state resources is generally a good one.  Too often law enforcement agencies refuse to share information with other agencies, if at all, until they have determined the information was insufficient for them to act on, often too late for use by the other agencies.  On the other hand, I fear that some task force constituents might attempt to make an end run around constitutional and statutory laws and rules, specificially Fed.R.Crim.Pro. 6(e), which, generally, as relevant here, prohibits disclosure of grand jury information to non-federal officials.  Of particular concern is whether information secured by federal grand juries, much of which is through immunized testimony, will be provided for use by the states.  Both Attorneys General Holder and Schneiderman seem aware of this restriction, but both appear to view it as an obstacle to overcome rather than a right to ensure.  How scrupulous they will be in upholding the rule and spirit of grand jury secrecy will be seen.

(goldman)

January 30, 2012 in Current Affairs, Fraud, Grand Jury, Investigations, Mortgage Fraud, Prosecutors, SEC, Securities | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Amicus Brief Filed in Brown Case - Discovery Issue

Previously discussed here, was the cert petition filled in James A. Brown v. United States (11-783),a case that raises interesting questions regarding Brady. As noted, Brown, is a former Merrill Lynch executive who "was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his testimony before the Enron grand jury about a transaction between Merrill and Enron in late 1999." An amicus brief has been filed in this case that includes several different defense groups and several leading law professors. They weigh in on the important question raised in this brief - the appropriate standard of review for Brady cases. Should it be "clear error" or should it be de novo.

The case also examines "materiality," a term that has creates some confusion. What must a prosecutor provide to the defense counsel. And isn't it odd that the adversary in the process is making the determination for what the defense is entitled to receive. The case looks at summaries being provided to defense counsel. Bottom line - summaries are not the same as the real thing.

Brief -Download NYCDL Amicus Brief - As-Filed

(esp)

January 29, 2012 in Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)