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Goldman execs deny wrongdoing in meltdown

After more than eight hours of tough questioning of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executives, one senator tried to explain to the firm’s embattled chief executive why lawmakers and their constituents were so angry in the wake of the financial crisis.

“The idea that Wall Street came out of this thing just fine, thank you, is just something that just grates on people,” Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) told Lloyd Blankfein, the last of seven executives to testify. “And I think they think that you didn’t just come out fine because it was luck. They think that you guys just really gamed this thing real, real well.”

In one of the most contentious and high-profile hearings stemming from the financial crisis, Blankfein and the other current and former Goldman employees denied any wrongdoing after a Senate investigation found the firm bet heavily against the housing market in 2007 without telling investors who were buying its mortgage-backed securities.

As the probe focused renewed attention on Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis, further inflaming a partisan debate on enacting tougher regulations, key Goldman executives gave little ground in defending their actions.

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Among those testifying was Fabrice P. Tourre, the Goldman Sachs trader at the heart of a federal civil fraud lawsuit against Goldman over one of the securities he helped create. The self-described “fabulous Fab,” according to e-mails released by the government, made his first public appearance since the Securities and Exchange Commission filed its civil suit this month.

“I deny categorically the SEC’s allegation. And I will defend myself in court against this false claim,” Tourre, 31, told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which conducted a nearly 18-month investigation into Goldman’s actions. With a slight French accent, Tourre argued that the deal was legitimate and not designed to fail, as alleged.

Top Goldman executives also denied that Goldman placed a large bet on the housing market’s collapse -- known as shorting the market -- saying the firm was only trying to offset the risk from its deep exposure to residential mortgages.

They also said there was no conflict of interest in selling securities to investors as Goldman was betting they would go down in value.

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But senators disputed those statements in questioning that became hostile at times.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said Goldman was a major player in the subprime market meltdown, a reflection of the “unbridled greed” of Wall Street in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

“I know you’re going to talk about reducing risk,” Levin told David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer. “You made billions of dollars going short.”

Levin aggressively pressed Blankfein about betting against mortgage-backed securities that the firm was selling to investors without informing them.

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“Is there not a conflict when you sell something to somebody and then are determined to bet against that same security?” Levin asked.

Blankfein responded, “In the context of market making, that is not a conflict.”

After several minutes of hostile questioning, an exasperated Levin said, “And you want people to trust you?”

The criticism of Goldman was bipartisan, as some Republicans joined Democrats in slamming Goldman for its behavior and in accusing several executives at the hearing of stalling to avoid answering tough questions.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) described as “unseemly” Goldman’s bets against the market while it was selling mortgage-backed securities, and said it was “unsettling” to read internal e-mails released by the committee of Goldman Sachs celebrating the collapse of the market.

The hearing took place as Senate Democrats and the Obama administration push for passage of sweeping legislation that would dramatically tighten financial regulations. Levin criticized Wall Street firms for lobbying against the legislation.

“Wall Street is on the wrong side of this fight,” Levin said. “It insists that reining in its excesses would unduly restrict a free market that is the engine of American progress. But this market isn’t free of self-dealing or conflict of interest. It is not free of gambling debts that taxpayers end up paying.”

Republicans on Tuesday again blocked Democratic efforts to bring the bill up for debate by the full Senate. The GOP had blocked the efforts Monday as well.

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Senate Democratic leaders are expected to call yet another vote Wednesday. They hope the tactic will increase pressure on the GOP to settle rather than be portrayed, day after day, as allies of Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs.

Goldman has become a leading economic villain as it emerges as a highly profitable winner in the wake of the financial crisis.

At the packed hearing, four members of the liberal activist group Code Pink showed up in black-and-white prison uniforms to protest Goldman’s actions. “Put the banksters where they belong, behind bars,” was one chant derived from a term for corrupt bankers coined during the Great Depression.

Viniar later in the hearing acknowledged Goldman’s role, saying: “I believe we share responsibility because we are a major player in those markets.” Blankfein also said that his company bore some of the blame.

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But earlier in the hearing, other Goldman executives were unapologetic.

“We did not cause the financial crisis,” Michael Swenson, managing director of Goldman’s structured products trading group, said bluntly of the role of the firm’s mortgage department.

Tourre echoed others in saying he felt bad about the fallout of the crisis but did nothing wrong.

“I am saddened and humbled by what happened in the market in 2007 and 2008...but I believe my conduct was proper,” Tourre said.

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The answers didn’t satisfy Sen. Mark Pryor (R-Ark.), who said those executives were not taking responsibility for their actions. Other senators also became frustrated with their answers, and Levin and Collins accused some of them of intentionally stalling.

Collins pressed Tourre at one point about e-mails he wrote saying he preferred to deal with less-sophisticated clients.

“This sounds like a deliberate attempt to sell your products to less-sophisticated clients who would not understand the products as well so that you could make more money. Would you like to comment on that?” Collins asked Tourre.

But Tourre, like other witnesses, did not answer directly. Collins complained to Levin.

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“Mr. Chairman, I cannot help but get a feeling that a strategy of the witnesses is to try to burn through the time of each questioner,” she said.

Levin agreed and vowed it would not succeed. “We’re going to stay here as long as it takes to get the answers for the public,” he told the witnesses at one point in a hearing that stretched more than seven hours.

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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