Friday, June 26, 2009

Goldman's Lucas Van Praag Responds To Matt Taibbi's Allegations

Lucas Van Praag responds to Felix Salmon's take on Matt Taibbi's RS post, which was first posted on Zero Hedge.
Having read your piece about Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone, I wanted to set the record straight, particularly about “regulatory capture”.

Background: Under the Commodity Exchange Act, the CFTC (for agricultural futures) or exchanges (for energy/metals futures) established speculative position limits. As much as anything else, the limits are intended to prevent market imbalances that would result in failures of the ultimate settlement of the futures contracts.

The CFTC rules exempt “bona fide hedging” transactions from these spec limits. A bona fide hedging transaction was originally understood to be an actual producer/consumer who was selling or buying the underlying commodity and wanted to hedge risk of the price moving up or down. In 1991, J. Aron wanted to enter into one of its first commodity index swap transactions with a pension fund. In order to hedge our exposure on the swap, we wanted to buy futures on the commodities in the index. We applied to the CFTC for exemption from position limits on the theory that even if we weren’t buying the commodity, we had offsetting exposure (in our swap) that put us in a balanced/price neutral position. The CFTC agreed with our argument and granted exemption. By the way, each of the then Commissioners signed off, so it was hardly a secret…

The CFTC published a report in August 2008, indicating that there were few instances when entities would have exceeded spec limits, had they applied to OTC positions.

Yesterday, as you probably know, the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations issued a report on wheat futures in which they concluded that divergence between prices for actual wheat v. wheat futures is being caused solely by index investment. The Committee’s recommendation is that hedge exemptions which support indices should be phased out.

Not quite so recently, the elimination of Glass Steagall doesn’t exactly provide a robust argument for regulatory capture. And Taibbi’s bubble case doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny either. To give just two examples, even with the worst will in the world, the blame for creating the internet bubble cannot credibly be laid at our door, and we could hardly be described as having been a major player in the mortgage market, unlike so many of our current and former competitors.

Taibbi’s article is a compilation of just about every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up about Goldman Sachs, but what real substance is there to support the theories?

We reject the assertion that we are inflators of bubbles and profiteers in busts, and we are painfully conscious of the importance of being a force for good. [highlight added]
We all love diplomacy, especially when it is of the form conveyed by media conduits trusted not to challenge the content too much (due to conflicts of interest or otherwise). However, Zero Hedge does have some issues with Felix Salmon's op-ed'ing of the Van Praag letter, which he rounds off by saying:
You don’t read a Taibbi rant for an evenhanded look at both sides of a complex story. It’s more a forcefully-put case for the prosecution: some of his charges might not stick, but he’ll throw a few chancers in as well for good measure.

Van Praag told me that in the wake of the events of the past year or two, Goldman’s partners have pretty much lost their appetite for going into public service. Maybe that’s for the best. They are generally smart and talented and knowledgeable people, and I daresay that many of them have done a lot of good after leaving the firm and joining government.
While I would agree with Salmon's conclusion about GS' knowledgeable and talented staff, I believe an objective observer would be hard pressed to disclose the "lot of good" that ex-Goldman employees have done, considering the state of the current economy which has culminated as a direct result of generation after generation of direct ex-GS influence in the public realm.

Regardless, Zero Hedge does not care much about this particular dialectic; we are still hopeful that Ed Canaday will finally retort to the series of fact findings that Zero Hedge has disclosed over the past two months. Of course, we are not holding our breath for a response: we tend to not bite our tongues quite as well as Mr. Salmon, nor are we worried too much about angering Thomson Reuters in whose annals of top 10 clients one may be surprised to discover one Goldman Sachs. Sphere: Related Content
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