Regarding the SEC charges against Goldman: the buyers of synthetic CDOs should have realized that there must have been short interest on the other side of the deal, and at the time Paulson wasn't a prominent figure. His short strategy was very contrarian and took enormous guts. I think this is going to be a very tricky case for the SEC.
Here's a revealing excerpt from WSJ reporter Gregory Zuckerman's book The Greatest Trade Ever. Read the whole excerpt!
WSJ: ... Mr. Paulson traveled to Boston to meet with Mark Taborsky, who helped pick hedge funds for Harvard's endowment. Mr. Taborsky was wary. Mr. Paulson's fund was willing to lose 8% a year to buy the mortgage insurance, which seemed like a lot. Mr. Taborsky also thought Mr. Paulson might be excessively gloomy about the housing market. Mr. Taborsky turned him down, too.
Even some investors who agreed with Mr. Paulson's view that housing prices would tumble doubted he would make much money because there was relatively little trading in the investments he was buying. He might have a hard time selling his investments without sending prices tumbling, shrinking any profits, they said.
"It looked like a dangerous game, taking one single bet that might be difficult to unwind," said Jack Doueck, a principal at Stillwater Capital, a New York firm that parcels out money to funds. He, too, said no to Mr. Paulson's fund.
Mr. Paulson's growing fixation on housing began to spark doubts about his business. One long-time client, big Swiss bank Union Bancaire Privée, received an urgent warning from a contact that Mr. Paulson was "straying" from his longtime focus, and that the bank should pull its money from Paulson & Co., fast. The bank stuck with Mr. Paulson but turned down his new fund.
... By the summer of 2006, Mr. Paulson had managed to raise $147 million, mostly from friends and family, to launch a fund. Soon, Josh Birnbaum, a top Goldman Sachs trader, began calling and asked to come by his office. Sitting across from Mr. Paulson, Mr. Pellegrini, and his top trader, Brad Rosenberg, Mr. Birnbaum got to the point.
Not only were Mr. Birnbaum's clients eager to buy some of the mortgages that Paulson & Co. was betting against, but Mr. Birnbaum was, too. Mr. Birnbaum and his clients expected the mortgages, packaged as securities, to hold their value. "We've done the work and we don't see them taking losses," Mr. Birnbaum said.
After Mr. Birnbaum left, Mr. Rosenberg walked into Mr. Paulson's office, a bit shaken. Mr. Paulson seemed unmoved. "Keep buying, Brad," Mr. Paulson told Mr. Rosenberg.
[Yes, in hindsight everyone knows that subprime loans were "toxic waste" -- but at the time lots of smart money didn't think so. Mr. Market needs a little help sometimes ... Steve]
Months into their new fund, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Pellegrini were eager to find more ways to bet against risky mortgages. Accumulating mortgage insurance in the market sometimes proved slow. They soon found a creative and controversial way to enlarge their trade.
They met with bankers at Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and other firms to ask if they would create securities—packages of mortgages called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs—that Paulson & Co. could wager against.
The investment banks would sell the CDOs to clients who believed the value of the mortgages would hold up. Mr. Paulson would buy CDS insurance on the CDO mortgage investments—a bet that they would fall in value. This way, Mr. Paulson could wager against $1 billion or so of mortgage debt in one fell swoop.
Paulson & Co. wasn't doing anything new. A few other hedge funds also worked with banks to short CDOs the banks were creating. Hundreds of other CDOs were being created at the time. Other bankers, including those at Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, didn't see anything wrong with Mr. Paulson's request and agreed to work with his team.
At Bear Stearns, however, Scott Eichel, a senior trader, and others met with Mr. Paulson and later turned him down. Mr. Eichel said he felt it would look improper for his firm. "On the one hand, we'd be selling the deals" to investors, without telling them that a bearish hedge fund was the impetus for the transaction, Mr. Eichel told a colleague; on the other hand, Bear Stearns would be helping Mr. Paulson wager against the deals.
Some investors later would argue that Mr. Paulson's actions indirectly led to the creation of additional dangerous CDO investments, resulting in billions of dollars of additional losses for those who owned the CDO slices.
At the time, though, Mr. Paulson still wasn't sure his trade would work. He simply was buying protection, he said. "We didn't create any securities, we never sold the securities to investors," Mr. Paulson said. "We always thought they were bad loans."