Goldman Sachs Admits It Defrauded Investors, Receives $5 Billion Fine — But Will Pay Much Less Than That

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Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.Photo: CNBC/2015 CNBC Media, LLC

In April 2006, Goldman Sachs provided investors with a bullish report on Countrywide’s high-quality mortgage loans — loans the bank had helpfully packaged into AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities, thereby offering those lucky clients a low-risk way of profiting from America’s housing boom. When the bank’s head of “due diligence” saw the report, he typed a short email to his colleagues: “If only they knew…”

Now we know. On Monday, the bank completed a $5.1 billion settlement with state and local authorities for defrauding investors during the lead-up to the subprime-mortgage crisis. However, that $5 billion figure is just for public relations, a nice round number to show that the bank is really sorry and the Justice Department is super tough. In truth, Goldman will pay far less than that headline figure. The settlement earmarks $1.8 billion of the fine to consumer relief in the form of loan forgiveness and affordable housing subsidies. But, as the New York Times notes, roughly 30 percent of those housing subsidies will be tax deductible. What’s more, Goldman pledges to spend $280 million for community reinvestment in New York, but the settlement’s fine print stipulates that the bank will receive a $2 tax credit for every dollar it spends in that area.

As for its obligation to offer loan forgiveness, Goldman doesn’t have to meet this burden through cash expenditures. Rather, the bank can merely refinance and restructure loans to embattled homeowners. As ThinkProgress notes, such refinancing may actually be in the bank’s own long-term interest, as the process makes borrowers more likely to keep making payments instead of going into foreclosure. In other words, the government is “punishing” Goldman by encouraging the bank to take actions that will benefit its long-term bottom line.

The best aspect of Monday’s settlement is also its most frustrating: While the deal does not include any confession of legal wrongdoing, it does contain a signed “statement of facts” that details the various ways Goldman Sachs misled investors about the risks inherent to its mortgage-backed securities. On the one hand, this provides a level of transparency absent from other agreements the government reached with major banks. On the other, it makes Goldman’s punishment appear even more underwhelming.

In mid 2006, Goldman recognized that Fremont, one of the mortgage providers they relied on for their securities, was experiencing of wave of early payment defaults. The bank concluded that Fremont was a reckless lender and its mortgages posed a far greater risk to investors than they’d previously realized. Goldman took immediate action to address the issue: They initiated a “significant marketing effort” to assure investors that Fremont had a deep “commitment to loan quality over volume.” In other words, when Goldman realized that it was selling people shit-sandwiches, it decided to keep selling them, but with fresher bread and odor-proof packaging. This is just one item on the settlement’s long list of fraudulent acts.

A year later, Goldman would make billions betting against the mortgages it had encouraged its investors to purchase. In 2007, the bank took in $17.6 billion in pretax income, including $4 billion from its hedge against the mortgage market – roughly what it will actually pay under the terms of the settlement. Meanwhile, America lost $12.8 trillion in the financial crisis that the bank helped produce.

Goldman will never have to identify any bad actors by name. No individuals will be charged with wrongdoing.

This post has been updated since its initial publication.