The SEC Chose Wisely in Goldman Case

The SEC earlier today announced a civil suit against Goldman Sachs.  This act was the talk of Wall Street—the DJIA dropped 125 points, Goldman’s stock lost 12.6%, and CNBC broadcast a special evening show called “Fraud on the Street.”

The suit charges Goldman with not disclosing information. I won’t bother with the detail, you can read that in the above links—the point is, the charge is non-disclosure.

Now, that’s an interesting charge. It amounts to some form of misrepresentation. In the non-legal world, that’s generally known as lying. In that same world, the teenager defense of “I didn’t actually tell a lie, I just let you think what you thought” is considered a distinction without a difference.

The point is, the SEC chose to charge Goldman with something that’s not only illegal, but resonates easily with Main Street as also being unethical. Since the gap between the illegal and the unethical is one of the main casualties of the recent financial debacle, this is a welcome sign—a charge that re-unites the legal and the ethical.

The Spin–Red Herring Issues

Goldman itself responded that the charges are “completely unfounded in law and fact.” Look for a splitting hairs defense a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Goldman and others make several arguments that are pointedly red herrings. One is that they didn’t do this transaction to short the market (non-responsive). Another is that the buyers of the CDOs were big boys, and should know what they were getting into (ditto). Another (by Goldman) is that they themselves lost money on the deal (again…).

The pro-Wall Streeters are not alone. NBC News led with “if the government is right, people all across the country are still paying the price for schemes like this that we’re only learning about this now.” Their commentator presented the charge as betting against a carefully constructed product; not the SEC charge. Lisa Myers said, “essentially Goldman Sachs is accused of helping rig the game against investors.” And Robert Reich said the real crime is not what was done illegally, but what was done legally. Fair point, but not a commentary on the crime. CNBC’s Erin Burnett tried to get commentators to say it was suspicious timing, to buttress financial legislation in Congress or to deflect press attention from the SEC’s shortcomings in the Stanford case. Again—not on point.

What the SEC Did Right

I’m no lawyer, but I’m guessing the SEC could have pursued many other charges. It chose to pursue this one—the legal equivalent of what laymen call ‘lying.’ Lying is the most trust-corroding thing that can be done. It not only ruins credibility, it casts motives into doubt. Lying kills trust.

A charge of failure to disclose is exactly the kind of charge a responsible regulator should be pursuing. It reunites the legal and the ethical—a casualty of Wall Street’s actions—and aims at restoring trust.

Greed is not illegal, though it may be unethical; ditto for fleecing one’s customers. But misrepresentation—or the near-equivalent of selective disclosure—is both.

Good for the SEC for taking this route.
 

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