Fundamentally if you’re a sell-side M&A banker your job is to find a buyer and get them to overpay for the company you’re selling. I mean, oh, you know, you’re a repeat player and reputational concerns and continued business relationships and all that militate against getting them to overpay too much. But mostly, the more they overpay the better you’ve served your client. Also, though, those reputational things etc., plus lots of fraud laws, militate against getting buyers to overpay by deceiving them about stuff relating to the company you’re selling. You can’t, like, just go forge financial statements. That’s cheating, and not in an admiring hahaha-you-got-me way. In a jail way.
So what’s left? One thing you can do is gently deceive them about the competitive dynamic. This might seem a little silly – if you’re buying a company, shouldn’t you be carefully determining its fundamental value rather than just bidding a penny more than whoever else is in the auction? – but in fact a lot of the M&A function is pretty much exactly that. You set up an auction, you demand confidentiality, you forbid bidders from talking to each other, you don’t tell them each others’ bids, you don’t announce to the world when a bidder has dropped out, all with the goal of creating the appearance of more competition than there is. When the bidders share too much information about their bidding plans with each other, you sue them. If a possibly viable but spivvy bidder comes along, you encourage them to stick around and throw out big numbers, just to keep the other bidders on their toes. “Yes, Carl Icahn, please, tell us more about your plans to buy our company,” is a sentence you might find yourself saying. You don’t outright lie, but you do your best to create the impression that your particular fertilizer-byproducts company is the prettiest girl at the dance or whatever the going metaphor is.
Here’s a fun Libor lawsuit: the ghost of problematic former hedge fund FrontPoint is suing the Libor banks for (1) selling FrontPoint some interest-rate swaps and (2) manipulating Libor in a way that hosed FrontPoint on those swaps. Here is the complaint and here is Alison Frankel on the legal issues, which are interesting and which we can talk about a little below.1
Up here let’s talk about the trades that FrontPoint (and Salix Capital, which now owns these claims) is suing over. They’re interest rate swaps, of course, where FrontPoint received Libor, and where Libor was systematically manipulated lower by banks looking to enhance confidence in themselves by showing lower funding costs. But those swaps were part of a larger negative-basis package trade where (1) FrontPoint bought bonds (funded at a spread to Fed Funds), (2) FrontPoint bought CDS from a bank to hedge credit, and (3) FrontPoint entered into a swap with the bank to hedge interest rates. Schematically, when everything cancels, it looks like this:
Everyone knows the story of Abacus 2007-AC1 by now: Goldman Sachs sold some mortgage-backed-security CDOs to some people, and those people thought that the underlying mortgage-backed securities were chosen by an outfit called ACA Management to be Good, but in fact they were chosen by Paulson & Co. to be Bad, and they turned out to be Bad, and that was Bad. The SEC sued Goldman over it, and Goldman settled for $550 million, and then everyone else sued too because they had been lied to about who picked the mortgage-backed securities (Paulson, not ACA) and why (to fail, not to succeed).
Among the people who sued was ACA, whose role in the transaction was (1) pretending to pick the underlying RMBS and (2) issuing a financial guaranty policy (to Goldman) referencing the super senior tranche of Abacus. That tranche more or less went poof, and ACA ended up owing $840 million to Goldman (though, really, ABN Amro paid the $840mm, and Paulson got it).1 Since ACA was in the business of writing terrible financial guaranty policies, it blew right up and ended up paying only $30 million. Then it sued Goldman for the $30 million back, plus punitive damages. ACA’s claim is that, while it knew that Paulson had selected the underlying RMBS, it thought Paulson was net long Abacus, because Goldman schemed and lied, and that it wouldn’t have insured Abacus if it’d known the truth about Paulson’s position.
Yesterday ACA lost when a New York appellate court dismissed its case. The court split 3-2, and the opinion is short and pretty weird; basically the majority says “it doesn’t matter that Goldman lied to ACA about Paulson’s position, because ACA should have kept asking until it got the truth,” which is a funny law.2 The two dissenting judges seem to have rather the better of it.3
Standard & Poor’s asked a federal judge on Monday to dismiss a U.S. Justice Department civil suit against the rating agency, arguing the government’s case is based on vague statements that cannot be used to prove fraud. In a $5 billion suit, the U.S. government accused the rating agency of issuing inflated ratings on faulty products to drum up business before the financial crisis, despite company statements that its ratings were objective. S&P has vociferously defended itself in public since the case was filed in February in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, denouncing the lawsuit as meritless and accusing the government of cherry-picking emails to misconstrue what its analysts did…While the government says those messages, which include one analyst performing a pop song parody about the housing market burning down, paint a picture of a company knowingly slapping inflated ratings on structured finance products, the company’s filing says otherwise. Those messages, instead, the company said, show internal squabbling or even “robust internal debate.” [Reuters]
You can have various objections to this preference for futures,1 but surely the most compelling is that swaps and futures are to some reasonable approximation the same thing. They’re just delta-one exposures to some underlying quantity; calling them a “swap” or “future” doesn’t matter economically.
Insurer American International Group Inc has asked a court to block Maurice “Hank” Greenberg’s efforts to sue the U.S. government on AIG’s behalf, saying its former CEO has not proven he should have the right to do so. Earlier this year, AIG drew sharp criticism from members of Congress and an outraged public when the firm considered the possibility of joining Greenberg’s lawsuit, which challenges the terms of the insurer’s $182.3 billion bailout by the federal government in 2008. AIG said Greenberg had forced its hand in even deliberating the prospect, but that ultimately it did not want to sue anyway amid a public backlash. Absent AIG’s participation, Greenberg is pursuing a derivative claim, seeking to sue the U.S. government on AIG’s behalf over the terms of the $182.3 billion rescue. Greenberg and his company Starr International, which owned 12 percent of AIG before the rescue, are also suing the government directly.