Morgan Stanley Wishes It Weren't Like Goldman

Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) has entertained a fierce rivalry with Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) for decades. During the credit crisis, Morgan Stanley failed to emulate Goldman's performance and lost ground to its rival. However, there's one form of imitation they would surely have preferred to avoid.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether Morgan misled investors in mortgage derivatives; Goldman is facing a similar investigation and civil fraud charges brought by the SEC in relation to a single derivatives deal. What's the potential impact of these developments for Morgan and its competitors?

Are these really the prime culprits?
It seems rather odd that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been singled out so far, since they don't appear to have been the most active participants in this market. Here's how the big U.S. banks stack up in terms of their collateralized debt obligation (CDO) issuance in the period 2005-2008:

Rank

Lead Underwriter

2005-2008 Volume, CDOs Comparable to Goldman's ABACUS 2007-AC1

1

Bank of America Merrill Lynch (part of Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) )

$16.9 billion

2

UBS (NYSE: UBS  )

$15.8 billion

3

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  )

$9.9 billion

4

Citigroup (NYSE: C  )

$9.3 billion

5

Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  )

$8.3 billion

6

Wells Fargo Securities (part of Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) )

$6.7 billion

...

...

...

9

Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  )

$6.1 billion

Source: Credit Suisse.

If regulators and prosecutors are consistent (a brave assumption, perhaps), we should expect more charges and/or investigations -- it's difficult to imagine that Goldman and Morgan Stanley did business in a manner that was significantly different from their competitors.

A perfunctory investigation
Although this isn't good news for Morgan Stanley, I think an investigation of this type is almost a formality at this stage. For federal prosecutors, it's a matter of looking busy and making sure they don't appear to be losing a step to the SEC. There is a wide gap between conducting an investigation and filing criminal charges -- one that I highly doubt prosecutors will cross.

How things will play out
These are my predictions:

  1. Federal prosecutors will ultimately drop their investigations of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
  1. The SEC's accusations against Goldman Sachs may play well in the court of public opinion, but legally, their case is extremely weak. SEC lawyers won't come anywhere near a courtroom to argue the (de)merits of the case; instead, Goldman will settle the suit and pay a fine (in fact, preliminary discussions have already begun, although the two sides are reported to be "far apart"). That outcome will be strongly suggestive that the SEC's decision to announce the charges publicly before offering Goldman the opportunity to enter into settlement talks (the standard procedure) was based on public relations calculus that had nothing to do with protecting investors' interests.

Investors: Keep your eye on lawmakers
If I'm correct, pragmatic bank share investors should be focusing on a different constituency, as a multiplication of investigations simultaneously puts pressure on and gives leverage to lawmakers to pass "tough" banking reform measures -- a much greater potential threat to banks' long-term profitability.

The credit crisis has turned the investing landscape upside down, with advanced economies' balance sheets now looking more like that of a banana republic. In that context, Tim Hanson explains how to make more in 2010.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier has no beneficial interest in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 6:23 PM, plange01 wrote:

    morgan will be given a deal in order to close goldman...

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 6:46 PM, TMFAleph1 wrote:

    In the realm of speculative fiction, that's an interesting scenario.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 7:38 PM, Mega wrote:

    Who were 7 and 8? Bear, Lehman, DB, CS? The big British banks weren't big players I don't think.

    Politically the I-banks seem to be preferable opponents. Of course one would hope that politics would not enter into lawsuit selection.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 8:11 PM, TMFAleph1 wrote:

    Megashort,

    Here are the missing banks:

    #7 - RBS $6.5 Billion

    #8 - Credit Suisse $6.2 Billion

    The following post contains the ranking beyond Goldman Sachs and a ranking for the year 2007 in isolation:

    http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2010/04/19/206196/a-cdo-liti...

    Best,

    Alex Dumortier

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2010, at 9:44 PM, Mega wrote:

    Thanks for the link.

    Interesting that HSBC, Canadian banks, Spanish banks, Asia-Pacific banks and South American banks didn't underwrite a single CDO of this type. Sometimes it's best not to be on the bleeding edge.

  • Report this Comment On May 13, 2010, at 12:08 PM, gman5556 wrote:

    I don't think its a matter of misleading investors. Nobody understood these instruments at all. I'm sorry but I don't care where your PhD/MBA is from, no one will be able to comprehensively understand an instrument whose prospectus is thousands of pages long. But then again is that an excuse? No. Its a matter of incompetence more than these banks trying to trick the public.

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