As a mere youth, I bought a used car in New York to drive to California to be with the woman of my dreams. Inexplicably, she decided to rush back to New York, so I promptly took the car back to the dealer. He made a shockingly low offer. The car had been in an accident, he explained. The chassis was bent. I was flabbergasted. I had just bought the car from him. If the chassis was bent, it was bent when I bought it. The salesman offered me a take-it-or-leave-it shrug. He probably now works on Wall Street.
That the morality of the used car lot has been adopted by Wall Street is now abundantly clear. Citigroup recently settled a civil complaint in which it was accused of selling mortgage-related investments that it knew were dogs. It was so certain that the investments were the financial equivalent of my used car that it bet against them — heads I win, tails you lose — and even selected the investments themselves, choosing from a cupboard of depleted and exhausted financial instruments. An investment in the Brooklyn Bridge would have been safer.
These investments are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and they consisted of the sort of mortgage securities that nearly sunk the U.S. financial system. According to federal regulators, they were sold with the full knowledge that they were careening toward worthlessness and that, by deduction, their buyers were patsies. The bank made substantial profits on them. But when the Securities and Exchange Commission decided to act, it got Citigroup to pony up a mere $285 million fine that, to presumed chuckles, will doubtlessly be taken out of petty cash. The bank last quarter reported a profit of $3.8 billion.
Mirth must have turned to guffaws when Citigroup read on. It did not even have to admit guilt — “without admitting or denying” is the language the SEC ...