Goldman Sachs agreed to a $5 billion settlement payment Monday, marking yet another Wall Street giant that’s making up for its financial breaches through money — but whose executives have yet to face criminal charges for helping send the country’s economy into the Great Recession.
The Justice Department said the banking firm misled investors who bought securities backed by shaky mortgages in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Under the settlement, Goldman will pay nearly $2.4 billion in civil penalties and $1.8 billion in relief to homeowners who are underwater on their loans. It will also pay $875 million to settle other state and federal claims.
“This resolution holds Goldman Sachs accountable for its serious misconduct in falsely assuring investors that securities it sold were backed by sound mortgages, when it knew that they were full of mortgages that were likely to fail,” Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery said.
The agreement follows multibillion-dollar settlements with Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase & Co. after President Obama set up a working group in 2012 to investigate how mortgage-backed securities were sold.
“I think obviously the president believes that people should be held accountable for their actions, and that’s particularly true if there is a situation in which your actions may have been a contributor to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
But the settlements have failed to quell critics who say there should have been major criminal prosecutions against the individuals who led the nation into a fiscal morass, leaving American taxpayers to dig their way out.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, has said it is “an obscenity” that people are still locked up for using marijuana “but not one Wall Street CEO has been prosecuted for triggering the Great Recession in 2008.”
“Goldman Sachs is one of the major financial institutions in our country. What they have just acknowledged to the whole world is that their system … is based on fraud,” Mr. Sanders told supporters at a rally Monday in Albany, New York.
His opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently said the blame lies not with Obama administration regulators and prosecutors but with a lack of resources.
“It rankles me that I don’t believe we had sufficient laws, sufficient prosecutorial resources to really go after what could have been not just dangerous, unethical behavior but perhaps illegal behavior,” she told the New York Daily News editorial board. “I’ve talked with some of the people responsible for trying to determine whether there could be cases brought. And they were totally outresourced.”
The fiscal crisis was triggered by the collapse of the U.S. housing market at the midpoint of the last decade.
Lured by the promise of homeownership, borrowers who secured mortgages at subprime rates were unable to repay loans that had been packaged into securities, leading to massive losses for investors.
Those losses kicked off a financial meltdown that reverberated across the global markets, placing pressure on Mr. Obama to crack down on Wall Street during his first years in office.
For its part, Goldman Sachs said it was “pleased to put these legacy matters behind us.”
“Since the financial crisis, we have taken significant steps to strengthen our culture, reinforce our commitment to our clients, and ensure our governance processes are robust,” it said in a company statement.
The Justice Department said Monday’s settlement doesn’t preclude prosecutors from pursuing criminal prosecutions against Goldman, which must cooperate with any ongoing investigations related to conduct covered by the agreement.
Asked pointedly about the lack of criminal actions to date, Mr. Earnest said it’s up to federal prosecutors — not politicians — to make those decisions.
The problem in many cases, he added, was that “the risky bets that they were making were entirely legal.”
“That is why the president, working closely with members of Congress, was committed to reforming Wall Street in a way that would not leave taxpayers on the hook for bailing out a bank or another financial institution that made bad bets,” he said.
Justice Department attorneys said Goldman Sachs fraudulently misrepresented the quality of the residential mortgages it bundled into the securities, even as it spotted warning signs in the residential mortgage market.
In August 2006 Goldman employees examining a residential mortgage-backed security, or “RMBS,” found an unusually high number of loans with credit and compliance defects, according to the Justice Department.
“How do we know that we caught everything?” its mortgage capital committee asked.
“We don’t,” a transaction manager replied.
“Depends on what you mean by everything? Because of the limited sampling … we don’t catch everything,” another transition manager said.
Justice attorneys said Goldman approved the package without requiring any more scrutiny.