The Government Goes After Wall Street Over the Financial Crisis, Morgan Stanley Now Under Investigation for "Dead President" Deals

 As reported in the Wall Street Journal and virtually everywhere else, Morgan Stanley has joined Goldman Sachs as the latest target of the federal government's criminal investigation of financial firms relating to the financial crisis which began in 2007, under the government's theory of criminality of failing to disclose to investors that the firms were "betting" on the failure of certain collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. According to Federal prosecutors, Morgan Stanley designed CDOs, while at the same time Morgan Stanley's trading desk allegedly placed bets that their value would decrease. Similar to the government's investigation of Goldman Sachs, the investigation, headed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, is focusing on whether Morgan Stanley made proper representations to investors about its role.

The investigation has focused in particular on two investments created in 2006, named after former U.S. Presidents James Buchanan and Andrew Jackson, known as the "Dead Presidents" deals by traders. Each deal issued approximately $200 million in bonds. Morgan Stanley did not market the deals to customers--the Jackson deal was underwritten and marketed by Citigroup and the Buchanan deal was underwritten and marketed by UBS AG. Citigroup has stated that it is cooperating with the government in the investigation.

However, as in the investigation of Goldman, prosecutors face an uphill climb against numerous obstacles and defenses. Morgan Stanley did make money on its "Dead Presidents" deals, however it lost $9 billion overall on mortgage-backed securities in 2007. Morgan Stanley has informed the media that it did not mislead investors, and that it has examined the "Dead Presidents" transactions and that it does not believe that the investigation has any substance. The allegations are based on documents which Morgan Stanley voluntarily provided to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in response to a subpoena. 

Both the Goldman and Morgan Stanley criminal investigations were the result of a civil fraud investigation of a dozen Wall Street firms begun by the SEC in 2009. Analysts have stated that all Wall Street investment banks have been receiving subpoenas about CDOs and CDO marketing. The SEC has been inquiring with firms regarding whether any of their clients were betting against CDOs.

The SEC's Case Against Sir Robert Allen Stanford -- A Case Study in Investigative and Enforcement Failure

Since last year, we've followed the government's investigation and prosecution of Texan and Antiguan financier Sir Robert Allen Stanford for allegedly defrauding investors of billions in a Ponzi scheme. Well, as set forth in a 150 page Report of Investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the SEC has been following Stanford and his companies for much, much longer. OIG made the Report public yesterday. The Report reveals a stunning pattern of lack of diligence in SEC enforcement.

Stanford's investment advisor registered with the SEC in 1995. By 1997, the SEC's Fort Worth Office Examination Group had conducted an examination and concluded that the CDs Stanford and his companies were marketing were most likely a Ponzi scheme and that Stanford was allegedly engaging in fraud. However, despite the fact that the 1997 examination concluded that Stanford was likely engaging in a Ponzi scheme and referred the matter to the Fort Worth Office Enforcement Office, Enforcement staff did not open an investigation, or "matter under inquiry" (MUI), until May 1998. Enforcement sent Stanford Group Company (SGC) a voluntary request for documents. SGC refused to provide many of the requested documents, and the MUI was closed in August 1998.

The Examination Group conducted another examination of Stanford in 1998, and again concluded that the investments being offered by Stanford were highly suspicious. However, Enforcement staff did not listen to the Examination Group or review its report in deciding to close the investigation of Stanford and his companies.

A third examination of SGC was conducted in 2002 and once again concluded that the consistent above-market returns claimed by SGC were highly unlikely to be legitimate investments. The SEC again did not follow up on the examination, despite receiving conflicting representations from SGC regarding its due diligence and a growing number of complaints from outside entities confirming their suspicions.

In October of 2003, the SEC received a letter from the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) stating that Stanford's companies were engaged in an alleged massive Ponzi scheme. The Examination Group was asked to conduct a fourth investigation, which it did in October 2004. The investigation concluded that the CDs were part of "a very large Ponzi scheme." However, in March of 2005, senior Enforcement officials in Fort Worth learned of the Examination Group's fourth examination of Stanford and told them that "[Stanford] was not something they were interested in.”

Shortly thereafter, the head of Enforcement for the Fort Worth Office stepped down. The former head later sought to represent Stanford himself in proceedings by the SEC, despite the fact that he was involved in quashing the investigation of Stanford and his companies.

Enforcement sent Stanford International Bank (SIB) a second voluntary request for documents in August 2005. SIB refused to produce the requested documents. In November of 2005, Enforcement again closed its investigation of Stanford and his companies.

After the exposure of the Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff in December 2008, the SEC began to receive complaints regarding the fact that it had allowed Stanford and his companies to continue to engage in a Ponzi scheme. The SEC finally shut down Stanford's companies and froze their assets in February 2009. In October of 2009, Senator David Vitter and Senator Richard Shelby wrote a letter to the SEC asking it to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into its investigation and handling of the Stanford matter.

The OIG Report found that Enforcement staff were reluctant to pursue cases which were novel or complex, preferring to focus on cases which were "quick hits" or "slam dunks." The Report notes that, in the 12 years between the time that the SEC first gained knowledge that Stanford and his companies might be engaging in a Ponzi scheme and the time that the SEC took action to freeze their assets, investments in Stanford's CDs grew from $250 million to $1.5 billion. A survey was taken of investors in Stanford's scheme with 95% responding that knowledge of an inquiry by the SEC would have affected their decision to invest.