Federal probes of the collapsed mortgage-bond boom are shedding light on how Wall Street firms sometimes created securities and sold them to one set of investors, while advising others to bet against them.
One firm that was a major player in mortgage securities, Deutsche Bank AG, illustrates a pattern investigators are looking at. While creating and selling mortgage securities to some of its clients, the big German bank was not only advising other clients to bet the other way, but also sometimes doing so itself.
A Deutsche trader helped create an index that made it easy to bet against housing, and the bank itself then used the index to do just that.
After the collapse of mortgage securities led to a costly bailout of the firm that insured many such securities—American International Group Inc.—some of the federal cash that was sunk into AIG flowed to Deutsche, to cover bearish bets by its hedge-fund clients.
Deutsche’s actions are a vivid example of potential conflicts on Wall Street—the way big financial firms play both sides of the fence with investors. The issue became more extreme during the mortgage bubble and subsequent bust because of the size of the bets on Wall Street and subsequent losses on Main Street.
Regulators now are grappling with whether the business-as-usual conduct at financial firms merely looks bad in hindsight, or whether there were misrepresentations or other legal issues that need to be further investigated and guarded against in the future. “This is a gray area that we need more investigation into,” says Andrew Lo, a finance professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a hedge-fund manager.
Deutsche says that helping investors bet either way—either for or against an asset—is part of doing business for a securities firm.
“Some clients sought more exposure to the housing market, while others sought less,” a spokesman for Deutsche said. “We served clients whatever their investment objective, but only after being satisfied that they had arrived at their view after thorough consideration.”
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