Will "Goldman Penis Envy" Crash the Economy Again?

GameStop captured the public imagination, but the more dangerous sequel, Archegos, is being downplayed

Nearly fifteen years ago, on December 10, 2006, the CEO of Senderra, a subprime mortgage lender owned by Goldman, Sachs, sent grim news to its parent company. “Credit quality has risen to become the major crisis in the non-prime industry,” Senderra CEO Brad Bradley wrote, adding that “we are seeing unprecedented defaults and fraud in the market.”

Within four days, senior executives at Goldman decided to “get closer to home” by unloading risky mortgage instruments. They didn’t alert regulators, of course, but did save their own hides, with Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein soon after ordering subordinates to sell off the ugly “cats and dogs” in their mortgage portfolio.

Around the same time that Goldman was having its come-to-Jesus moment, the heads of rival Lehman Brothers were going the other way. In one meeting, the bank’s head of fixed income, Mike Gelband, pounded a table, telling the firm’s infamous Vaderqsque CEO Richard “Dick” Fuld and hatchetman-president Joe Gregory there was a $15-18 trillion time bomb of lethal leverage hanging over the markets. Once it blew, it would be the “grandaddy of credit crunches,” and Lehman would be toast.

Fuld and Gregory scoffed. They didn’t understand mortgage deals well and thought Gelband lacked nerve. “Be creative,” they told him, adding, “What are you afraid of?”

“We called it ‘Goldman Penis Envy,’” says Lawrence McDonald, former Lehman trader and author of A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. In telling the Gelband story, he explains that Fuld and Gregory were so desperate to beat out Goldman and become the richest men on Wall Street, they chased every bad deal at the peak of the speculative bubble.

“These tertiary financial institutions, in order to win business away from the big players, they have to continually juice their offerings, offer more leverage, more goodies,” says McDonald. “Dick and Joe, they wanted to do these banking deals, to steal Goldman’s business by offering more.”

In the end, Goldman got out just in time, and Lehman – which had scored record profits in every year from 2005 through 2007, pulling in $19.3 billion in revenue in 2007 alone – became a bug on the windshield of history.

In the triggering episode, Goldman was the first bank to smell a rat in AIG’s financial products division and demand collateral calls to AIG swaps, just before AIG imploded. Goldman ultimately got bailed out in its AIG dealings by the Fed and the taxpayer to the tune of a hundred cents on the dollar, while the collapse of Lehman’s portfolio of bonehead deals sent them into bankruptcy and helped trigger a global chain reaction of losses that cost Americans $10 trillion in 2008 alone.

It feels like déjà vu all over again. We’re in a frothy economy where banks are pouring money into the worst conceivable deals, upselling the most dubious clients in an effort to outdo each other, resulting in huge losses. Just like in 2008, the warning signs are being ignored.

The narrative started in January, when GameStop captured the public imagination. The struggling retail video game company, targeted by short-sellers, saw its share price shoot from $6 to $347 in a few months, spurring elation among Redditors and day-traders who’d bet the stock.

Wall Street pundits threw a fit over GameStop because for whatever else was going on there, there were outsiders trying to break into a rigged game, which was deemed unacceptable. Across the political spectrum, there were howls of outrage and calls for official probes of all involved, down to YouTuber-in-ski-hat Keith Gill, a.k.a. “Roaring Kitty,” who had the temerity to invest $745,991.

While GME gobbled headlines, other short-targeted companies saw wild jumps. GSX, a Chinese online tutorial firm shorts had circled since last year, moved from $46 on January 12th to $142 fifteen days later. Baidu, a Chinese Internet services firm some claimed used shady reporting practices, went from $133 in late November to $339 in February. Viacom, the most heavily shorted media stock, went from $36 on January 1st to an incredible $100 on March 22, in a rally that supposedly left investors “scratching their heads.”

There was no million-member army of Redditors to focus on in these cases. The rallies of Viacom, Baidu, Discovery, GSX, Tencent Music Entertainment Group, Vipshop Holdings, Farfetch, and IQIYI Incorporated — all targets of institutional short sellers — were at the center of an elaborate, multi-billion-dollar short squeeze play by a single SEC-sanctioned Jesus freak of an investor: Sung Kook “Bill” Hwang, head of a fund called Archegos.

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