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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Judge Rakoff Demonstrates What Having Guts Looks Like

Citigroup made shameful and dangerous decisions. It should have to explain itself.

On the whole, I have suggested a somewhat bleak view of our political system and our future prospects. But when there are moments and people to celebrate I want to do so. And we should all celebrate Judge Jed Rakoff. (As full disclosure, Judge Rakoff is a friend, and was a graduate school classmate at Oxford.)

On Monday this week, Judge Rakoff rejected an SEC offer to settle a securities fraud case against Citigroup that entailed a $285 million payment by Citigroup but not any admission of fault or wrongdoing. Judge Rakoff said the settlement terms were “neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.”

This decision complicates the SEC’s life, and I would imagine that Citigroup is absolutely dead-set against acknowledging wrongdoing. But what Citigroup and other financial institutions did was wrong at a micro and a macro level and should not be glossed over.

First, what’s at issue? Citigroup created a class of securities, Class V Funding III, which consisted of bundled mortgage-backed securities (in the industry jargon they are referred to as “negatively projected,” i.e. they aren’t going to be worth much), then sold these securities to investors, and then bet against their own securities (and their own investors). Judge Rakoff adds some color to this: “This (Citigroup’s ability to ‘dump dubious assets on misinformed investors’) was accomplished by Citigroup’s misrepresenting that the Fund’s assets were attractive investments rigorously selected by an independent investment adviser, whereas in fact Citigroup had arranged to include in the portfolio a substantial percentage of negative projected assets and had then taken a short position in those very assets it had helped select.”

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