Investors who lost $1 billion in the Goldman Sachs structured ABACAS CDO were handed a strategic road map by the SEC when it filed the civil fraud complaint against Goldman on Friday. The alleged misrepresentation to ACA by Goldman that Paulson was long the equity tranches of ABACUS and the omission to disclose to ABACUS investors in writing and orally that Paulson handpicked securities in ABACUS while it was simultaneously shorting the same securities are the crux of a potential claim by ABACUS’ investors against Goldman. But what path should investors forge to recover their losses? Court or arbitration? The recent RaceTrac v. Bear Stearns arbitration award shows that a large investor can win a private arbitration against a significant brokerage firm related to misrepresentations and omissions of CDO’s regardless of the risk disclosure language contained in the prospectus.
Since the subprime market meltdown, only one multi billion dollar investor has received a legal award or judgment against brokerage firm for misrepresenting and materially omitting to disclose facts related to CDOs. RaceTrac Petroleum, an Atlanta-based chain of more than 525 retail gasoline convenience stores in the southeast U.S., won a $3.4 million award against Bear Stearns in December 2009. The FINRA arbitration panel ruled that Bear Stearns was liable for misrepresentation and material omission, negligence and failure to supervise related to the Bear Stearns High Grade Funds, a CDO packed hedge fund which caused $1.6 billion in losses in 2007.
The issues in the Goldman ABACUS case are very similar to the Bear Stearns High Grade case. Did Goldman misrepresent or omit disclosing a material fact to the ABACUS investors? Instead of filing a lengthy, costly, public civil lawsuit against Bear Stearns, RaceTrac filed an arbitration claim at FINRA in December 2007 seeking $5 million in damages. Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against the funds’ portfolio managers, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin. In March 2009, on the eve of the arbitration hearings in Atlanta, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in New York ran into federal court in Brooklyn to try to stop RaceTrac from going forward with the arbitration until the criminal trials of Cioffi and Tannin were completed. Judge Block shut the government down and allowed RaceTrac to proceed. A jury then acquitted Cioffi and Tannin of all criminal charges November 2009. However, after 16 days of private arbitration hearings, the FINRA arbitration panel ruled that Bear Stearns was liable and awarded damages of almost 70% of RaceTrac’s investment.
The RaceTrac case took only two years and was won irrespective of the criminal acquittals. There are pending SEC actions against Cioffi and Tannin. The award shows that a large investor may want to choose a quiet, less expensive venue in which equity plays a role as opposed to a civil fraud complaint in court which is exposed to motions to dismiss and will be a three ring circus.