Goldman’s reputation under the spotlight as 1MDB saga winds on

1MDB scandal takes yet another twist – one senior employee of US investment bank Goldman Sachs has been convicted of fraud and others are now in the spotlight

As the long arm of the law in the form of the US Department of Justice has just fingered three of the key players in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal (1MDB scandal), I'm tempted to paraphrase Oscar Wilde's famous line from his play the Importance of Being Ernest.

And to address that line to Goldman Sachs, which is, after all, the bank that arranged over US$6 billion of financing for the Malaysian state-owned investment firm.

"To have had one fraudster working at your company is unfortunate. To have had two looks like carelessness."

Two Goldman rainmakers who handled the firm's outrageously lucrative placements in the early to mid-part of this decade, Tim Leissner and Roger Ng, were named in papers unsealed in New York's Brooklyn regional trial court last Thursday, accused of money laundering for their role in the 1MDB imbroglio.

The former has already pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit US$43.7 million in relation to his crime. The latter was arrested in Malaysia on the same day and according to sources familiar with the matter is likely to be extradited to America to face the music.

The supposed mastermind of the shenanigans, Jho Low was also named in the Brooklyn court papers and charged with money laundering. Low, whose current whereabouts is unknown, wasted little time in declaring his innocence through his PR representatives the following day.

Whatever element of the now-familiar 1MDB story tickles your fancy - it could be the indirect involvement of Leonardo di Caprio via his starring role in the allegedly 1MDB-funded movie the Wolf of Wall Street; the US$27 million pink diamond allegedly purchased for Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak's wife using money looted from the same source; or the mansions, apartments, hotels and a luxury yacht purchased with Malaysian taxpayers' money - the truth is that the latest developments are disastrous for Goldman.

It is the US bank which will now take centre stage as the 1MDB saga reaches its denouement.

Leissner's guilty plea marks the first time a senior Goldman employee has been convicted of fraud. On a leviathan scale. Throw in the appearance of Ng in a Department of Justice-led 1MDB trial Stateside and you have all the ingredients for the biggest damage done to Goldman's reputation in its history.

All the shimmering colour of the case, to be magnified by the trial pending in February in Malaysia of Najib and his wife Rosmah, guarantees to shine a spotlight on Goldman's modus operandi, at least as far as its ways of doing business in the emerging markets are concerned.

The "carelessness" to which I have alluded via Mr Wilde might well be deflected by the US investment bank as no more than a case of rogue operatives pulling the wool over the eyes of a normally stringent organization.

And the rejoinder: how bad must your compliance culture really be?

Bribes were paid, running into hundreds of millions of dollars, to officials in Malaysia and the Middle East, to win 1MDB business, which brought in fees to Goldman, conservatively estimated at US$600 million, but likely to have been higher given that the paper was underpriced at the mandated level and quickly sold on.

That eye-watering, unprecedented payday for Goldman should have sent alarm bells ringing among the bank's senior management. It appears it did not. Goldman has a lot to answer for and maybe we will find those answers as the court proceedings commence.

As a looming damage-limitation exercise it's probably unprecedented. For the notorious "Asia risk premium", which prices the region's debt at a structurally high level in relation to the developed markets, it points to a step of the yield spread in a northerly direction.


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6 Nov 2018


Capital Markets

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