Merrill Lynch Used Same Alleged CDO Fraud as Goldman, a Dutch Bank Claims

Merrill Lynch & Co. engaged in the same investor fraud that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Goldman Sachs Group Inc. of committing, according to a bank that sued the firm in New York last year.

Cooperatieve Centrale Raiffeisen-Boerenleenbank BA, known as Rabobank, claims Merrill, now a unit of Bank of America Corp., failed to tell it a key fact in advising on a synthetic collateralized debt obligation. Omitted was Merrill’s relationship with another client betting against the investment, which resulted in a loss of $45 million, Rabobank claims.

Merrill’s handling of the CDO, a security tied to the performance of subprime residential mortgage-backed securities, mirrors Goldman Sachs conduct that the SEC details in the civil complaint the agency filed yesterday. It claimed Goldman omitted the same key fact about a financial product tied to subprime mortgages as the U.S. housing market was starting to falter.

“This is the tip of the iceberg in regard to Goldman Sachs and certain other banks who were stacking the deck against CDO investors,” said Jon Pickhardt, an attorney with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, who is representing Netherlands-based Rabobank.

“The two matters are unrelated and the claims today are not only unfounded but weren’t included in the Rabobank lawsuit filed nearly a year ago,” Bill Halldin, a Merrill spokesman, said yesterday of the Dutch bank’s claims.

Kenneth Lench, head of the SEC’s Structured and New Products unit, said yesterday that the agency “continues to investigate the practices of investment banks and others involved in the securitization of complex financial products tied to the U.S. housing market as it was beginning to show signs of distress.”

Failed to Disclose

In its complaint, the SEC said New York-based Goldman Sachs, which had a record $13.4 billion profit last year, failed to disclose to investors that hedge fund Paulson & Co. was betting against the CDO, known as Abacus, and influenced the selection of securities for the portfolio. Paulson, which oversees $32 billion and didn’t market the CDO, wasn’t accused of wrongdoing by the SEC.

Goldman Sachs, the most profitable securities firm in Wall Street history, created and sold CDOs tied to subprime mortgages in early 2007, as the U.S. housing market faltered, without disclosing that Paulson helped pick the underlying securities and bet against them, the SEC said in a statement yesterday.

The SEC allegations are “unfounded in law and fact, and we will vigorously contest them,” Goldman said in a statement.

Merrill Lynch’s arrangement involved Magnetar, a hedge fund that bet against a CDO known as Norma, Rabobank claimed.

Effort to Replicate

“When one major firm becomes aware of the creative instrument of others, there is historically an effort to replicate them,” said Jacob Frenkel, a former SEC lawyer now in private practice in Potomac, Maryland.

SEC spokesman John Heine declined to comment on whether it is investigating Merrill’s actions.

Norma’s largest investor was investment bank Cohen & Co, with more than $100 million in notes, according to Rabobank’s complaint.

Merrill loaded the Norma CDO with bad assets, Rabobank claims. Rabobank seeks $45 million in damages, according to a complaint filed in state court in June 2009. Rabobank initially provided a secured loan of almost $60 million to Merrill, according to its complaint.

Risks Disclosed

Merrill countered in court papers that Rabobank was aware of the risks, which were disclosed in the transaction documents. The bank should have been responsible for conducting its own due diligence, and shouldn’t have relied on Merrill, it said in a court filing last year seeking to dismiss the case.

Steve Lipin, an outside spokesman for Magnetar, didn’t immediately comment.

The case is Cooperatieve Centrale Raiffeisen- Boerenleenbank, B.A. v. Merrill Lynch & Co, 09-601832, New York State Supreme Court (New York County).

To contact the reporter on this story: William McQuillen in Washington at bmcquillen@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.