'Fred the Shred' has a rare chance to exonerate himself

SINCE his return from "exile" in the south of France last year, there have been few signs that disgraced banker Sir Fred Goodwin's reputation is on the mend.

But since the spotlight was turned on Goldman Sachs and an alleged $1 billion (650m) fraud last Friday, a rare opportunity has emerged for Goodwin – once dubbed "the world's worst banker" – to exonerate himself.

Although Goldman denies any wrongdoing, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and now the UK's Financial Services Authority are seeking to ascertain whether the American investment bank misled investors and insurers over the contents of a mortgage-backed investment fund called Abacus. According to the SEC, the toxic contents of the fund meant it was doomed to failure from the outset.

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RBS lost $800m (550m) on the collateralised debt obligation (CDO) fund following its takeover of Dutch bank ABN Amro, which had agreed to insure Goldman in the event of investors defaulting on the fund. However, the SEC alleges that the contents of the fund were such that the investors – ACA Management and German bank IKB – were only ever going to lose out.

John Paulson, the high rolling hedge fund manager who asked Goldman to construct a product that would allow him to cash in on poor Americans defaulting on their subprime mortgages, walked away with billions.

Almost as soon as Goodwin made the fateful decision to dot the i's and cross the t's on the ABN deal in 2007, he was criticised for overpaying for assets that just a year later were subject to heavy writedowns. But the question over whether ABN, and later RBS, were duped about the nature of its agreement with Goldman has turned the tables, turning RBS into the victim.

Analysts who in retrospect felt that the backlash against Goodwin was over-egged have also pointed out that, in 2008, the RBS boss clashed with Goldman over a potential conflict of interest surrounding its 12bn rights issue.

Goldman, which was preparing to line its pockets as one of the main underwriters of the share issue, invoked the wrath of "Fred the Shred" when he learnt that traders at the US bank were at the same time betting that the RBS share price would slump – a practice known as "shorting" which rose to notoriety during the financial crisis.

Goodwin, who had a reputation for taking no prisoners, is understood to have gone ballistic and it took several months to rebuild trust between the two institutions.

Although the SEC's allegations are unproven – Goldman maintains they are "completely unfounded in law and fact" – the suggestion that RBS may have been misled has, as George Godber of Matterley Asset Management points out, already worked wonders in redeeming its share price. While most other banks have watched their stock plunge this week, RBS shares enjoyed a 5.5 per cent surge on Monday followed by a further 4.56 per cent rise yesterday.

Godber says: "The market has previously taken quite a punitive view of the assets and investments RBS made. If there is a suggestion that it may be able to recover some money, the shares are going to be heavily geared towards that."

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The bank itself is maintaining a wall of silence over whether or not it will pursue legal action if the SEC allegations are found to be true but lawyers close to the situation suggest that the RBS board will be under a fiduciary obligation to consider recouping any potential losses through the courts. Although any compensation would represent just a fraction of the 45.2bn taxpayer bail-out of RBS, analysts suggest that the Goldman debacle would still be a "gift of God" for the Edinburgh headquartered bank.

That would seem fitting seeing as Goldman's chairman and chief executive Lloyd Blankfein has declared in the past that he is in the business of doing "God's work" but few suspect that this is what he had in mind. Despite calls for Goldman to be struck off UK government rosters until the fraud allegations are investigated, few in the City expect the US bank to take a serious financial hit from the debacle.

As Godber says: "At the end of the day it's an immense machine. It plays a massive part in the economy. It has also absolutely smashed the lights out (with] its first quarter figures."

The main harm, say analysts, will be to its reputation and the bank has already embarked upon an extensive damage limitation exercise, issuing a two-page defence of its position to clients. And, as Jeremy Batstone-Carr of Charles Stanley stockbrokers points out, whether or not the allegations are found to be true, the crisis will inevitably lead to further regulation – on both sides of the Atlantic.

He says: "This increased regulatory scrutiny of Goldman Sachs and its investment banking peer group is absolutely not going to go away."