Opinion

Why Goldman loves Gaddafi (and Libya hates Goldman)

TANYA THOMAS | Updated on February 07, 2014

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So what’s Libya up to?

The North African nation is lumbering on the road to recovery. It may have left behind the NATO-backed revolt of 2011 that toppled Muammar al-Gaddafi. But Libya is still struggling to form its first fully elected democratic government and trying to write a constitution, all the while dodging miscellaneous kidnappings and assassination attempts on the few leaders it has. It claims to have destroyed Gaddafi’s bequest of chemical weapons. It’s also suing Goldman Sachs.

Gunning for the big daddy of investment banks already?

Seems like it. The country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), said in a lawsuit filed recently in London’s High Court that the country was misled about investments that Goldman had made on its behalf during the Gaddafi regime.

How much money are we talking about?

A little over a billion dollars, all of which was lost in the 2008 meltdown. Regardless, it says, Goldman managed to snag fees of $350 million on the side.

They blew a billion and the country had no clue?

The picture doesn’t paint Libya’s money managers as the brightest when it comes to fancy derivative trades. According to a report by the UK’s The Independent, the LIA’s “poorly qualified and naive staff were courted with chocolate and aftershave and were lavishly entertained on a corporate credit card issued to Youssef Kabbaj, the bank’s former head of North Africa”.

Chocolate and aftershave, huh?

And luxury trips to Morocco, Kabbaj’s native country. Not to mention a coveted Goldman internship for the brother of the fund’s deputy director. In retrospect, Libya now realises Goldman was all along abusing its “trust and confidence”.

Which investments did Goldman call wrong?

To cut their complex and necessarily confusing derivative structures to size, essentially, Goldman made $1 billion-worth long-term bets that shares of six companies, including Citigroup, would rise over a three-year period. The shares tanked, the options expired, and a billion dollars went poof.

Poor souls. All that hard-earned oil money down the sinkhole.

It all began when the UN lifted economic sanctions against Libya in 2003 and the US lifted its own in 2004. As eager hedge funds from the West began to look for West Asian money sloshing around, the $60-billion LIA was created in 2006. Libya, however, didn’t seem to have the technical expertise to understand where its money was going. The Independent says the LIA’s offices didn’t even have computers installed when the hedge funds first came in and book-keeping was shoddy. One report said that the LIA didn’t sign an agreement authorising trade in derivatives, neither were they aware of trades, in some cases, even months after they were made.

I’m surprised they haven’t had any trouble before this.

They did, actually. A 2011 Financial Times report found that Sociétié Général had made a $1 billion bet on behalf of the LIA on its own shares, shares which promptly plummeted in value.

But why bring it up now? Didn’t everybody, except maybe Goldman, lose money after 2008?

One explanation appears to be that Libya wants to file lawsuits against erring bankers before the statute of limitations kicks in.

Besides, once the 2011 war began and sanctions were imposed again, Goldman is believed to have cut all ties with its client.

So what happens to Goldman in all this?

The bank says the charges are rubbish and will possibly defend itself saying there is always the risk of loss in trading. The case definitely doesn’t help with the bank’s street cred, but when has Wall Street cared?

Published on February 05, 2014

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