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One year ago, Bitcoin was minting millionaires as its value surged to nearly $20,000. Now it is worth about $4,000, and many wonder whether it can survive as a viable investment option, regardless of whether it will ever supplant currencies.
In 2018, the special counsel investigation by Robert S. Mueller III kept expanding. With the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, a raft of investigations of the Trump administration is sure to follow.
The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Here are some thoughts on topics that should continue to be of interest in 2019:
Will Goldman Fight the Government Over 1MDB?
After the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs sought to expand into Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, that effort was caught up in a scandal at an investment fund in Malaysia.
Goldman raised more than $6 billion for that fund, called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. The money was supposed to benefit the Malaysian public but ended up enriching Goldman and those close to Najib Razak, who was prime minister. In December, the Malaysian government filed criminal charges against Goldman, accusing the firm of violating securities laws there.
Those charges come on top of a Justice Department investigation of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars corporations from bribing foreign officials to gain a business advantage. Goldman’s former top banker in Asia, Timothy Leissner, pleaded guilty in August, describing his role in concealing bribes and kickbacks. Charges were also filed against Roger Ng, Mr. Leissner’s former deputy, who is being held in Malaysia pending extradition.
The firm initially tried to shake off the charges by claiming that any misconduct was the work of a few rogue employees, but reports that Goldman’s former chief executive Lloyd C. Blankfein met with a key figure in the fraud have undercut that defense.
Goldman’s chief executive, David M. Solomon, has offered a full-throated defense of the firm. In a message to employees, he wrote: “We believe our culture and our processes around our due diligence and compliance was strong at the time, and is even stronger today.”
An American corporation can be prosecuted for the acts of its employees, so Goldman does not have many defenses if prosecutors decide to file charges.
Although Goldman has pledged its cooperation, the firm has also claimed that it is innocent of the Malaysian charges and may well be girding for a fight with the Justice Department to limit its liability. Goldman also will have to deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which shares jurisdiction over the bribery law, and the Federal Reserve, Goldman’s chief banking regulator.
Goldman has little choice but to reach a settlement. The key question is how much its entanglement with 1MDB may cost the firm. Disgorging the $600 million fee it earned for arranging the bond deals is the likely starting point for any resolution in the United States.
How much a potential fine could be on top of that is anyone’s guess. One possibility is that it will be a multiple of Goldman’s profit on the transaction. That could push the penalty over a billion dollars, with the possibility of even more if Goldman has to reach an agreement with the Malaysian government.
Do Cryptocurrencies Need a New Regulator?
The precipitous fall in the value of cryptocurrencies in 2016 cries out for greater regulation to protect investors. Studies have shown that the market for cryptocurrencies is subject to widespread manipulation, which puts smaller investors at the mercy of those who are trying to profit from the price swings.
Two bills were introduced in Congress in December to address manipulation in the cryptocurrency markets. Neither offers a concrete step toward regulating trading platforms, nor do they designate oversight to a single agency.
As investors have suffered losses, the questions have increased about whether cryptocurrencies will survive as a viable investment class. Without greater government oversight to curb manipulation, the interest of small investors may well dry up.
The Coming Investigations
Control of the House means Democrats can investigate actions by the Trump administration, and perhaps the president himself. The subpoenas for documents and testimony are likely to fly up Pennsylvania Avenue in much the way they did during the Obama administration after Republicans took control of Congress.
But those hoping for a cascade of materials from the Trump administration may be disappointed. Congressional investigations may well run into claims of executive privilege, something previous administrations have used to resist demands for information. That means any dispute of what must be produced will be decided in the federal courts under the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, the Watergate case that found the judiciary has final authority to determine the scope of any claim of privilege.
That is not a very expeditious route for a congressional committee to pursue. Any decision is likely to take months. Add to that the likelihood of an appeal, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court, and it may take two or more years to adjudicate a privilege claim.
In August, President Trump tweeted that he wanted the S.E.C. to change the requirements for companies to issue financial statements from each quarter to twice a year. Publicly traded companies complain that the quarterly reporting requirement feeds into the short-term mentality of the securities markets.
The S.E.C. issued a request for comments on Dec. 18 about “the nature, content and timing of earnings releases and quarterly reports.” Asking for comments is a sure way to slow-walk any potential changes.
Reuters reported that some Republicans are frustrated that Jay Clayton, the chairman of the S.E.C., has not pushed a deregulatory agenda as aggressively as expected and sided with the two Democrats on the commission with some regularity. Could dissatisfaction with Mr. Clayton cause Congress to take the lead on making major changes to the reporting obligations of companies?
Larger companies are unlikely to see any significant alteration of their quarterly reporting obligations, but smaller companies — which have a broad appeal on Capitol Hill — may see a change in the frequency and scope of their reporting.
The question is whether that will be a positive change for the markets. Less reporting, especially by smaller companies, could allow companies to push the envelope in their financial disclosures and help them avoid, at least for a while, their day of reckoning.
With the stock market declining sharply in December and growing concerns about a possible recession, would postponing reporting be good for investors?
Corporate America has a strong voice in Washington, so changes in the reporting requirements that put the interests of executives over investors would hardly be surprising.
Wishing everyone a happy and prosperous new year!