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Judgment Approaches for Wall Street

Nov 21, 2002 | Thestreet.com

Friday could be judgment day on Wall Street.

That's when securities regulators will start telling 10 securities firms just how much they might have to pay to settle the investigations into their bull market business practices.

And some of the firms could be in for a big surprise. Sources tell TheStreet.com that regulators will seek penalties ranging from as low as $25 million to as high as $500 million.

It's believed New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer will push for the maximum penalty on Citigroup when his representatives meet Friday with lawyers for the nation's biggest financial services firm. For more than six months, Spitzer's office has been looking into a variety of allegations involving Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney investment banking division.

Meanwhile, in Boston

Friday also may be a bad day for Credit Suisse First Boston, which is slated to learn how much it might have to shell out when it meets with representatives for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. Last month, Galvin's office filed a civil complaint against CSFB, charging the firm with issuing "tainted" and "corrupted" research.

Sources says regulators are pushing for the biggest fines against CSFB and Citigroup and lesser penalties against the other firms, which are scheduled to meet with other regulators early next week. A final deal, however, looks unlikely before Thanskgiving.

Officials for the regulators and Wall Street firms either declined to comment or couldn't be reached.

Unfinalized

The sources note that the numbers being bandied around could be bargaining chips and not the final agreed-upon sums. The money paid by the firms could go into a restitution fund for investors who claim they were misled by Wall Street's overly bullish and possibly tainted stock research.

Regulators have been discussing the amounts of the fines to be assessed in a series of meetings and telephone conferences over the past few days, involving representatives from Spitzer's office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the NASD and the North American Securities Administrators Association.

The discussion of fines is the final stage in putting together a global settlement of the many different regulatory investigations into conflicts of interest between investment bankers and stock analysts.

After several weeks of debate, regulators and the Wall Street firms are said to be in agreement on a plan to require brokerages to provide their customers with access to research reports from at least three so-called independent research firms.

Fetters

Another aspect of the deal will be the enactment of a new regulation that will put additional curbs on contacts between investment bankers and analysts.

The various inquiries stem from concern that investment bankers at Wall Street firms, especially during the bull market, pushed stock analysts to slant their research on companies that were generating millions of dollars in investment banking fees.

The issue of tainted Wall Street research became front-page news earlier this year when Spitzer's office produced a series of damaging Merrill Lynch internal emails that revealed that some Merrill analysts didn't believe the buy recommendations they were putting on Internet stocks. Merrill later agreed to settle that investigation by paying a $100 million fine and agreeing to changes in its research practices.

Since the Merrill investigation, more damaging information has come out about Wall Street's business practices. And the firm taking much of the heat the past few months has been Citigroup, with most of the attention focusing on the work of Jack Grubman, Salomon's former star telecom analyst.

Just last week, a series of embarrassing 2-year-old emails from Grubman to a friend at another financial institution were leaked to the news media. The emails purported to show that Citigroup Chairman and CEO Sanford Weill may have leaned on Grubman to change his rating on AT&T shares in 1999, as part of a bizarre quid pro quo to get Grubman's twins admitted to an elite New York nursery school.

Weill has acknowledged making a phone call to the school on Grubman's behalf and arranging a $1 million donation from Citigroup to the school, but he rejects the notion that he pressured Grubman to boost his recommendation on AT&T at around the same time Citigroup was trying to land a big investment banking deal. Grubman also has denied that Weill pressured him, and he says he invented the story in order to impress his friend.

In fact, several former Salomon employees say it is unlikely that Grubman would have succumbed to pressure from Weill. They say Grubman, who at one time pulled down a salary of $20 million and often threatened to go elsewhere, was one of the few analysts at the firm known to have put phone calls from Weill on hold.

These former Salomon employees suggest that Weill may have gone out of his way to help Grubman get his children admitted to the nursery program at the 92nd Street Y in New York because Weill feared losing one of his firm's biggest rainmakers or revenue producers.

But the emails were a major embarrassment for Weill and Citigroup, and there's been speculation that the incident could put pressure on the 69-year-old executive to announce a date for stepping down from the bank. Some even speculate that Spitzer, who sources say has talked to a number of Citigroup board members about his findings, may be pushing for Weill to do just that as part of the settlement negotiations.

Even if Weill does stay on, a settlement could lead to more embarrassing moments for Weill and Citigroup.

Sources say that as part of any deal with Citigroup, Spitzer's office is likely to produce a detailed "statement of facts and findings," which will include a summary of its nearly six-month investigation. The findings will include facts not previously disclosed to the public.


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