(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. should take the opportunity to settle its legal case with Malaysia and put the 1MDB scandal to bed.
Negotiators for Malaysia have discussed figures of around $2 billion to $3 billion in talks with Goldman, Bloomberg News reported this week, citing people with knowledge of the matter. A settlement at the lower end of that range could turn out to be a relative bargain for the New York-based bank.
Malaysia has charged Goldman units as well as 17 of its current and former directors over their involvement in arranging $6.5 billion of bond sales for the troubled state fund, much of which later went missing. Prosecutors accuse them of misleading investors while knowing that the money would be misappropriated. Goldman has denied the allegations and said it will defend against the charges.
While $3 billion is a hefty fine by any standards, it’s less than half than the $7.5 billion that Malaysia has been demanding publicly that the Wall Street bank pay. Granted, that target may be ambitious. At the same time, there’s plenty to support a penalty in the region of $2 billion.
The U.S. has also been pursuing Goldman over the 1MDB affair. Based on statutes and similar cases, the Department of Justice could seek fines of up to two times the $600 million that the bank earned for underwriting 1MDB bonds, plus disgorgement of those fees for a total of $1.8 billion, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Elliott Stein.
That would reflect the formula in cases such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., which paid U.S. regulators $264 million in 2016 to settle allegations that it hired children of Chinese decision-makers to win business in violation of anti-bribery laws. There’s also precedent for a shared settlement that would cover both countries: Societe Generale SA agreed last year to pay $585 million that was split evenly between U.S. and French enforcement agencies to settle a probe into bribery of Libyan officials. In the Goldman case, Stein says a global resolution in the range of $2 billion to $4 billion is possible.
There are risks in allowing the case to drag on. Goldman has previously blamed its entanglement on its former Southeast Asia chairman, Tim Leissner, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to U.S. charges that he conspired to launder money and violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That defense was undercut when U.S. prosecutors last year charged another former Goldman banker, Roger Ng, who’s denied any complicity in wrongdoing.
Perhaps more importantly, an extended court battle promises to keep the episode in the public mind, delaying Goldman’s efforts to rebuild its reputation. A case of this complexity is likely to move slowly, even if Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be keen to show progress on his pledge to recoup funds plundered from 1MDB.
Goldman’s business has suffered in the region, though admittedly this is a small fraction of its global operations. It’s been shut out of the Malaysian investment banking market and may have lost other deals in Southeast Asia as a result of the hit to its reputation. The bank fell to 20th in the underwriter rankings for U.S. dollar and euro bonds in Southeast Asia this year, from first in 2012.
That’s added to the pressure from a global decline in investment-banking revenues since the financial crisis. In Asia-Pacific, revenue for the industry dropped to $12.7 billion in the first half, from $14.6 billion a year earlier, according to data from Coalition Development Ltd., a London-based analytics company.
Set against last year’s pretax profit of $13.3 billion, a bill of even $3 billion to escape the shadow of one of the world’s biggest financial scandals might seem like good business. It could be the smartest Asian trade the bank has made in a long time.
(Updates with data on Asian investment banking revenue in the second-last paragraph.)
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Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.
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