World and Nation

For bankers, a routine deal is an $840 million mistake

LONDON — To the bankers here, it looked like a chance to make a quick $7 million — risk free.

Instead, their sweet deal turned into a $840.1 million debacle.

In May 2007, a handful of bankers in London agreed to take a role in a complex mortgage investment being devised by Goldman Sachs.

That decision set in motion a chain of events that has left the Royal Bank of Scotland Group — to many Britons, a symbol of the excesses that brought the financial world to its knees — as the biggest loser in the deal that has now drawn Goldman into a legal maelstrom.

How RBS became entangled in this investment, Abacus 2007-AC1, is a story of these financial times. What is perhaps most unusual about the deal, and the London bankers’ role in it, is that it was so routine. Abacus, which is now at the center of accusations that Goldman defrauded investors, was one of countless mortgage deals that ricocheted between Wall Street and Europe during the heady days of the boom.

Indeed, after RBS, the biggest loser in Abacus was IKB Deutsche Industriebank of Germany, which was a big player in such mortgage investments.

Executives involved in the transaction say that while the fine print was scoured intently, the larger question of why ABN was increasing its exposure to an increasingly tenuous American housing market was given short shrift.

The $840.1 million that Abacus ultimately cost RBS represented a small part of the crippling losses that prompted the British government to rescue the bank in the costliest bailout of any bank worldwide. Today RBS is all but nationalized; the British government owns about 84 percent of it.

Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, has called for an investigation into the Abacus deal, as has the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

But RBS became involved in Abacus almost by accident. Bankers working in London for ABN Amro, a big Dutch bank that was later acquired by RBS, agreed to stand behind a portfolio of American mortgage investments that were used in the deal. ABN Amro shouldered almost all of the risks for what, in retrospect, might seem like a small reward: that $7 million. When the housing bust hit and Abacus collapsed, RBS ended up on the hook for most of the losses.

For ABN Amro, Abacus was just another product on the Wall Street assembly line. Like its counterparts in the United States, the Dutch bank seized on the mortgage mania to expand what was, at the time, a highly lucrative business.

How much its bankers earned, in salaries and bonuses, is not known. But at many banks, bonuses were often based on profits that turned out to be ephemeral, much like the profits that ABN Amro initially reaped on Abacus.

When the Abacus investment soured, Royal Bank of Scotland, under the terms of the deal, was obligated to cover the $840.1 million in losses. The British bank paid that to Goldman Sachs, which in turn, paid John A. Paulson, the fund manager who had bet against the deal.