Was Obama Economic Advisor's Exit a Preemptive Strike?

Lewis Sachs oversaw a firm that sold controversial securities.

March 8, 2010 — -- When the White House announced last week it would be losing the services of Lewis A. Sachs, one of the president's top economic advisers, the reason given for Sachs's departure was that his work was largely complete.

"He's leaving now that markets have stabilized and Secretary [Timothy] Geithner has had time to set up a permanent team," Treasury Department spokesman Andrew Williams said.

But Sachs's quiet exit, reported in a blog entry on the New York Times web site, comes without any apparent next move for the Wall Street veteran, except for what he told the Times was his desire for time to "catch up on some sleep."

Not factoring into the decision, Williams said, were recent reports suggesting Sachs's old employer could be the subject of a federal probe. A December Times report said federal officials were then in the early stages of an investigation into companies that sold a complex breed of securities known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.'s, and then made financial bets against them.

One firm that was selling C.D.O.'s before the housing bubble burst was Tricadia Inc. Sachs was a partner at Tricadia's parent company, Mariner Investment Group.

One Wall Street analyst interviewed by ABC News last week on the condition he not be identified, said he has been contacted recently by investigators about the controversial practice.

The Times report identified Tricadia as one of several firms involved in deals that some critics said had produced profits at the expense of the firms' own clients. (Tricadia responded that it has always put the interest of its clients first.) Authorities, the report said, were "looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by the firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them."

Williams would neither confirm nor deny that Tricadia was being looked at. Asked if there was a connection between a possible probe and Sachs's exit, Williams replied, "absolutely not."

Sachs: Obama's Economic Adviser

If Sachs was to be swept into a federal inquiry, his senior role with the Obama economic team could have quickly become a sore point. White House visitor logs show Sachs was a regular in the West Wing, holding dozens of meetings with White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and with staff for the National Economic Council. The logs show he had at least five meetings with President Obama in the Oval Office last year, and had participated in the president's daily economic briefing.

Sachs, who is a longtime Geithner friend, played a pivotal role in designing the bank stress tests that is credited with stabilizing the nation's financial system and has served as a close adviser to the secretary on matters ranging from housing finance to Wall Street regulatory reform.

Obama is developing a track record for seeing trouble on the horizon and acting to head it off. Last year, Steven Rattner, appointed by the president to head his auto task force, left the post abruptly as the New York attorney general's office was focusing increased attention on Quadrangle Group, a firm Rattner co-founded.

There have been widespread reports about the probe into alleged payments by Rattner's firm to secure business with New York state's large public-pension fund. No charges have been brought, but last month New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg removed $5 billion of his private fortune from the private equity firm.

When the probe started heating up last summer, Rattner headed for the White House exit, saying he wanted to return to private life and his family. When the administration was asked about the reasons for his departure, they said Rattner had been brought in to negotiate the labor deals central to the rescue of the car companies.

In a written statement to reporters at the time, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that with the heavy lifting of the auto bailout over, Mr. Rattner had "decided to transition back to private life and his family in New York City."

"This is natural," one administration official told the Wall Street Journal at the time. "Steve is a great deal guy, and the deal time is over."