By Colin Barr
November 9, 2010

Well, that’ll teach them.

In its latest halfhearted slap at a golden wrist, Finra on Tuesday fined Goldman Sachs

a whopping $650,000 for disclosure flaws tied to the Abacus case, the dodgy bubble-era debt deal that has already cost the firm heavily in treasure and reputation.

Finra, the securities industry’s self-regulatory agency, said Goldman failed to apprise investors in timely fashion of pending regulatory actions against two of its brokers, including Fab Tourre. He’s the Goldman exec whose Abacus antics appear headed to trial, even after the firm paid $550 million to settle its own case.

Finra said Goldman didn’t file appropriate papers within a month of the two brokers receiving so-called Wells notices – written notifications giving the recipient a chance to respond to possible charges being considered by the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The broker who didn’t deem himself Fabulous wasn’t named.

The filing failures aren’t all, either. Goldman’s procedures and controls were inadequate, Finra said.

FINRA found that Goldman did not have adequate supervisory procedures and systems in place to ensure that required disclosures were made when registered employees received notice that they were the subject of a regulatory investigation. FINRA also found that Goldman’s written supervisory procedures, manuals and policies were inadequate. Nowhere did the procedures and policies mention “Wells Notices” specifically and the need to make disclosure when one was issued.

These sound like sort of important omissions, the way Finra puts it. But in keeping with its storied history, Finra has responded by levying a penalty that is both ludicrously small and almost comically ironic.

It would have taken Goldman exactly 34 minutes to amass $650,000 in profit during the third quarter, assuming its $1.9 billion earnings haul was spread evenly over the quarter’s 68 business days. Lloyd Blankfein no doubt carries that much in pocket change most days.

By contrast, the Financial Services Authority in Britain was able to find the gumption to fine Goldman $27 million for essentially the same infractions. Goldman didn’t admit to or deny any of the charges. Finra said it couldn’t comment on how it arrived at the penalty.

But what’s even more absurd is that Goldman is now paying a pittance to settle charges tied to individual brokers – while Goldman’s own failure for nine months to disclose the Wells notice it got in the Abacus case remains unaddressed.

This last trip through the twilight zone isn’t the fault of the regulators at Finra, mind you, such as they are. There are no hard and fast rules governing when companies disclose Wells notices, and there are those who will claim in all seriousness that companies should get to make this decision, lest investors get swamped with confusing information.

Berkshire Hathaway

chief Warren Buffett, whose firm takes in $500 million in annual preferred dividends from Goldman thanks to a 2008 rescue deal, is among those who defended Goldman’s decision not to say the SEC was pursuing a case on Abacus until the day the SEC filed its suit.

But even without any duty to disclose any recent Wells notices, the legal risks section of Goldman’s two most recent applicable regulatory filings — today’s 10-Q and last year’s 10-K — have run to 10,659 words. It is hard to imagine how clarifying Wells notice disclosure obligations could make parsing all those words that much more challenging.

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