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Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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