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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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Congress Could Be Quite Different After 2012 Elections

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They come up for re-election every two years.  Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is in a constant “campaign mode” because the term of office is so short.  Lee White of the American Historical Association summed-up the impact of the 2010 elections this way:

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, U.S. voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington.  Republicans gained control of the House and, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin in that body has been reduced to 53-47.

*   *   *

Clearly the most dramatic change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over.

Voter discontent was revealed by the fact that just before the 2010 elections, the Congressional approval rating was at 17 percent.  More recently, according to a Gallup poll, taken during April 7-11 of 2011, Congressional job approval is now back down to 17 percent, after a bump up to 23 percent in February.  Of particular interest were the conclusions drawn by the pollsters at Gallup concerning the implications of the latest polling results:

Congress’ approval rating in Gallup’s April 7-11 survey is just four points above its all-time low.  The probability of a significant improvement in congressional approval in the months ahead is not high. Congress is now engaged in a highly contentious battle over the federal budget, with a controversial vote on the federal debt ceiling forthcoming in the next several months.  The Republican-controlled House often appears to be battling with itself, as conservative newly elected House members hold out for substantial cuts in government spending.  Additionally, Americans’ economic confidence is as low as it has been since last summer, and satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is at 19%.

At this point, it appears as though we could be looking at an even larger crop of freshmen in the 2013 Congress than we saw in January, 2011.  (According to polling guru, Nate Silver, the fate of the 33 Senate incumbents is still an open question.)

One poster child for voter ire could be Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama.  You might recall that at approximately this time last year, Matt Taibbi wrote another one of his great exposés for Rolling Stone entitled, “Looting Main Street”.  In his exceptional style, Taibbi explained how JPMorgan Chase bribed the local crooked politicians into replacing Jefferson County’s bonds, issued to finance an expensive sewer project, with variable interest rate swaps (also known as synthetic rate swaps).  Then came the financial crisis.  As a result, the rate Jefferson County had to pay on the bonds went up while the rates paid by banks to the county went down.  It didn’t take long for the bond rating companies to downgrade those sewer bonds to “junk” status.

JPMorgan Chase unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss a lawsuit arising from this snafu.  Law 360 reported on April 15 that the Alabama Supreme Court recently affirmed the denial of JPMorgan’s attempt to dismiss the case, which was based on these facts:

Jefferson County accuses JPMorgan of paying bribes to county officials in exchange for an appointment as lead underwriter for what turned out to be a highly risky refinancing of the county’s sewer debt, which caused Jefferson County billions of dollars in losses.  According to the complaint, JPMorgan, JPMorgan Chase and underwriting firm Blount Parrish & Co. handed out bribes, kickbacks and payoffs to swindle the county out of millions in inflated fees.

JPMorgan claimed that only the Governor of Alabama had authority to bring such a suit.  I wonder why former Alabama Governor Bob Riley didn’t bother to join Jefferson County as a party plaintiff, making the issue moot and saving Jefferson County some legal fees, before the case found its way to the state Supreme Court?

Joe Nocera of The New York Times recently put the spotlight on another character from Alabama politics:

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle?  Of course – what local congressman wouldn’t?  In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes “magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.”

*   *   *

Bachus is not just your garden variety local congressman, though.  As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he is uniquely positioned to help make sure that similar disasters never happen again – not just in Jefferson County but anywhere.  After all, the new Dodd-Frank financial reform law will, at long last, regulate derivatives.  And the implementation of that law is being overseen by Bachus and his committee.

Among its many provisions related to derivatives – all designed to lessen their systemic risk – is a series of rules that would make it close to impossible for the likes of JPMorgan to pawn risky derivatives off on municipalities.  Dodd-Frank requires sellers of derivatives to take a near-fiduciary interest in the well-being of a municipality.

You would think Bachus would want these regulations in place as quickly as possible, given the pain his constituents are suffering.  Yet, last week, along with a handful of other House Republican bigwigs, he introduced legislation that would do just the opposite:  It would delay derivative regulation until January 2013.

As Joe Nocera suggested, this might be more than simply a delaying tactic, to keep derivatives trading unregulated for another two years.  Bachus could be counting on Republican takeovers of the Senate and the White House after the 2012 election cycle.  At that point, Bachus and his fellow Tools of Wall Street could finally drive a stake through the heart of the nearly-stillborn baby known as “financial reform”.

On the other hand, the people vested with the authority to cast those votes that keep Spencer Bachus in office, could realize that he is betraying them in favor of the Wall Street banksters.  The “public memory” may be short but – fortunately – the term of office for a Congressman is equally brief.


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Getting Cozy

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April 1, 2010

This week’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Jones v.Harris Associates received a good deal of attention because it increased hopes of a cut in the fees mutual funds charge to individual investors.  The plaintiffs, Jerry Jones, Mary Jones and Arline Winerman, sued Harris Associates (which runs or “advises” the Oakmark mutual funds) for violating the Investment Company Act, by charging excessive fees.  Harris was charging individual investors a .88 percent (88 basis points) management fee, compared to the 45-bps fee charged to its institutional clients.

In his article about the Jones v. Harris case, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times made a point that struck a chord with me:

Pay scales in the mutual fund industry, like those in banking and investment firms, are not strictly regulated by the government, and as the Wall Street collapse revealed, investment advisors and bankers sometimes can earn huge fees while losing money for their shareholders.

In 1970, however, Congress said mutual funds must operate with an independent board of directors.  And it said the investment advisors for the funds have a “fiduciary duty,” or a duty of trust, to the investors when setting fees for their services.  The law also allowed suits against those suspected of violating this duty.

But investors have rarely won such claims.  In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court gave new life to the law, ruling that investment advisors could be sued for charging excessive fees.

But the court’s opinion also said such suits should fail unless there was evidence that advisors hid information from the board or that their fees were “so disproportionately large” as to suggest a cozy deal between the advisors and the supposedly independent board.

The lousy job that boards of directors do in protecting the investors they supposedly represent has become a big issue since the financial crisis, as Mr. Savage explained.  Think about it:  How could the boards of directors for those too-big-to-fail institutions allow the payouts of obscene bonuses to the very people who devastated our economy and nearly destroyed (or may yet destroy) our financial system?  The directors have a duty to the shareholders to make sure those investors obtain a decent dividend when the company does well.  If the company does well only because of a government bailout, despite inept management by the executives, who should benefit – the execs or the shareholders?

Michael Brush wrote an interesting essay concerning bad corporate boards for MSN Money on Wednesday.  His opining point was another reminder of how the financial crisis was facilitated by cozy relationships with bank boards:

Here’s a key take-away from the financial crisis that devastated our economy:   Bad boards of directors played a big role in the mess.

Because bank boards were too close to the executives they were supposed to police, they did a lousy job of spotting excessive risk.  They allowed short-term pay incentives such as huge options grants that encouraged bankers to roll the dice.

Michael Brush contacted The Corporate Library which used its Board Analyst screener to come up with a list of the five worst corporate boards.  Here is how he explained that research:

The ratings are based on problems that can compromise boards, including:

  • Allowing directors to do too much business with the companies they are supposed to oversee.
  • Letting the CEO chair the board, which is supposed to oversee the CEO.
  • Overpaying board members and keeping them on too long.
  • Allowing directors to miss too many meetings to do an effective job.

These and other red flags signal that a board is entrenched — too close to management to do its job of overseeing the people in the corner offices.

*   *   *

The big problem with bad boards is that they’re unlikely to ask CEOs tough questions, act swiftly when it is time to replace a CEO or tighten the reins on pay and perks.  And bad boards hurt shareholders.  Several studies have indicated that the stocks of companies with weak boards underperform.

I won’t spoil the surprise for you by identifying the companies with the bad boards.  If you want that information you will have to read the full piece.  Besides — you should read it anyway.

All of this raises the question (once again) of whether we will see any changes result in the aftermath of the financial crisis that will help protect the “little people” or the not-so-little “investor class”.   I’m not betting on it.



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