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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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The Window Of Opportunity Is Closing

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September 17, 2009

In my last posting, I predicted that President Obama’s speech on financial reform would be “fine-sounding, yet empty”.  As it turned out, many commentators have described the speech as just that.  There weren’t many particulars discussed at all.  As Caroline Baum reported for Bloomberg News:

At times he sounded more like a parent scolding a disobedient child than a president proposing a new regulatory framework.

“We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis,” Obama said in a speech at Federal Hall in New York City.  (“You will not stay out until 2 a.m. again.”)

*   *   *

Obama warned “those on Wall Street” against taking “risks without regard for consequences,” expecting the American taxpayer to foot the bill.  But his words rang hollow.

*   *   *

But you can’t, with words alone, alter the perception — now more entrenched than ever — that the government won’t allow large institutions to fail.

How do you convince bankers they will pay for their risk-taking when they’ve watched the government prop up banks, investment banks, insurance companies, auto companies and housing finance agencies?

They learn by example.  The system of privatized profits and socialized losses has suited them fine until now.

Although the President had originally voiced support for expanding the authority of the Federal Reserve to include the role of “systemic risk regulator”, Ms. Baum noted that Allan Meltzer, professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that Mr. Obama has backed away from that ill-conceived notion:

“The Senate Banking Committee doesn’t want to give the Fed more power,” Meltzer said.   “I’ve never seen such unanimity, and I’ve been testifying before the committee since 1962.”

Ms. Baum took that criticism a step further with her observation that the mission undertaken by any systemic risk regulator would not likely fare well:

Bankers Outfox Regulators

It is fantasy to believe a new, bigger, better regulator will ferret out problems before they grow to system-sinking size.  Those being regulated are always one-step ahead of the regulator, finding new cracks or loopholes in the regulatory fabric to exploit.  When the Basel II accord imposed higher risk- based capital requirements on international banks, banks moved assets off the balance sheet.

What’s more, regulators tend to identify with those they regulate, a phenomenon known as “regulatory capture,” making it highly unlikely that a new regulator would succeed where previous ones have failed.

At this point in the economic crisis, with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent declaration that the recession is “very likely over”, there is concern that President Obama’s incipient attempt at enacting financial reform may already be too late.  A number of commentators have elaborated on this theme.  At Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison made this observation:

If you are looking for reform in the financial sector, the moment has passed.  And only to the degree that the underlying weaknesses in the global financial system are made manifest and threaten the economy will we see any appetite for reform amongst politicians.  So, as I see it, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity for reform.

More important, the following point by Mr. Harrison has been expressed in several recent essays:

Irrespective, I believe the need for reform is clear.  Those gloom & doom economists were right because the economic model which brought us to the brink of disaster in 2008 is the same one we have at present and that necessarily means another crisis will come.

At MSN’s MoneyCentral, Michael Brush shared that same fear in a piece entitled, “Why a meltdown could happen again”:

Some observers say it’s OK that a year has gone by without reform; we don’t want to get it wrong.  But the political reality is that as the urgency passes, it’s harder to pass reforms.

“We have lulled ourselves into the mind-set that we are out of the woods, when we aren’t,” says Cornelius Hurley, the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University School of Law.  “I don’t think time is our friend here. We risk losing the sense of urgency so that nothing happens.”

*   *   *

Douglas Elliott, a former JPMorgan investment banker now with the Brookings Institution, thinks the unofficial deadline for financial-sector reform is now October 2010 — right before the next congressional elections.

That leaves lawmakers a full year to get the job done.

But given all the details they have to work out — and the declining sense of urgency as stocks keep ticking higher — you have to wonder how much progress they’ll make.

On the other hand, back at Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison voiced skepticism that such a deadline would be met:

You are kidding yourself if you think real reform is coming to the financial sector before the mid-term elections, especially with healthcare, two wars and the need to ensure recovery still on politicians’ plates. Obama could go for real reform in 2011 — or in a second term in 2013.  But, unless economic crisis is at our door, there isn’t a convincing argument which says reform is necessary.

At The Washington Post, Brady Dennis discussed the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Mr. Dennis pointed out how the success of the Pecora Commission was rooted in the fact that populist outrage provided the fuel to help mobilize reform efforts, and he contrasted that situation with where we are now:

“Pecora’s success was his ability to crystallize the anger that a lot of Americans were feeling toward Wall Street,” said Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John’s University and author of an upcoming book about the hearings. “He was able to create a clamor for reform.”

But Pecora also realized that such clamor was fleeting

*   *   *

“We’ve passed the moment when there’s this palpable anger directed at the financial community,” Perino said of the current crisis.  “When you leave the immediate vicinity of the crisis, as you get farther and farther away in time, the urgency fades.”

Unfortunately, we appear to be at a point where it is too late to develop regulations against many of the excesses that led to last year’s financial crisis.  Beyond that, many people who allowed the breakdown to occur (Bernanke, Geithner, et al.) are still in charge and the players who gamed the system with complex financial instruments are back at it again, with new derivatives — even some based on life insurance policies.  Perhaps another harbinger of doom can be seen in this recent Bloomberg article:  “Credit Swaps Lose Crisis Stigma as Confidence Returns”.  Nevertheless, from our current perspective, some of us don’t have that much confidence in our financial system or our leadership.



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