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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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Building A Consensus For Survival

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March 29, 2010

In my last posting, I focused on the fantastic discourse in favor of financial reform presented by Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In addition to Hoenig’s speech, last week brought us a number of excellent arguments for the cause that is so bitterly opposed by Wall Street lobbyists.  On the same day that Thomas Hoenig delivered his great speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin also addressed that institution to argue in favor of financial reform.  I enjoyed the fact that he rubbed this in their faces:

That is why it is so puzzling that, despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it.  That campaign is not designed to improve the House and Senate bills.  It is designed to defeat them.  It is designed to delay reform until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out.

The Chamber’s campaign comes on top of the $1.4 million per day already being spent on lobbying and campaign contributions by big banks and Wall Street financial firms.  There are four financial lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Wolin’s presentation was yet another signal from the Treasury Department that inspired economist Simon Johnson to begin feeling optimistic about the possibility that some meaningful degree of financial reform might actually take place:

Against all the odds, a glimmer of hope for real financial reform begins to shine through.  It’s not that anything definite has happened — in fact most of the recent Senate details are not encouraging – but rather that the broader political calculus has shifted in the right direction.

Instead of seeing the big banks as inviolable, top people in Obama administration are beginning to see the advantage of taking them on — at least on the issue of consumer protection.  Even Tim Geithner derided the banks recently as,

“those who told us all they were the masters of noble             financial innovation and sophisticated risk management.”

Yep.  That was our old pal and former New York Fed President, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, making the case for financial reform before the American Enterprise Institute.  (You remember them — the outfit that fired David Frum for speaking out against Fox News and the rest of the “conservative entertainment industry”.)  Treasury Secretary Geithner made his pitch for reform by reminding his conservative audience that longstanding advocates of the “efficient market hypothesis” had come on board in favor of financial reform:

Now, the recognition that markets failed and that the necessary solution involves reform; that it requires rules enforced by government is not a partisan or political judgment.  It is a conclusion reached by liberals and by conservative skeptics of regulation.

Judge Richard Posner, a leader in the conservative Chicago School of economics, wrote last year, that “we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.”

And consider Alan Greenspan, a skeptic of the benefits of regulation, who recently said, “inhibiting irrational behavior when it can be identified, through regulation,   . . .   could be stabilizing.”

No wonder Simon Johnson is feeling so upbeat!  The administration is actually making a serious attempt at doing what needs to be done to get this accomplished.

Meanwhile, The New York Times had run a superb article by David Leonhardt just as Geithner was about to address the AEI.  Leonhardt’s essay, “Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis” is a thorough analysis, providing historical background and covering every angle on what needs to be done to clean up the mess that got us where we are today — and to prevent it from happening again.  Here are some snippets from the first page that had me hooked right away:

It was a maddening story line:  the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.  Just as an oil company can profit from pollution, Wall Street profited from weak regulation, at the expense of society.

*   *   *

In a way, this issue is more about human nature than about politics.  By definition, the next period of financial excess will appear to have recent history on its side.

*   *   *

One way to deal with regulator fallibility is to implement clear, sweeping rules that limit people’s ability to persuade themselves that the next bubble is different — upfront capital requirements, for example, that banks cannot alter.  Thus far, the White House, the Fed and Congress have mostly steered clear of such rules.

Congratulations to David Leonhardt for putting that great piece together.  As more commentators continue to advance such astute, sensible appeals to plug the leaks in our sinking financial system, there is a greater likelihood that our lawmakers will realize that the economic risk of doing nothing far exceeds the amounts of money in those envelopes from the lobbyists.



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The Best Argument For Financial Reform

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March 26, 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, spoke out in favor of financial reform on Wednesday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The shocking aspect of Hoenig’s speech is that it comes from the mouth of a member of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which sets economic policy.  Beyond that, Hoenig brutally criticized what has been done so far to tilt the playing field in favor of the megabanks, at the expense of smaller banks.  Here are some choice bits from what should be mandatory reading for everyone in Congress:

As a nation, we have violated the central tenants of any successful system.  We have seen the formation of a powerful group of financial firms.  We have inadvertently granted them implied guarantees and favors, and we have suffered the consequences.  We must correct these violations.  We must reinvigorate fair competition within our system in a culture of business ethics that operates under the rule of law.  When we do this, we will not eliminate the small businesses’ need for capital, but we will make access to capital once again earned, as it should be.

*   *   *

The fact is that Main Street will not prosper without a healthy financial system.  We will not have a healthy financial system now or in the future without making fundamental changes that reverse the wrong-headed incentives, change behavior and reinforce the structure of our financial system.  These changes must be made so that the largest firms no longer have the incentive to take too much risk and gain a competitive funding advantage over smaller ones.  Credit must be allocated efficiently and equitably based on prospective economic value.  Without these changes, this crisis will be remembered only in textbooks and then we will go through it all again.

Hoenig’s speech comes at a time when the Senate is considering a watered-down version of financial reform that has been widely criticized.  Economist Simon Johnson pointed out how any approach based on U.S. authority alone to “resolve” or break up systemically dangerous banks would be doomed because “there is no cross-border agreement on resolution process and procedure — and no prospect of the same in sight”.

Blogger Mike Konczal expressed his disappointment with what has become of the Financial Reform Bill as it has been dragged through the legislative process:

It’s funny, I know what a good financial reform bill becoming a bad financial reform bill looks like through this process.  I’ve seen bribes and more bribes and last-minute giveaway changes.

The notion that bribery has been an obstacle to financial reform became a central theme of Karl Denninger’s enthusiastic reaction to Hoenig’s speech:

All in all it’s nice to see Thomas Hoenig wake up.  Now let’s see if we can get CONgress to stop opening the bribe envelopes, er, ignore the campaign contributions for a sufficient period of time to actually fix this mess, forcing those “big banks” to get that leverage ratio down to where it belongs, along with marking their assets to the market.

Thomas Hoenig provided exactly the type of leadership needed and at exactly the right time to give a boost to serious financial reform.  We can only hope that there will be enough responsible, ethical people in the Senate to incorporate Hoenig’s suggestions into the Financial Reform Bill.  If only  . . .



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Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.



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