The indisputable economic (and moral) fact of our time is that America’s most wealthy, from whom capitalism’s CEOs, directors, guardians and gatekeepers are drawn, not only allowed this torrent of financial chicanery and deception to occur, they profited handsomely from it.
These pages have voiced strong doubts over the years about the leadership and compensation practices that prevail at many of America’s corporations. Chief among the criticisms were that these plans provided incentives and rewards that caused companies to take improper risks which allowed CEOs to rack up huge gains in the short run while investors — and, ultimately, society — were left holding the costly bag of empty promises when reality came crashing down.
Take Bank of America, for example, which recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department by agreeing to pay a record $17 billion in penalties and restitution. In the long history of American business, there has never been anything approaching this outsized penalty. It stems from improprieties at Countrywide Financial, which B of A bought in another fit of misguided thinking, just before the onset of the Great Recession. There were also irregularities involving disclosures about its takeover of Merrill Lynch as well as with Bank of America’s own mortgage practices.
You might think that CEOs and boards are paid well for keeping companies out of trouble and avoiding these kinds of disasters. Half of that observation is certainly true. In the five years leading up to the crash of 2008 and the beginning of the worst recession since the Great Depression, B of A’s CEO Ken Lewis was paid more than $200 million. Each of the bank’s directors awarded themselves a minimum of $1.5 million in the same period. Many collected more.
When he retired in 2009, Mr. Lewis walked away with a further $83 million in retirement benefits. Others connected with B of A, such as former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain and Countrywide Financial’s former CEO Angelo Mozilo, also made off with huge fortunes as a result of deals made with the bank under Mr. Lewis.
And for all that, one of America’s most prominent financial institutions did not walk — it ran — into the giant propeller of U.S. government in a predictable and avoidable financial collision that resulted in this staggering record payout.
Bank of America was, as we documented over the course of several years, far from alone in practicing financial acrobatics that were more suited to a travelling carnival than an iconic institution of capitalism. Yet in this mighty tsunami of boardroom wrongdoing and excess that nearly upended Main Street, barely a ripple of bother was felt among the first-class decks of Wall Street and America’s financial elites. No CEO has been sent off to jail. No director or chief executive has been forced to return any pay. As we noted in The Fallacy of Giants, in most cases when these kinds of eye-popping settlements are announced, the company’s stock shoots up. Government fines, no matter how staggering, and accusations of abuse and betrayal by top management and boards, no matter how shameful, are regarded by many business insiders and much of the market as just another cost of doing business.
The indisputable economic (and moral) fact of our time is that America’s most wealthy, from whom capitalism’s CEOs, directors, guardians and gatekeepers are drawn, not only allowed this torrent of financial chicanery and deception to occur, they profited handsomely from it. The result is that those same elites in the period between 2007 and now managed to gain an even larger choke hold on the wealth and income of America than at any time since the 1920s. This, despite the fact that were it not for the bailout provided by America’s taxpayers who largely live on Main Street, not only would this expansion of wealth not have occurred, but capitalism itself might not have survived. On that point, is it not interesting that the same voices that are generally quick to rail against government excess and demand fiscal discipline when it comes to the public purse are uncharacteristically silent when it comes to the $5 trillion the U.S. Fed paid to finance the bailout? Does that have any connection with reality, or is it just another case, like CEO compensation, for instance, where there is one set of ever accommodating rules for those at the top and another for everyone else?
What happened with Bank of America, and other prominent institutions like it, and the ease with which moral and legal improprieties can be sloughed off with little consequence for those in charge, is at the heart of the current record level of public disaffection with capitalism and those who lead it. Having spent nearly half a century working with and around capitalism and its leaders, it is hard for me to imagine that one day it may cease to exist. But the too often overlooked reality is that the fundamental currency that sustains modern capitalism is not capital at all — it is the consent of the public.
If present trends in income equality and corporate immorality continue, and its leaders fail to ensure that capitalism is governed by a set of values that is consistent with the needs and dreams of Main Street, it is hard to imagine how it will survive.
Essay by J. Richard Finlay
The blind eye which shareholders and analysts too long cast upon the abuse of excessive CEO pay is now being turned to the recent trend of monetizing ethical abuse. Who knows when the tipping point might come in the ever-widening wealth gap where capitalism is finally seen to cross the river of moral conscience and moves from being trumpeted as a source of social progress and individual incentive to one of middle class tyranny and public opprobrium.
Continuing from Part I
One of the defining features of today’s world of big business is that, too often, shareholders have been willing to turn a blind eye to any amount of pay to a CEO, no matter how disproportionate, as long as they were getting impressive returns each quarter. Never mind how many times poorly crafted compensation devices gave incentives to CEOs to artificially push up the stock when such growth could never be sustained in the long run. As I suggested to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee long before the financial meltdown that traced its roots in part to unsound compensation schemes:
The most corrosive force in modern business today is excessive CEO compensation. Such lofty sums tempt CEOs to take actions that artificially push up the price of the stock in ways that cannot be sustained, and to cash out before the inevitable fall.
Our comments on these pages and elsewhere over the years have also attempted to rebut the most common justifications frequently advanced by boards as to why CEO pay needs to be at the level to which it has skyrocketed.
But the inescapable lesson of history appears to be that no boardroom scandal or financial meltdown is so great, no gap in wealth or income is so wide, that it will deter CEO pay from its self-appointed destiny of creating the wealthiest professional class in the history of the world.
Now a view is emerging in many boardrooms and on Wall Street that appears to regard ethical and legal transgressions, even the kind that result in multi-billion dollar fines, penalties and settlements, as mere transactions. This is the case with JPMorgan Chase, whose profitability is so vast its shareholders are prepared to accept a record settlement with the U.S. justice department for $13 billion (among other penalties) as just another cost of doing business. The stock has risen 28 percent in the past 12 months. Other examples abound, including Bank of America’s $9.5 billion to settle government actions involving federally insured mortgages, $1.2 billion paid out by Toyota and $7 billion in penalties by drug makers GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Abbot.
It is not as if the ethical and legal dimension of business has suddenly dropped onto the corporate landscape unexpectedly. There are more compliance officers and university think tanks on ethics than at any time in the history of business. Every publicly traded corporation has a code of ethical conduct. Company websites all make reference to being committed to the highest standards of ethics and honesty. Most CEOs will give an annual keynote speech somewhere showcasing the social responsibilities of their business. I’ve written many of them over the years myself. Enron had a stellar reputation for commitment to high ethical standards. Its CEO, Ken Lay, liked to be known as “Mr. Business Ethics.” But between the words and the actions of too many companies there falls an ethical shadow. It is much easier to simply assume a standard of ethical performance than it is to subject it to the scrutiny and testing it actually requires.
History is littered with the bleached remains of fallen giants, even of the corporate species. Nortel and BlackBerry not long ago led their industries. Today, one has vanished and the other is quickly disappearing. Some years ago another Canadian institution, Royal Trust, collapsed under the slumbering eyes of inattentive directors and stunned regulators. Livent was North America’s largest publicly traded theatrical entertainment company. But its most artistic accomplishment came in the form of the highly creative, but decidedly unlawful, accounting engaged in by its Toronto-based founders Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb, who both swapped the company’s swank Manhattan condo for sentences in a Canadian prison.
General Motors had a hammerlock on the North American auto market that was thought to be unbreakable, until it limped pathetically to the wicket of government assistance and declared bankruptcy. The “new” GM is today being rocked by the lingering effects of a culture that dismissed the risk of customer deaths from defective ignition switches as an acceptable business cost. Microsoft, once the dominant force in consumer software to the point where it actually fixed prices, has been reduced to selling software for competing Apple iPads on the rival iTunes store as consumers abandon its signature Windows software in droves. And to the pantheon of vanished business icons, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers are now fully inducted, as are their former leaders, Jimmy Cayne and Dick Fuld.
Like many other companies, they were lost to the all-too-common, but entirely avoidable, affliction of hyper-ego and deficient common sense. Before the crisis that claimed them, we often asked here if some of these companies actually had a real board of directors, since it seemed there was little evidence of them when they were most needed.
In situations like these, and in many others, when disaster strikes the board of directors typically professes surprise and claims to have no idea what could have caused it. Memo to board secretaries everywhere: Have a full-length mirror installed in the boardroom.
The idea that there are few outcomes that are not insurmountable when a company skates over ethical and legal boundaries, that a board can throw money at any type of egregious conduct to get past it, is fundamentally subversive to the well-being of both capitalism and society. It feeds the delusion, commonly held by many who enjoy great wealth and power, that certain companies are endowed with a financial shield so impenetrable it makes them invincible to the consequences of their actions. This same view creates a culture of moral hazard where the scale of the transgressions, and the costs necessary to remedy them, inevitably keep getting bigger and bigger until the unthinkable calamity occurs. As the lessons of the great financial crisis of recent years demonstrate, when the unthinkable does happen, the CEOs whose misjudgments caused it have long fled with their trove of stock options profitably cashed out, while ordinary shareholders, and occasionally taxpayers, are left to pick up the pieces.
Far more important than the loss of any one giant, however, is the integrity of the system of capitalism itself. Capitalism cannot survive if its leaders, guardians and gatekeepers remain willing to tolerate such costly misbehavior. Nor will society, whose support it requires, endlessly abide a system that does not convincingly demonstrate that it recognizes a sacred obligation to the public for upholding a standard of ethical conduct that goes well beyond what has been evidenced by many firms in recent years. Lest there be any doubt, twice in the past 100 years, capitalism has effectively turned to government for its very survival in what amounted to a public bailout from the epidemic of excess and misjudgments that led to massive job losses and social dislocation.
It would be the height of folly for the titans of Wall Street and elsewhere to conclude, as a result of these recent multi-billion dollar settlements, that they can simply write a cheque and continue on with business as usual whenever moral impediments stand in the way of increased profitability and outsized compensation.
Business has misjudged the reaction of society to a number of major issues over the years, from the dangers to food safety and the exploitation of child labor to threats to the environment and the need for safer cars. The results were not particularly welcomed by business nor were they predicted by it. And the business world did not exactly distinguish itself by the silence of its leaders in the early phases of the subprime meltdown or for presiding over an inadequately governed system that let America down to the point where corporate welfare through the generosity of government became capitalism’s only hope. When high profile tycoons like former GE CEO Jack Welsh and Home Depot’s billionaire co-founder Ken Langone bemoan the expressions of antipathy toward Wall Street and big business, voicing puzzlement over its cause, as they regularly do on CNBC, for instance, they betray a larger disengagement from the forces that shape the social and political dimensions of modern capitalism.
Who knows when the tipping point might come in the ever-widening wealth gap where capitalism is finally seen to cross the river of moral conscience and moves from being trumpeted as a source of social progress and individual incentive to one of middle class tyranny and public opprobrium. A firestorm of outrage may be in the waiting.
In that context, it is not unreasonable, and certainly not imprudent, to suggest that if a more fair and honest culture consistent with the core values with which America has always approached its concentrations of power, is not soon embraced, if the idea that ethical abuse can be monetized is not quickly dispelled starting with capitalism’s most valued icons, the costs to investors and to society will be measured in more than the Sagan-like billions and billions tallied thus far.
An Essay by J. Richard Finlay
on corporate integrity in the post-bailout era
Recent multi-billion dollar settlements involving Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase show the staggering costs of ethical folly and the culture of moral hazard that places too many companies, and capitalism itself, at risk.
It is the curse of giants to believe in their own invincibility. It is also the curse of their acolytes, as the White Star Line discovered with its “unsinkable” Titanic and the Philistines learned with the defeat of their champion Goliath at the hands of a young shepherd boy. Yet these lessons, and countless others, over millennia have not dispelled such illusions in the world of business, where size is seen as an insulator against all manner of misadventures and the too-big-to-fail mentality shows few signs of abating. Indeed, the extent to which America’s major banks and Wall Street icons were on the wrong track when it came to compliance with the law and standards of ethics during the great financial meltdown and even afterwards is becoming even more striking. Recent reports involving Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase vividly make the point.
On these pages in the years and months leading up to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and in numerous op-ed columns before that, I wrote about the dangers of relying on the myths of giants. Until they were categorized as being too big to fail, corporate monoliths like Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were viewed as being too smart to fail. Trophy directors and fantastically compensated CEOs, with the assistance of huge PR departments that never seemed to sleep, worked overtime to present an image where success was virtually guaranteed. The reality, however, was that too many boards were recklessly disengaged from what was happening around them. Seeds of folly were being sewn by undersupervised employees more interested in creating clever short-term financial devices than sustainable building blocks of long-term business. And too many investors and journalists had become prisoners of what I call cheerleader capture. First cousin to the condition of regulatory capture, this refers to the state where it is virtually impossible for any dissenting voices to penetrate the thundering chorus of cheers by insiders and their loud choir of supporters.
There were warning signs of the unwise effects of that mindset, to be sure. Scandals involving security analysts, for instance, for which Henry Blodget became the poster-boy, revealed the dangers of a culture of cheerleader capture. In too many cases, the analysts who were supposed to be delivering objective assessments of the financial health of companies enjoyed personal and career incentives that caused them to paint a more glowing picture than justified by the facts. Citigroup was touched in several ways by that scandal.
There were the accounting frauds at Nortel, Enron and Worldcom that were so stunning they resulted in landmark legislation known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act being passed. The collapse of Hollinger and Livent provided an interesting coda to those scandals. If these events of just a few years earlier had been taken seriously, they would have produced a higher standard of boardroom oversight that might have prevented the blunders and financial chicanery that brought the world to the brink of the financial abyss in the first decade of the 21st century.
But even before the gales of that crisis rose to full force, this space questioned the governance practices of companies like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, as well as Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, two institutions which BofA bought. We took frequent issue with the sweetheart boardroom deals that propelled their CEOs into the super-compensation stratosphere. We felt that the excessive deference accorded many CEOs reflected a perilous level of disengagement on the part of boards which in turn were failing to exercise the independent judgment needed to fully protect investors and the public franchise of capitalism itself.
Many of the decisions these companies made were fraught with ethical failures, violations of the law and just bad business thinking. Their consequences are coming home to roost even years later. Bank of America recently agreed to pay $9.5 billion in fines to settle civil lawsuits with U.S. federal housing authorities. Ken Lewis, the company’s former CEO, settled with regulators by paying $10 million personally. All told, it has cost BofA some $50 billion to resolve a variety of claims stemming from the subprime era, including the fraudulent actions of Countrywide Financial and misleading statements made in connection with the bank’s purchase of Merrill Lynch.
Improprieties at JPMorgan Chase resulted in an astonishing $20 billion being handed over to various regulatory authorities. The amount barely caused a ripple on Wall Street, where reaction to the announcement registered nothing untoward in respect of JPMorgan’s stock or the reputation of its CEO, Jamie Dimon.
Citigroup, which has also paid out huge amounts to settle regulatory claims, recently failed the Fed’s financial stress test — for the second time in two years. Its stock languishes at the unconsolidated 1-for-10 equivalent of the same $5 range it was at during the bailout crisis. Were its recent history of losses, bailouts and scandals not sufficient, there are new regulatory and legal issues arising from a potential fraud involving Banamex, a Mexican subsidiary. In one day early this April, Citigroup’s shareholders were hit with a double whammy. The company said that it was unlikely to meet a key profit expectation it had set and then announced it was paying $1.12 billion to certain investors to settle claims stemming from mortgage securities sold before the financial crisis.
Yet the level of shareholder outrage one might think would be directed at Citigroup’s board for this Job-like litany of woes has, for the most part, failed to surface, just as tolerance of years of poor boardroom practices and bad decisions earlier led to a cascade of scandals and financial losses culminating in the bank’s liquidity crisis that prompted the U.S. government bailout in 2008.
In no case has any banking or Wall Street executive faced jail time as a result of the misdeeds that resulted in these record massive payouts or those of other companies. By contrast, in any given day on Main Street, courts routinely hand out jail sentences to elderly seniors convicted of shoplifting and single mothers who pass bad cheques for even small amounts.
Like the notion of billions and billions of stars in the cosmos often attributed to the late Carl Sagan (with the help of Johnny Carson), it is hard to get the mind around the scale of these fines, payouts and penalties. And in the case of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, and numerous other companies from drug makers to car manufacturers along the way, it seems nobody is even trying.
What seems to be happening instead is that the wrong-headed mindset that gave birth to excessive CEO pay has infected other fields of business responsibility and decision-making. We explore this further in Part II.
The settlement was not crafted to act as a deterrent to future wrongdoing or to give the investing public confidence that the SEC is looking out for their interests in this post-Madoff era.
U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff had finally approved the settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bank of America. Our concerns seemed at least to have made an appearance in the courtroom, though they clearly did not carry the day.
As we set out here before the judgment, our greatest misgiving in the proposed settlement was the inherent unfairness surrounding the $150 million penalty, which effectively involved the transfer, without their consent, of money from one shareholder pocket to another. The main players in the abuse, which included key officers and directors, got a pass on making any payment proportionate to their responsibility. To us, the settlement could easily have been concocted by Groucho Marx. It was not crafted to act as a deterrent to future wrongdoing or to give the investing public confidence that the SEC is actually looking out for their interests in this post-Madoff era.
Judge Rakoff correctly focused on this shortcoming in his combined opinion and order:
An even more fundamental problem, however, is that a fine assessed against the Bank, taken by itself, penalizes the shareholders for what was, in effect if not in intent, a fraud by management on the shareholders.
Unfortunately, the specter of judicial deference to tribunals like the SEC was also looking over his shoulder and he was unable to do more than register his chagrin. That does not do a lot for investors who were victimized by the shell game Bank of America engaged in, but it may serve as further evidence that the SEC needs to seriously rethink what precisely it is seeking in such settlements. Too often, they seem cleverly designed to create the illusion that justice is being served, rather than fostering policies that promote investor confidence in the capital markets and stand the test of garden-variety common sense on Main Street.
Judge Rakoff gave his verdict on that score, calling the settlement “half-baked justice, at best.” We see it more like a pie in the face of shareholders, despite the efforts of a plain-speaking judge to do his best to prevent it.
Regulators and the investing public need to demand that boards of directors be placed on the front line of accountability and not be allowed to slip away from scrutiny like some escape artist in a circus act.
The SEC’s settlement with Bank of America, still to be approved by the court, raises another question beyond the shell game contrived to give the impression – entirely misleading in our view – of a fair financial settlement for shareholders. Our thoughts on the $150 million “penalty” were set out here.
The boards of both Bank of America and Merrill Lynch appeared to escape the scrutiny of regulators, as well. While some 25 management personnel and in-house lawyers were deposed by the SEC, no independent director of either company underwent such questioning. Though a great deal of attention was focused on emails to and from legal counsel and management, there is no evidence of any effort to look into what the board was thinking when it came to its role in the merger or in related compensation and disclosure issues.
The settlement makes reference to some rather cosmetic changes in respect of the compensation committee. One bars members from accepting “consulting, advisory or other compensatory fees from the Bank…other than routine compensation for serving as a Board member.” But the Commission has offered no evidence that any compensation committee director at Bank of America was receiving anything beyond normal compensation. In any event, the idea that such ancillary compensation might have played a role in compromising the independent judgment of compensation committee members has no antecedent in any of the SEC’s supporting documentation. It has, instead, the appearance of being included as a part of the settlement to make it look like something meaningful was done.
Finally, the settlement requires the Bank’s CEO and CFO to certify proxy statements along the lines set out under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for quarterly and annual financial statements. But there is no requirement that any independent director, like the chairman of the board or the chairman of the audit committee, has to certify anything along SOX standards. This has always been a flaw in the existing SOX legislation from our perspective. It is one that could have been addressed in the settlement, as the certification process is intended to concentrate the mind of key shareholder guardians in a way that ensures that they have done their due diligence.
It is astounding that in the recent succession of corporate disasters of Depression-era proportions – which many feared would lead to a return of Depression-era misery – the SEC has not been moved to conduct a sweeping review of the generic failings of the board of directors. The often expressed discovery that it was the last to know of the problems, and that it had no idea what was really happening around it, is a common refrain on such occasions, as we remarked some years ago to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee when it was considering legislation in response to the Enron et al. debacle, and as we repeated in an appearance before Canada’s Senate equivalent later. It does not assist in investor confidence or society’s faith in its giant institutions of capitalism that boards either view themselves, or are viewed by regulators, as the junior partners in corporate performance and outcomes, as if they were some 1950s suburban housewife who by custom and design tended to be sheltered from having any knowledge of or responsibility for the business affairs of the household.
Time and again, in one corporate calamity after another, the question has been posed: Where was the board? If the world’s top securities regulator is not prepared to dig deeper to find out the answer, if it is unwilling to hold directors’ feet to the fire during major enforcement investigations like the one involving Bank of America, that question will persist like a great mystery. But as the world has been painfully reminded on too many occasions, boards have a role beyond being viewed as a riddle or the perennial focus of ridicule.
They are the governing authority elected by company owners to operate in their interests and according to the customs and standards of society. They are generally paid handsomely to perform their tasks, and when they fail, the consequences, in personal and financial terms, have been devastating. The only option, therefore, is for regulators and the investing public to demand that boards be placed on the front line of accountability and not be allowed to slip away from scrutiny like some escape artist in a circus act.
Under the so-called new and improved SEC settlement with Bank of America, the bank will pay $150 million to settle the charges. According to court records, the settlement only “contemplates” that the sum will be paid, at some future date, to shareholders who were harmed by the bank’s non-disclosure of material facts.
But where is this money coming from? Funny, that’s B of A’s shareholders, too. To add to the insult, no details are provided as to exactly when investors would receive such compensation (from themselves, that is). One sees the handiwork of Groucho Marks all over the SEC’s arrangement. We hope U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff, a much respected figure on these pages who rejected the SEC’s previous deal, will see beyond the mustache and glasses that mask the “hello, I must be going” settlement.
The SEC has become famous over the years for this kind of shell game, where it looks like something significant is being done but where there is much less than meets the eye when all is said and done. If there is any payment of a penalty, all or at least a substantial part should be made directly by the officers and directors (past and current) on whose watch the bank’s failures to disclose material information occurred. It was shareholders who were deprived of the information to which they were entitled. It serves neither their interests, nor those of justice, to have their money taken from one pocket and put into the other.
We examine other weakness in the settlement in a further comment.