Corporate governance at the failed Wall Street giant had all the hallmarks of a disengaged boardroom stacked with cronies and dominated by insiders. Finally, Congress can shed some light on where the board was at Bear Stearns — or if it existed at all.
Former Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne will be making a rare public appearance this week when he testifies before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Other top executives from the once thriving firm that was a fixture on Wall Street for nearly a century will be giving evidence as well. It will be an ideal opportunity for the Commission to explore the role that questionable corporate governance practices played in Bear Stearns’s failure. We set out our views on that subject in a two-part posting called “Did Bear Stearns Really Have a Board?” in early 2008. They can be viewed here and here. They remain among our most widely-read columns even today. Our comments were quoted in The New York Times reviewed book “Money for Nothing” by John Gillespie and David Zweig.
Corporate governance at Bear Stearns had all the hallmarks of a disengaged boardroom stacked with cronies and dominated by insiders. The most strenuous task of the all-male board seemed to be lifting the rubber stamp embossed with “yes” for gigantic bonuses and anything else management wanted. Only at the very end did the directors even faintly awaken to their duties, after the sudden shock of seeing that no one was at the controls of the engine that was speeding toward catastrophe and realizing that it was too late to retreat to the heavily curtained sleeping car where they long resided.
As we said back in March 2008:
Dig deeper though and you will find a dysfunctional board, overstretched independent directors and an executive chairman whose approach to his duties is novel, to say the least. The first thing that hits you about this Wall Street icon is that it is governed by men. Only men. It was like that at its inception in 1923; it remains a men’s club in 2008. Three of its 12-member board are insiders, as is the executive chairman, James Cayne. (There were actually four insiders until Warren J. Spector, the firm’s president and co-chief operating officer, resigned last fall over the collapse of Bear’s hedge funds.) Best corporate governance practices generally prefer management limited to one or two seats at most. The insider problem in Bear’s boardroom is even more pronounced where all the heavy lifting is done: the company’s executive committee. Composed entirely of the top insiders of the investment bank, company filings confirm that in 2006 (the most recent figures available) the executive committee met on 115 occasions. By contrast, the full board met only six times.
We concluded by suggesting exactly the type of inquiry that is occurring under the Congressional appointed commission headed by Phil Angelides
When such an important financial institution begins to crumble so quickly, leaving the capital markets in turmoil and requiring the intervention of the highest echelons of the federal government, Congress needs to ask some pointed questions. It should start with the Bear Stearns board.
Finally, a window of Congress can shed some light on where the board was at Bear Stearns — or if it existed at all.
Even Canada’s corporate crime cops are suddenly busy busting businessmen
It was a day for the record books. Never have so many high profile former insiders in so many companies been charged with fraud on both sides of the border. The RCMP, a frequent object of criticism for its slow pace in bringing white-collar criminals to justice, suddenly broke into a sprint and charged a whole slew of former executives in Nortel and Royal Group Technologies, including past CEOs of both firms. In the United States, justice department officials brought indictments against two former hedge fund managers at defunct Bear Stearns.
As an aside, you may have noticed the former Bear Stearns managers being taken away in handcuffs, escorted by armed federal agents. You will not see that picture in Canada. It’s just not considered the Canadian way -at least not when it comes to dealing with corporate fraud at this level. Some observers believe the contrast says a lot about the differences in how seriously the two jurisdictions treat white-collar crime.
Now that one-time executives at Nortel and Royal Group Technologies have been charged, the question is when will they be tried? Canada has a notoriously slow record in getting high profile white-collar cases into the courtroom. Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb, founders of the once highflying Livent, where charged with accounting fraud in 2002. Their trial got underway in Toronto just last month. We have been attending some of the proceedings and will be following up with a posting shortly. The charges involving Nortel’s former executives arise from events in 2002 and 2003, nearly six years ago. The fraud at Royal Technologies is alleged to have taken place some 10 years ago. By contrast, the U.S. justice system typically works much faster, as Conrad Black discovered to his dismay. The Bear Stearns fraud is said to have taken place in early 2007. The legal future of the pair charged there will likely long have been decided before even the first word is spoken in the Canadian corporate trials of the former stars of Nortel and Royal Technologies.
One more fact in common among these three companies is worth noting. They were a model of corporate governance failure. We broke news on Bear Stearns’s stunning board shortcomings even before its unceremonious end. Royal Technologies’ governance, and it’s being generous to call it that, was so bad it is hard to imagine that the lights were ever turned on in the boardroom. Did the CEO hide the switch from the directors? We shall see. Nortel, like Enron, was one of the boards that looked good on paper but in reality was giving management a blank check. It’s not surprising that some of the company’s former management may actually have taken that role a bit too seriously. To have had to restate its financial figures as often as Nortel has (four times in all and a record for a publicly traded company in such a period of time), and to admit the extent to which its internal financial controls had failed, are a testimony to how far and how long its big-name board slumbered.
Don’t be surprised if the issue of corporate governance, and what directors did and did not do, features prominently in some of these trials.
We have cast a skeptical eye in recent months on the Fed’s response to the subprime meltdown, and its handling of the Bear Stearns bailout. In The Wall Street Journal today, Greg Ip writes: (subscription required)
Since the credit crisis began last August, the Fed has expanded the volume and types of loans it is willing to make to banks and securities dealers — loans that are backed by a wide variety of collateral from subprime mortgages to student loans. It has so far not directly purchased such debt. It did, however, make an unprecedented loan of $29 billion to facilitate the sale of Bear Stearns Cos. to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
Actually, the Fed did not make a traditional $29 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase, as its official statements would have us believe. It was more of a wink-and-a-nudge deal to take on the poorer assets without going through the formality (and the barrage of questions that would follow) of actually purchasing them. How do we arrive at that conclusion?
When you take out a loan and provide collateral, the lender does not usually get to sell your collateral with the hope of making a profit. But that is precisely what Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke plans to do, if you believe his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee last month.
If we sell these assets over time -and we have allowed ourselves up to 10 years- although we can sell these anytime we like and therefore avoid the need to sell into a distressed market- that we will recover the full amount and that, in addition, if we are fortunate, we may turn a profit…
He repeated versions of the same statement, reiterating the plan to dispose of these assets, throughout his testimony. We have previously noted the cozy relationship that many of Wall Street’s top players have with the Federal Reserve System.
This is part of what former Fed chairman Paul Volcker has described as pushing the legal limits of the central bank’s mandate. The Fed also refuses to disclose details about the Bear Stearns collateral it holds, prompting many to conclude that these assets are not entirely marketable in the first place and that only the Fed could afford to sell them off at fire sale prices over ten years. The whole process behind the bailout lacked even rudimentary transparency.
There are more details disclosed on the label of a jar of Jif peanut butter about the contents of that $2.90 product than the Fed has revealed about the contents of the Bear Stearns collateral it “bought” for $29 billion and the circumstances surrounding that transaction.
For a Fed that is likely to play a much larger role in the regulation of financial institutions, its standards of openness and candor require added scrutiny. If its own conduct in the Bear Stearns bailout is any clue to the approach it will take in the regulation of others, there is little that inspires confidence.
Much as we have long faulted James Cayne for his role in Bear’s implosion, responsibility for its ultimate failure is born by many actors, including the long-time head of its executive committee, Alan Greenberg. It proves once again that boards must actually direct. In Bear’s case, there is scant evidence that its independent directors were even in the room, much less grasped the pivitol role the firm played in the health of the entire financial system.
So now the titans of Bear Stearns itself are weighing in on who is to blame for the blunders that led to the firm’s collapse. The New York Times reports on Wednesday that Alan C. Greenberg, chairman of Bear’s executive committee, had some harsh words about former CEO and board chairman James E. Cayne. And the issue of corporate governance has been raised for the first time by the newspaper as a contributing factor in Bear’s downfall. It might be the first for The Times, but as loyal readers will know -and they actually include a number of Bear’s own employees- Finlay ON Governance was the first to bring to public attention the role of that firm’s dysfunctional and over- extended board of directors.
The Times notes:
The demise of the firm they loved was not so much the fault of either man. Instead, it was a collective failure of the governing five-man executive committee that over the years became so fixated on increasing the firm’s book value – and expecting the stock price to follow – that it lost sight of the concentrated, underhedged exposure to the home mortgage market that left Bear vulnerable.
Actually, The Times is not quite on top of the story. There were problems with the executive committee and the fact that it did so much of the heavy lifting in the firm -to the exclusion of any independent director. But the ultimate responsibility for permitting that situation rests with the full board of directors, which Mr. Cayne chaired and on which Mr. Greenberg served for decades. As we have observed before, there is little to suggest that any of the directors in the all male, management-dominated Bear boardroom were bothered by its governance structure or the bizarre antics of its chairman.
As The Times reveals:
One member of the executive committee said that Mr. Greenberg, as a longtime director, had ample opportunity to voice concerns about Bear’s vast exposure to subprime mortgages and its hedging strategies, which he did not do.
“He never said a word,” said this person, who declined to be identified because of the legal sensitivities in the matter.
The company’s independent directors were not exactly breaking sound barriers in voicing their concerns, either. In fact, one has to wonder if they were even in the room.
The company had independent directors on paper, to be sure, but they displayed a curious sense of their roles and what passed in their eyes for acceptable corporate governance in a firm that apparently was so consequential to the capital markets that its collapse could have precipitated an upheaval of the entire global financial system, as we have been told. Many Bear directors served on multiple boards involving other publicly traded companies. They did not establish a risk committee of the board until March of 2007 and it met only twice that year. There is the issue of the over-extension of its audit committee members (which we first revealed here). And like every major player that ran into serious trouble over the subprime meltdown, from Countrywide and Merrill Lynch to Citigroup and UBS, at Bear Stearns the post of board chair was not filled by an independent director but rather a member of top management. For at least two decades, we, and other corporate governance experts, have been urging that the top board position be held by an independent director. By almost every measure, Bear’s directors failed in their most important duty: to ensure the viability and sound reputation of the enterprise entrusted to them. They took many steps along the road in failing that trust.
As much as we have long faulted Mr. Cayne for his role in Bear’s implosion, responsibility for its ultimate failure as a stand alone institution is born by many actors. Mr. Greenberg’s pointing the finger at his former colleague is a little like Conrad Black blaming his Hollinger successors for that company’s dismal plight. As history teaches with predictable repetition, what boards do, or do not do, in supervising the affairs of a company, and whether directors actually direct, makes a difference in the ultimate outcome.
As the story unfolds, we suspect there will be more indications that poor corporate governance was at the heart of this once mighty Wall Street icon’s demise. Offered in further evidence of that proposition is the fact that even though he is at the center of such criticism and cashed out all his Bear Stearns stock, Mr. Cayne remains chairman of the board of directors.
Would The Times or anyone else like to explain that?
With yet more losses and its recent credit downgrade to junk status following stunning statements by Bank of America regarding Countrywide’s debt, the question is how many icebergs will this Titanic of subprime lending need to hit before the inevitable occurs?
In a posting on Tuesday this week, we suggested that Countrywide’s sinking financial state might be a worrisome signal to Bank of America, and that the sudden 990 percent increase in bad loan provisions ($158 million for Q1 2007 vs. $1.5 billion for Q1 2008) might be something of an unanticipated iceberg for the deal. More and more, Countrywide is beginning to resemble the Titanic of modern subprime lenders: an enterprise that was based on flawed principles, that had become too large for its own good and was steered by overpaid egos who never contemplated the prospect of disaster. The question is: Will it meet a similar fate?
The record is not encouraging. Somehow Countrywide managed to strike another iceberg in a matter of days. On Friday, Standard and Poor’s cut Countrywide’s credit rating to junk status. It based its downgrade on a filing by Bank of America on May 1st that discloses it might not be taking on some $38 billion in Countywide debt. As a statement from the rating agency noted:
Until this filing it was our understanding that [B of A] would acquire all of Countrywide as stated in the January 2008 merger agreement. This new filing raises the possibility that this assumption is no longer true.
The downgrade could trigger a host of draconian actions on the part of lenders and insurers of Countrywide’s obligations that will prove very costly to that company and much more expensive and complicated for Bank of America to complete the transaction.
We have previously conjectured that in its acquisition of Countrywide, Bank of America may be trying to follow the JP Morgan Chase model for the Bear Stearns takeover. In that case, JPMorgan was able to get rid of nearly $30 billion in riskier Bear securities through a Fed-led bailout. B of A’s announcement this week that it might not be backing such a huge chunk of Countrywide’s bonds and notes was considered something of a surprise among analysts. We have been predicting for some time that the element of surprise will be Countrywide’s constant companion. So far, we’re batting 1000. The biggest surprise, however, will be if this deal actually goes through before the Countrywide ship has gone down and top managers and directors have decided to jump into the lifeboats.
A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Barron’s on B of A’s plans for Countrywide. I suppose my comments were too trenchant for the folks at that magazine, since they did not run them. What I said, however, seems to have been fairly close to the mark, given recent events. Here’s part of the interview:
Bank of America may not be as smart in seeing the potential downside of this acquisition as it claims. What is at the heart of many fears about the deal is a concern that we may be witnessing the creation of another Frankenstein-like Bear Stearns monster that just causes a whole new set of problems for everybody. You have to wonder if Bank of America has a plan to get some of the poorer Countrywide assets off its books, as JPMorgan Chase did with Bear Stearns, leaving others on the hook.
Stay tuned for more surprises.
Investigations by Congress in 1912, 1932 and 2002 revealed weaknesses and abuses in both the regulatory regime and in the governance of corporations that yielded major reforms. A comparable effort is needed now in the face of the worst credit crisis since the Great Depression.
A trio of former SEC chairmen and a solo performance on the part of a former high-ranking Fed official are making for some interesting music and a much-needed counterpoint to the current chorus of conventional thinking. In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, William Donaldson, Arthur Levitt, Jr. and David Ruder write: “In 1987, a presidential task force was established to investigate the Black Monday crash. Today, we need a similar exhaustive, bipartisan and impartial examination to explore a series of possible business and regulatory failures”. The former securities regulators invite an examination of:
…apparent conflicts of interest on the part of the credit ratings agencies; the failure of banks and other lenders to adopt sound lending practices; the failure of investment banks to disclose that they had significant portfolios of securities backed by subprime mortgages; the sale of high-risk securities to investors for whom they were unsuited; the breakdown (or absence) of adequate risk management systems among the top financial services firms; and the failure of regulators to recognize and take early action to deal with the problems that have grown to today’s magnitude.
We would add to that list for investigation the alarming failure of too many boards to effectively oversee risk and the role that excessive compensation played in rewarding CEOs for taking on levels of risk that would run up the price of shares and boost their pay in the short term but which ultimately proved to be unmanageable over the longer run. As we predicted some years ago, Titanic-sized CEO compensation has proven to be the most corrosive force in the modern American boardroom. It will continue to be associated with mishaps, scandals and failures in the future, as it has been in the past, unless it is checked by a healthy injection of common sense and sound judgment around the director’s table.
Valuable as a review of the SEC’s role would be, we have expressed the view that a more comprehensive inquiry regarding the actions of all the players in the subprime ordeal, and what changes are necessary both in the regulatory system and in corporate governance practices, is more appropriate. Back in January, in Time for Tough Questions About Subprime Solutions -and Their Potential Dangers, we suggested that Congress needed to get to the bottom of what was happening and why. We concluded by noting:
The issues of subprime bailouts, foreign investment and the failures that brought American capitalism to this troubling state are far too important to be permitted to escape scrutiny or unfold by stealth or default, which is the current mode of operation. Those actors have too often entered the room when no one was paying attention and waltzed out with most of the silverware in their pockets.
Vincent Reinhart, who was director of monetary affairs at the Fed until last year, has called the Bear Stearns bailout “the worst policy mistake in a generation.” We, too, have had our reservations about that rescue and the lack of transparency associated with it. As we said shortly after the deal was announced:
Americans cannot permit free enterprise to reign just when CEOs and companies are making piles of money only to have it replaced by socialism when they are teetering on disaster.
In a later posting we noted:
More and more, the picture is emerging that this was a bailout of Wall Street, prompted by Wall Street, over problems caused by Wall Street, with terms dictated by Wall Street. The Fed’s agreement constitutes the single most significant market intervention in generations. Such a decision…places substantial taxpayer dollars on the line and the concept of moral hazard in jeopardy.
The causes of the worst crisis in America’s capital markets since the Great Depression, and the unprecedented decisions of the Fed in dealing with it, along with the role other public and corporate actors have played in this saga, call out for serious analysis and national discussion. Congress has acted before in the face of momentous challenges to the stability of the market and public confidence in its functioning. A special subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives was formed in 1912 under the legendary chairmanship of Louisiana Congressman Arsène Pujo to examine the influence of the “money trust” and the growing power of Wall Street titans like J.P. Morgan.
In 1932, in the wake of the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic depression, the United States Senate Committee on Banking and Currency (as it was called then) began to consider the need for reforms. Its landmark work, spearheaded by committee counsel Ferdinand Pecora, produced the first securities laws of 1933 and 1934 and created the SEC.
More recently, as a result of a series of accounting scandals and widespread failures in corporate governance, efforts by Congress under Senator Paul Sarbanes and Representative Mike Oxley led to the creation of omnibus boardroom reforms known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
A wide-ranging inquiry into the causes and lessons of the subprime credit implosion, similar in scope and heft to the Pujo, Pecora and Sarbanes-Oxley hearings, needs to be conducted, and soon. We also think it is important to include in that review the governance of the Federal Reserve System and the reforms that are needed to bring it into line with 21st century levels of public confidence, independence and accountability. We pointed out earlier, for instance, that at the New York Federal Reserve, which played the leading role in the Bear Stearns bailout, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, the Fed-assisted purchaser of Bear Stearns, was a director. Richard Fuld and Jeffrey Immelt, CEOs of Lehman Brothers and GE, both big players in the capital markets, were elected by the New York Fed directors to represent “the public.” That, we find to be a bit of a stretch. It’s a throw back to the cronyism of the New York Stock Exchange before it was faced with a wave of demands for reform after the pay scandal involving former CEO Richard Grasso. It is simply not possible for any player in the Fed system to maintain credibility regarding its important public mandate while at the same time maintaining what is an essentially privately structured, club-like governance system. It is time for a serious rethinking about to whom and for what the Federal Reserve System is accountable, and how its governance practices need to be more aligned with its public mission.
Comprehensive investigations by Congress in 1912, 1932 and 2002 (and these were not one- or two-day affairs, as recent hearings on some aspects of the subprime debacle have been) revealed weaknesses and abuses in both the regulatory regime and in the governance of corporations that yielded major reforms. Their enactment paved the way for a restoration of public confidence and enabled significant periods of growth and expansion.
It is important that the opportunity to understand more completely the causes of the subprime crisis, and the vulnerabilities that led to it, not be lost. Only then will the full spectrum of necessary reforms both in the boardroom and in the regulatory arena become clear. In that respect, basic logic if not sound public policy principles counsel that the package of regulatory changes proposed recently by the Bush Administration was premature. More needs to be known about the specifics of the failures at all levels that created the current problem before the correct solution can be adopted. Uppermost in any such legislative review is the question: How exactly was one company, Bear Stearns, allowed to become so critical to the functioning of the market that only by preventing its failure through a massive intervention of the federal government could the collapse of the entire financial system be narrowly averted, as U.S. officials have asserted in testimony before Congress.
Not even in the unfettered era of J.P. Morgan’s trusts, or at the height of the rail-riding Great Depression, was the American public presented with the frightfulness of that prospect.