Collectively, in their pivotal appearance before Congress, Goldman’s top performers could not muster the sincerity, transparency or gravitas of a used car salesman. It is unlikely to play well on Main Street.
Nothing illustrates the folly and arrogance of Wall Street more than the appearance of the Goldman Sachs executives who testified yesterday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Rarely has such a group of men (of Goldman’s seven past and current employees who appeared as witnesses, all were men) so graphically confirmed Main Street’s jaded image of Wall Street. Collectively, the best Goldman had to offer in their fields could not muster the sincerity, transparency or gravitas of a used car salesman. Their failure to give clear answers even extended to a refusal to acknowledge the duty to act in the best interests of clients. To many watching the performance, the only conclusion is that they are so used to acting in their own interests that they are unable to understand a larger sense of duty. This is often what happens when great wealth arrives to youth before maturity and wisdom have made an entrance.
Whatever skills these people were paid their millions for, memory did not seem to be among them, with so many constantly claiming they did not know or could not remember key facts and events. Goldman’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein offered little more in his grasp of details. One might have expected that someone who was paid well in excess of $100 million over the past five years and heads what is widely regarded as the world’s preeminent investment banker would be able to manage the tasks of stringing words together in complete sentences and in persuasive thoughts. As the English language is not yet something Wall Street has learned to monetize or short, those skills do not appear to matter there. They do to Main Street.
If, having played a central role in the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression and needing the injection of hundreds of billions in public funds to keep it solvent, Wall Street — and especially its most illustrious icons — cannot manage to explain what they do and why in a coherent fashion to the satisfaction of Main Street, if they cannot project a sense of ethics and purpose that goes beyond self- interest, if their values appear disconnected from reality and the value they add to society seems only synthetic and contrived, the need for fundamental reform in both the culture of these institutions and the laws that regulate them is more urgent and far-reaching than anyone has yet imagined.
Leonard Lance, (R.NJ): Mr. Cruikshank, to follow up in your remarks. Do you believe there were corporate governance failures at Lehman?
Thomas Cruikshank, Chairman, Lehman board auit committee: No, I don’t. I think our governance procedures were really very, very good.
House Committee on Financial Services, April 20, 2010
A number of revealing facts emerged from testimony before Congress this week on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. The Securities and Exchange Commission said that, despite being aware of red flags, it did not believe it could press for any changes at the company where staff members were embedded for several months. It appears some SEC staff had other things on their minds, however.
CEO Richard S. Fuld Jr. claimed he had no idea about the problems that were brewing and had never heard of any Repo 150 transactions. And Thomas H. Cruikshank, chairman of the defunct investment banker’s audit committee and a Lehman director since 1996, pronounced that “(Lehman’s) governance procedures were really, very, very good.”
His statement came in response to a question from Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), who accepted Mr. Cruikshank’s assurance without further question. And that was all that was asked about board practices at Lehman. The committee could have probed into some of the concerns we first raised on these pages nearly two years ago. It might have inquired whether it was really a good idea to concentrate so much power in Mr. Fuld, who was CEO, chairman and of the board and chairman of the board’s executive committee, or for half of Mr. Fuld’s handpicked board members to be in their seventies and eighties. It could have looked at the executive committee, which had just two members — Mr. Fuld and John D. Macombre, who was in his eighties at the time the Lehman crisis was unfolding. It might have cast its eyes on the risk committee of the board, which met on only two occasions in 2007, or considered whether several of the directors had been overloaded with responsibilities on other boards. Was being an actress sufficient qualification to be a board member,or was a poor performance something that was common to all of Lehman’s directors? The committee did not pursue any of these lines of inquiry.
In his voluminous report, Anton Valukas, the court appointed examiner for Lehman’s bankruptcy, gave the board a clean bill of health and said it did not know what was going on. He could not point to anywhere management had actually informed the board of the extent of the risks that were being incurred or the undisclosed use of accounting tricks like Repo 150. But he also does not cite a single case where directors asked discerning questions and where they were misled by management’s response.
However, in a scathing criticism of the SEC, Mr. Valukas told the committee:
The SEC did not ask the right questions. It’s failure to ask about off-balance sheet transactions in the post Enron-era is hard to understand.
But it is also hard to understand why Mr. Valukas did not apply the same thinking to Lehman’s board, which he seems to exonerate because it was not told about wrong doing or alerted to red flags. This, too, raises the ghost of the Enron board whose specter the examiner invoked.
On that point, it is unfortunate that neither Lehman investors nor legislators have had the benefit of an investigation such as the one the Enron board itself commissioned (much to its later dismay). In an extensive and courageous probe conducted under the chairmanship of William Powers Jr., the report concluded that:
Enron’s “Board of Directors failed … in its oversight duties” with “serious consequences for Enron, its employees, and its shareholders.” With respect to Enron’s questionable accounting practices, the Report found that “[w]hile the primary responsibility for the financial reporting abuses … lies with Management, … those abuses could and should have been prevented or detected at an earlier time had the Board been more aggressive and vigilant.
One wonders what at Lehman Brothers would have made the actions of its board so different or less deserving of scrutiny and condemnation than Enron’s. Would not a prudent board, faced with a crisis of unprecedented proportions in the capital markets, have made diligent inquiries of management that could have produced the answers needed to grasp the real extent of the company’s exposure? What questions might it have asked of its auditors and management that would have enabled the firm to detect the unfolding disaster at an earlier time? What steps could it have taken in its structure and composition as a board that would have made it more pro-active and less an array of Christmas lights that only work when the CEO turns them on? Mr. Valukas’s report was unenlightening in this regard, as were Mr. Fuld and Mr. Cruikshank at the committee’s hearing.
Mr. Fuld was paid nearly half a billion dollars in salary, stock options and bonuses between 2000 and 2007. In the same period, independent directors were paid approximately $20 million in fees and stock awards. For that sum, shareholders saw the fabled firm that had been a Wall Street landmark for more than 150 years sink into the ground and the value of their stock plunge with it.
They can be grateful, however, that Lehman’s governance procedures were “very, very good.” Had they not been as long-time director Thomas Cruikshank warranted and the Congressional committee accepted without challenge, instead of being faced with a calamitous outcome of historic proportions, investors would have had to deal merely with a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.
Such is the fantasy world that has long come to define corporate governance in America and the legislative and regulatory apparatus that permits it.
Even before the current crisis, the Fed was a powerful institution with few rivals for its Kremlin-like curtain of secrecy. Now, it seems fated to acquire even more sweeping powers, with only a few followers of Jeffersonian ideals in Congress seemingly interested or capable of questioning that move.
It is widely held that some public functions are so important that they must operate at arm’s-length from the influences of government and party politics. But, generally, the arm needs to be connected to a body that has its feet planted firmly on the ground. When it comes to the Federal Reserve Board, this anatomical connection is not entirely clear.
Exhibit A (as famed screenwriter Rod Serling used to say about scary things to come) is the apparent rejection by the Fed of a Treasury recommended review of the central bank’s structure and governance. These pages have been advocating that for well over a year, and long before it was proposed that the Fed take on even more sweeping powers.
Exhibit B is the news that the Fed will be given a lead role in overseeing pay packages at banks and in prohibiting compensation schemes that encourage inappropriate levels of risk. But the Fed wants the oversight to come in the form of the ultra opaque bank examination relationship it has with America’s financial institutions, which would effectively shield decisions from public scrutiny.
From its handling of the discount window and details about which banks and institutions are knocking on it to specifics about the Bear Stearns “collateral” it bought up, not to mention its role in the AIG bailout and the billions in payouts it approved to make good on credit default swaps with institutions like Goldman Sachs, the Fed is, and prefers to be, a creature of the shadows of cozy-club decision-making and not of the sunlight that affords transparent scrutiny. It operates in a world that hangs on its every word, yet that word is often issued by fiat, with little consideration shown to notions of public accountability. What banks and Wall Street want, however, is often a different matter. We know little about where the lives of Wall Street titans and Fed governors intersect. But if it is anything like what happens at the New York Fed, as we have noted before, where Wall Street titans are that institution’s governors, there is reason for Main Street to be worried.
As it has handled the crisis of the past year or so –the crisis it never saw coming– the Fed has taken interest rates to zero (for banks; not consumers, where credit card rates are proportionally higher than at any time in human history), smashed open the dams of liquidity, and created a Fed cash-for-clunkers program for broken-down financial assets that has no precedent in the annals of economic thought. In doing so, it has created an artificial market from which Wall Street is the most significant beneficiary, even though it was the principal source of the problems. Its moves to provide everything Wall Street wanted have permitted bonuses and huge pay days to be resumed, with barely an interruption. Outside Wall Street, job losses continue to mount and Main Street still awaits the arrival of the famous Fed-promised trickle-down economy.
Yet for all its power and soon-to-be-added authority, it is by no means clear that the Fed possesses any better vision to see another coming storm down the road, especially one of its own concoction from a combination of zero-interest, swirling liquidity, monetized debt and a floundering U.S. dollar. It is debatable whether it possesses the moral clarity, either. The fact that it was in the room and permitted the outrageous compensation decisions at AIG, and allowed billions to be passed on to other institutions in what could not be a more classic redistribution of wealth had it originated from Moscow in the 1950s, gives reason to doubt the Fed’s capacity to act in any role whatever when it comes to deciding compensation issues.
Even before the current crisis, the Fed was a powerful institution with few rivals for its Kremlin-like curtain of secrecy that cannot be questioned. With the Administration’s package of sweeping financial reforms, the Fed is taking on the trappings, along with the arrogance and the influence, of a fourth branch of government, with only a few followers of Jeffersonian ideals in Congress seemingly interested or capable of questioning that move. This is an institution, like the very bodies it regulates, where the culture needs to change dramatically; governance reforms are an important step in achieving that goal.
We think it would be a most unwise turn in public policy to seek to solve one problem, namely the risk-oblivious and compensation-obsessed Wall Street that produced the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, by creating a transparency- oblivious, secrecy-obsessed Fed with more power to shape the world as it sees it. Its sights, as we have observed before and from these recent examples, rarely extend beyond a few blocks in lower Manhattan.
Had there been no board at all at AIG, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, General Motors and so many others, it is hard to imagine how the outcome could have been any worse for those institutions and their investors. This is a stunning indictment of a vital and much relied upon function of modern business that creates real systemic risk. It should not have been overlooked as major focus for reform.
Take any defunct company or failed enterprise of major note in recent years -Enron, Hollinger, Nortel, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers jump to mind- and you will see the faint outline of the ghosts of its board desperately seeking to attain meaning in death which it failed to achieve in life. In many cases, the difference between the productivity of a sleeping board and one no longer breathing at all is barely perceptible in any event. These boardroom apparitions have likely tried to make contact with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as it prepared its sweeping agenda for reform of the financial system. They have apparently been without success in that endeavor as well.
Whenever there has been a collapse or serious threat to the survival of a company, a first slumbering-and then startled-board of directors has been discovered cowering close by. The inability of directors to properly direct and exercise the informed, independent judgment that is required of their positions was a defining feature of the 20th century’s two great financial upheavals. It is a distinguishing factor in the worst economic crisis of the 21st century, where board after board claimed to be unaware of the true depths to which their companies had fallen and most professed surprise at the extent to which management had run amok with risk and debt.
As we have observed many times in public forums and before legislative committees, no other institution in modern business has so persistently failed to perform its intended mission or brought discredit to otherwise illustrious names of accomplishment and virtue as the board of directors of the publicly traded company. At a time when their size and power have expanded to the point where companies have become too big to fail or require billions in taxpayer support to prevent their total collapse, it is unacceptable-indeed, it is an affront to any concept of sound risk management-that the board of directors is the weakest and most unreliable link in the corporate governance chain.
In the run-up to the subprime debacle that brought the world to the brink of financial collapse, boards at some of America’s oldest and most respected financial institutions were seemingly oblivious to the risks that their companies were incurring or the mortal threats that were gathering on the horizon. Many, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, seemed to have no effective oversight at all. Citigroup’s directors appeared to be in a constant state of suspended animation, acting always too slow and too late on the few occasions when they actually did anything. When AIG’s directors received warnings about the Financial Products division, whose out-of-control derivatives business eventually brought the company to the edge of ruin, they remained in denial. At Hollinger, big name directors seemed to have all the requisite skills, except the ability to read and ask discerning questions of a constantly scheming management. Even in non-financial companies, like General Motors, the board seemed indifferent to management’s repeated failure and disconnected from the changes that were reshaping the consumer market. (See these companies under categories section for more analysis).
And in virtually every case where the existence of a company has been imperiled, or it has disappeared altogether, the specter of wildly excessive CEO compensation loomed large. Rather than acting as watchful guardians of shareholders’ assets, directors too often seemed to be little more than obliging ushers, happy to facilitate the greatest transfer of wealth of its kind in history to the CEO class of management. It is the failure of boards to properly bring discipline to the compensation file that permitted a situation whereby CEOs were encouraged by oversized bonuses to take the unjustified risks that later led to a cascade of unprecedented failure and stock market calamity.
It is not a matter that accountability and director engagement have had an insufficient presence in the American boardroom. In many cases, they didn’t even make it into the company’s main floor elevator. Had there been no board at all at Enron, AIG, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Hollinger, Nortel, Livent, General Motors and so many others, it is hard to imagine how the outcome could have been any worse for those institutions and their investors. This is a stunning indictment of a vital and much relied upon function of modern business.
So it is with astonishment that we find the issue of corporate governance and the need to make boards work as intended are nowhere to be found in the Obama administration’s comprehensive agenda for financial regulatory reform. Nor does it appear that the Securities and Exchange Commission is undertaking any significant overview of what has gone wrong at so many boards, as we recommended on these pages some months ago. Indeed, in the executive branch’s proposals for reform, the term “board of directors” as it applies to the publicly traded company appears only once-in passing-in all the report’s 88 pages.
The issue is hardly insignificant. As we said last April:
Here’s something else the SEC is missing: What exactly was the role of boards of directors in the credit and financial meltdowns of the past 18 months, and to what extent did a failure of structure or culture among directors contribute to a global crisis affecting hundreds of millions of individuals, costing trillions of dollars and eventually leading to the collapse of banks around the world?
What boards did and did not do, and how they were organized, in recent years and months when calamity has been such a frequent guest are lessons that are too important to ignore. We suspect that what will be found is a weak and compliant boardroom culture where the most taxing job for most directors was lifting the rubber stamp marked “yes.” That, in our view, is the real definition of systemic risk.
Boards exist as stewards of other people’s money. The wise use of that trust is central to the principle of capitalism. Without it, capitalism would cease to exist. Either the board of directors occupies an important place in the functioning of the modern, publicly traded, corporation, or it does not. Either there is the need to ensure that management is held accountable and that directors answer for their stewardship to investors, or that charade should come to an end. Either the system of corporate governance that has evolved over the past 100 years and which views the board as the lynchpin of that regime should be accorded its rightful prominence, or an entirely new system needs to be created.
One thing is clear: Oversight of the operation of a company, including its management of risk, the supervision of its ethical standards, the quality of supplier, employee and customer relations and the accuracy of its financial reporting, cannot be left to outside regulators alone. Capitalism and its stakeholders cannot rely on government for every aspect of their survival. That is for other systems of economics and government, not for one that values freedom, individual choice and personal initiative. What capitalism must do is to first look within its own system to ensure that the tenets of fairness and integrity that are essential to its existence are being upheld. Companies need to self -regulate if they are to fulfill the promise of a system that is said to thrive in a climate of least involvement by government. It is the job of the board of directors to perform this self-regulating task, though, sadly, many boards betray discomfort when called upon to protect their own shareholders’ interests, much less serve as guardians of capitalism. Free market advocates and champions of limited government someday need to address this glaring gap in leadership.
Public policy periodically, and generally after some scandal or disaster, has tended to recognize the vital role that boards hold and has attempted to raise their standards of performance and accountability. This happened notably in the 1930s and again after the Enron-era accounting scandals. There is no reason to think that, in the aftermath of the most costly abuses and betrayals on the part of Wall Street and the financial sector since the 1930s, the importance of the board has suddenly been diminished or its need for reform has been averted.
If restoration of confidence in the system of capital markets is the goal of the Obama reforms-if there is a genuine desire to minimize the chances of disaster in the future-the role of the board of directors, and what needs to be done to make it more effective, cannot be overlooked. It was disappointing that the administration, which is otherwise rather astute in its comprehension of economic forces, chose to do so. We look at some ideas to bridge the gap between what boards are supposed to do, and what they have actually done, in Part 2.