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.