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.
Owners of American corporations have rarely spearheaded the kind of landmark reforms the capital markets have needed to ensure public confidence or avoid the club of government regulation. They are reprising their Laodicean roles by failing to force a say on executive compensation.
More than a decade ago, we described the growing trend of inflated CEO pay as the mad cow disease of the North American boardroom. The comment, made at a speech in Toronto, was quickly picked up by the press. The metaphor was used because the trend toward excessive compensation appeared to be galloping from company to company, rendering directors seemingly incapable of applying good judgment and common sense when it came to compensation decisions. We repeated that idea in an interview in BusinessWeek in 2002 and in submissions to committees of the U.S. Congress.
But recent events struck us with the fear that this disease has spread to the shareholder body itself. The telling symptom is the revelation this week that at Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, four companies that have seen their stock plunge, on average only 37 percent of investors supported recent proxy resolutions for a non-binding say on pay. In the case of Merrill and Citigroup, record multi-billion dollar write-downs and losses have been posted. The compensation of the CEOs who headed these companies during their descent into the world of subprime folly has been a recurring theme on these pages. It, along with the wider concern over soaring executive compensation, has sparked a mounting crescendo of outrage on the part of the public that has found its way into the current U.S. presidential campaign. Even Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has chided the level of greed that is sweeping America’s boardrooms.
The larger issue that draws our attention is the perennial fecklessness of shareholders as a group. After the panic of 1907, it was not investors who demanded the creation of the Federal Reserve System, nor did they rise up and call for such now basic measures as audited financial statements, annual reports and insider trading laws after the market crash of 1929. And when the Enron-era scandals revealed systemic weaknesses in American corporate governance, it was not the mass of shareholders who stood up at annual general meetings and demanded tougher audit committees and fewer boardroom conflicts – or any other provision of Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, for that matter. They are reprising their Laodicean roles by failing to force a say on executive compensation.
For American investors, too harsh is the tether that does not even bind. It is bad enough that directors insist on treating shareholders like children while they convey the idea that a say on pay would be almost the final step in the undoing of capitalism as we know it. But for the owners of American business to act as though they can’t be trusted with such advisory powers in connection with their companies and their money boggles the mind and is a complete abrogation of the responsibilities of ownership. It is our choice for the Outrage of the Week.
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.
If you see a lot of people going around with neck collars soon, it’s probably because they got whiplash when reading today that the top 50 hedge fund managers last year earned $29 billion. The number-one winner, John Paulson, made $3.7 billion in 2007. If the U.S. Treasury issued them, and it may have to the way things are going for some on Wall Street, Mr. Paulson would have been handed 3,700 one-million dollar bills. That’s enough to run New York Presbyterian Hospital, one of the nation’s largest, or the City of Boston for 18 months. It would provide tuition for four years at a flagship public university like U.C.L.A or Penn State for at least 74,000 students, or a year’s worth of life-saving clean bottled water for 2.5 million children in Africa.
There was a time when multi-billion dollar figures were connected mostly with the creation of lofty projects and the operation of large organizations. Now, in the modern Gilded Age that obligingly continues for a happy few, they have become a number that appears on one individual’s annual paycheck. Not a bad situation considering the view expressed by the Fed and other U.S. government officials that had they not intervened recently in the Bear Stearns implosion and come up with their generous bailout plan giving JPMorgan Chase a helping hand, capitalism, or at least Wall Street as we know it, would have faced certain calamity.
Speaking of Wall Street, there must be something popular there about the sum of $29 billion. It is the same amount the Fed came up with to bail out Bear Stearns/Wall Street. It seemed like Jamie Dimon had to go to a lot of work to get the Fed to come up with the money, staying up all night over the weekend a while back. All he really had to do was talk to some of his hedge fund friends. They don’t appear to have a problem coming up with $29 billion -in just one year.
If only the poor, the uninsured or the struggling to survive each day in Africa and elsewhere could be so smart -or at least worked on Wall Street.
The absence of any discussion concerning all the roles held by these important Wall Street figures, including in the governance of the Fed itself, does a disservice to the stakeholders who are entitled to all the facts.
It is widely held, even by Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, that the Federal Reserve System helped to bail out Wall Street when it agreed to “loan” $29 billion to facilitate JPMorgan’s purchase of distressed investment bank Bear Stearns. We will have more on the subject of that so-called loan in an upcoming posting. What has gone unnoticed and uncommented upon by the press, analysts and members of the U.S. Senate banking committee during its hearing last week, however, is the fact that key Wall Street figures, including Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Richard S. Fuld, Jr., chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and Jeffery R. Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE, are directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the institution that is putting up the money.
Mr. Dimon is a “Class A” director of the New York Fed, elected by member banks to represent member banks (i.e., Wall Street). Mr. Fuld and Mr. Immelt are elected by member banks to represent the public. One might take the view that foxes are generally elected to guard the henhouse, too. The New York Fed’s governance brings to mind the crony-stocked, self-serving boardroom of the New York Stock Exchange under Richard Grasso before it was forced to make major changes to ensure higher standards of independence and accountability. It is clearly time to look at to whom and how the New York Federal Reserve is held accountable.
We know that JPMorgan benefited handsomely from the Fed’s dramatic measures. Lehman Brothers, widely rumored a few weeks ago as the next possible Bear Stearns, got a boost from the Fed’s market soothing actions. And GE, who just today jolted the market by announcing a 5.8 per cent decline in first quarter net income, was also having problems with its financial services division. Mr. Immelt told CNBC (a unit of GE) that he began to be aware in March of a weakening company outlook. (In an interview earlier that month, he indicated the company was still on target to meet its previous positive guidance.) A less volatile capital market temperament was no doubt helpful to him as well.
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, which places substantial taxpayer dollars on the line and the concept of moral hazard in jeopardy, should be arrived at in a manner that is beyond reproach not only in fact but also in appearance.
The absence of any discussion by the media, the Federal Reserve or legislators concerning all the roles held by these important Wall Street figures, including in the governance of the Fed itself, does a disservice to the stakeholders who are entitled to all the facts in order to properly hold government and its agencies to account. It is our call for the Outrage of the Week.