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.