A UBS commercial asks if the company could be “the most powerful two-person financial firm in the world.” With a total of $38 billion in subprime related write-downs, and a Q1 loss of $11 billion reported today, it seems to be headed in that direction. It also plans to cut some 5,500 jobs.
The sheer magnitude of the bad decisions that would have put so much money at risk almost defies comprehension, especially for an institution like UBS that prides itself as a money manager for the very wealthy.
We are told, as we have been in every year since the Enron scandals, that director compensation has risen across the board. It is up by 12 percent over last year. The reason, so they say, is the increased work load in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley. There have been regular stories since the passage of the first U.S. securities laws in 1933 and 1934 that boards are working harder than ever. One scholarly commentator remarked in the 1930s that “the weight of the New Deal” appears to have fallen on the board of directors. There has never been a time when boards have admitted that they could be doing more for investors. But they always claim they are working so much harder than they did before. And they demand more money. Yet for all that extra work, the world is facing its worst credit crisis since the Great Depression and a scale of losses unimagined even in that bleak period. The financial sector has posted more than $300 billion in mortgage-related losses and write-downs since the beginning of the subprime crisis.
Firms in the financial sector, like UBS, claim to have superior listening powers and ways of understanding the market that give added value to investors and customers. With the costly underperformance of so many of these institutions, much of which we have attributed to a failure of corporate governance, a more credible demonstration that boards truly value their investors would be to start giving back some of their fees, not adding insult to injury by demanding more money for the privilege of presiding over more losses.