Category: Accounting

Nordstrom on Global Outlaws

I was recently listening to a podcast by Carolyn Nordstrom of her 2008 Franke Lecture in the Humanities, Emergent(cies).  Nordstrom discusses the extraordinary power wielded by those in control of an underground economy of weapons, drugs, and human trafficking.  Paul Farmer attested to Nordstrom’s extraordinary dedication to ferreting out the transactions that knit together so many imperiled and privileged lives.  I look forward to reading her book Global Outlaws.  This excerpt describes her aims in it:

I am interested in the intersections of crime, finance, and power in activities that produce something of value: monetary, social, and cultural capital, power, patronage, survival. . . . Public media focus on . . . aggressive individuals under the sensational banner of “crime,” yet this interpersonal violence constitutes a small percentage of the universe of criminal actions. Smuggling cigarettes brings in far greater profits and economic repercussions. Robbing an entire country or controlling a transnational profiteering empire is the gold standard of crime.

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Young Business Law Scholar Call for Papers

The Center for Law, Economics & Finance (C-LEAF) at The George Washington University Law School has announced its third annual Junior Faculty Business and Financial Law Workshop and Junior Faculty Scholarship Prizes.  This year’s Workshop will be held on April 5-6, 2013 at GW in Washington.

The Workshop supports and recognizes the work of young legal scholars in accounting, banking, bankruptcy, corporations, economics, finance and securities, while promoting interaction among them and selected senior faculty. By providing a forum for the exchange of creative ideas in these areas, C-LEAF aims to encourage new and innovative scholarship.

I’ve participated in both previous Workshops and can attest that participants have benefited from the exchange of ideas and getting acquiainted with newer scholars.  About 100 papers are submitted and the C-LEAF faculty select about 10 for presentaiton.  At the Workshop, senior scholars comment on each paper, followed by a general discussion.

Three papers receive Junior Faculty Scholarship Prizes of $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000, respectively. All prize winners will be invited to become Fellows of C-LEAF.  C-LEAF makes no publication commitment, but chosen papers are featured on its website as part of the C-LEAF Working Paper series.   Read More

Penn State Scandal: Could a Corporate Compliance Model Have Prevented It?

The Penn State scandal has become ever more shocking with each new revelation. My colleague Kathleen Boozang argues that it is time for higher ed to learn from other large enterprises about the importance of compliance:

It appears that even now, Penn State lacks a compliance program, the creation of which Special Investigative Counsel Freeh’s Report recommends. Previously limited to financial fraud and HR issues, a June 21, 2012 posting by Penn State’s internal auditor announces a poster redesign advertising its hotline number, to which any ethical or legal concerns can now be reported.  Important will be training throughout the university regarding the law’s protection of whistleblowers, about which, according to Freeh’s Report, top university leaders were unaware.

While it is stunning that, even now, Penn State has not advanced further in setting up these protective measures, it is fair to say that much of higher ed has been slow to adopt compliance best practices common to the healthcare sector and most business entities.

In related news, the Institute of Internal Auditors met in Boston last week. It looks like they will need to play an increasing role in the higher education setting, especially if internal compliance methods are not mere “rituals of verification.”

Pascal on Power and Justice (A Thought for the New Year)

The past few years I’ve tried to find an inspiring quote for the New Year for the blog. There’s a rich vein of insight to be mined from the Carnegie Council podcasts, which I recently discovered on iTunes. One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Krishen Mehta, a former partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers who is now the co-chairman of Global Financial Integrity’s advisory board. Asked about what motivated him to try to stop the shocking abuse of tax havens and mispriced trade by oligarchs, he said the following:

It really is a war against the poor. The inequity that has existed in the past is going to continue unless civil society is informed, asks the right questions of its government, of its business leadership, and asks for more responsibility. One of my favorite writers is Blaise Pascal, who said that “justice and power must be brought together so that whatever is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful may be just.”

A recent study concluded that, “For a salary of between £75,000 and £200,000, tax accountants destroy £47 in value, for every pound they generate.” Mehta, by contrast, is not only creating value, but doing so for the most vulnerable people. How appropriate that a thinker admired by both mathematicians and philosophers would inspire him.

Image Credit: Augustin Pajou. As described on Wikimedia Commons: “Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) studying the cycloid, engraved on the tablet he is holding in his left hand; the scattered papers at his feet are his Pensées, the open book his Lettres provinciales.”


Will in Insolvency

In this week’s New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten, in the Talk of the Town, kindly draws on my work  about the cultural contingency of financial reporting; he quotes me on the need to update the idea of insolvency.  Usually defined as the ability to pay debts as they come due, or assets exceeding liabilities, there has always been a strong objective thrust to the notion.  The emphasis is on measured financial activity reduced to a verifiable expression of ability. 

But as Nick notes, equally important is a debtor’s will to pay.  The differences appear in the contrast between the United States and Greece.When  Standard & Poor’s recently lowered its credit rating of the U.S. Treasury by one notch, it registered doubt not so much about the country’s ability to pay its debt, but the will of its incumbant political class to do so. In contrast, Greece’s political elite seem committed to finding ways to meet that country’s debts; alas, its resources compared to its obligations raise real doubt about their ability to do so. 

Another example of the difference between the ability and the will to pay debts arose in the September 2008 tussle over what to do about American International Group. It was then the world’s largest insurance company and shortly before the crisis  boasted a market capitalization of $180 billion. Much of its trillion-dollar balance sheet was securely housed in walled-off insurance subsidiaries.  Read More


Accounting for Power

Recent revelations in Japan suggest just how important an understanding of accounting may be.

In a post in late March, I related that many Japanese were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to TEPCO, the operator of the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The most common excuse in the language, “Shikata ga nai” (“It can’t be helped”), struck most people as apposite, given the historical rarity of 9.0 earthquakes and 15-meter killer waves.

By now, the situation has almost been integrated into the everyday, at least for those of us far from the reactor. People speculate whether the government nuclear agency’s lead spokesperson is wearing a wig, and a cable news channel has a daily segment, “Kyou no genpatsu kiiwaado” – “Today’s nuke reactor keyword”. Any goodwill toward TEPCO has long since evaporated, thanks to its management’s sloth in apologizing, its spokespersons’ frequent misstatements and evasions in daily press conferences, and sympathy for the thousands displaced from the evacuation zone, their livelihoods derailed (and their pets and livestock reluctantly left behind to starve, an aspect of the story that has mobilized many activists here). But it turns out that even the initial goodwill was probably misplaced.
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From “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur” to “Elite Frauds Go Free”

Should they change the motto at the Department of Justice? John Ashcroft modestly covered a statue of lady justice during his tenure as AG. But a series of reports suggests that, at least when it comes to financial heavyweights, Domina Justitia has left the building.

Consider first Morgenson & Story’s article, “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures:”

As the crisis was starting to deepen in the spring of 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation scaled back a plan to assign more field agents to investigate mortgage fraud. That summer, the Justice Department also rejected calls to create a task force devoted to mortgage-related investigations, leaving these complex cases understaffed and poorly funded, and only much later established a more general financial crimes task force.

To be sure, the DOJ has talked a good game here, unleashing Operation Broken Trust to catch the small fry. But even in December of last year, Andrew Ross Sorkin was ringing alarm bells:

To hear Eric H. Holder Jr. tell it, the Justice Department is aggressively cracking down on financial fraud. . . . But after you get past the pandering sound bites, a question comes to mind: is anyone in the corner offices of Wall Street’s biggest firms or corporate America’s biggest companies paying any attention to Mr. Holder’s “strong message”? Of course not. (I actually called some chief executives after Mr. Holder’s news conference, and not one had heard of Operation Broken Trust.)

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Finance’s Revolving Door: Perfected or Passe?

Washington’s revolving door is legendary. Everyone knows the connections between lobbyists, members of Congress, staffers, and favored firms. They’ve been mapped in health care, oil, agriculture, and many other industries. Finance journalists chronicle a superclass shuttling from beltway to bourse and back. Yves Smith and Matt Taibbi post on “sleazewatches” and $2,200-a-ticket conferences where the regulated schmooze with the regulators.

But what if the revolving door is the wrong metaphor? What if, instead, there has been a fusion of state and corporate authority in the banking sector? What if Peter Orszag never left the government when he dropped the OMB Directorship to make at least ten times as much as a vice chairman at Citibank? Gabriel Sherman suggests as much when he describes a lucrative cursus honorum for DC elites:

The close alliance among Wall Street and the economics departments of the major universities and the West Wing of the White House is the military-industrial complex of our time. That it has an effect on our governance is beyond question. How pernicious and distorting these effects are, how cynical many of its participants might be, and what might be done to change the system are being fiercely debated in Washington. In fact, to the layperson, the most surprising thing might be the degree to which people like Peter Orszag see the government and Wall Street as, essentially, parts of the same industry.

Conservative Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig has already argued that “big banks like Bank of America Corp and Citigroup Inc should be reclassified as government-sponsored entities.” Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer has called eight banks “TSEs,” or taxpayer-supported entities. And at a recent conference on macroeconomics, Steve Randy Waldman made a legal point fundamental to all the economic dilemmas discussed.
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Law & Econ’s Influence on Law & Accounting

The hottest book of the century, on corporate law, is in production, thanks to editors Brett McDonnell and Claire Hill, both of Minnesota. As part of a series investigating the economics of particular legal subjects, overseen by Richard Posner and Francesco Perisi, this Research Handbook on the Economics of Corporate Law, promises a comprehensive canvass of the broadest definition of this field of law as it has been structured by economic theories over the past forty years.

My contribution addresses the influence of law and economics on the sub-field of law and accounting, which I suggest takes the form of “two steps forward one step back.”  You can read a draft of my chapter (comments welcome!), available free here, accompanied by the following abstract:

Theory can have profound effects on practice, some intended and desirable, others unintended and undesirable. That’s the story of the influence the field of law and economics has had on the domain of law and accounting. That influence comes primarily from agency theory and modern finance theory, specifically through the efficient capital market hypothesis and capital asset pricing model. Those theories have forged considerable change in federal securities regulation, accounting standard setting, state corporation law, and financial auditing. Affected areas include the nature of disclosure, the measure of financial concepts, the limits of shareholder protection, and the scope of auditor duty.

Analysis reveals how agency theory and finance theory often but not always point to the same policy implications; it reveals how finance theory’s assumptions and limitations are often but not always respected in policy development. As a result, while these theories sometimes produced policy changes that were both intended and desirable, some policy changes were both unintended and undesirable while others were intended but undesirable.  Examination stresses the power of ideas and how they are used and cautions creators and users of ideas to take care to appreciate the limits of theory when shaping practice. That’s vital since the effects of law and economics on law and accounting remain debated in many contexts.

Other contributions to the book similarly available in draft form are by Matt Bodie (St. Louis), David Walker (BU) and Charles Whitehead (Cornell).  The following scholars are also contributing chapters: Bobby Ahdieh (Emory), Steve Bainbridge (UCLA), Margaret Blair (Vandy), Rob Daines (Stanford), Steve Davidoff (Ohio State), Jill Fisch (Penn), Tamar Frankel (BU), Ron Gilson (Stanford/Columbia), Jeff Gordon (Columbia), Sean Griffith (Fordham), Don Langevoort (GT), Ian Lee (Toronto), Richard Painter (Minnesota), Frank Partnoy (SD), Gordon Smith (BYU), Randall Thomas (Vandy), and Bob Thompson (GT).

Creating Value

I’ve talked in previous posts about a “closed circuit” economy among the wealthy. A plutonomy at the top increasingly circulates buying power (be it luxury goods, real estate, gold, or securities) among itself. The middle class used to dream that a rising Wall Street tide would lift all boats; as Felix Salmon shows, that hope is fading. Whatever innovations arise out of these companies aren’t doing much for average incomes.

On the other hand, financial innovation has done wonders to extract purchasing power from the broad middle into the closed circuit at the top. Here, for example, is how one of our leading firms created enormous value in 2006:

Consider the tale of Travelport, a Web-based reservations company. [A] private equity firm and a smaller partner bought Travelport in August 2006. They paid $1 billion of their own money and used Travelport’s balance sheet to borrow an additional $3.3 billion to complete the purchase. They doubtless paid themselves hefty investment banking fees, which would also have been billed to Travelport.

After seven months, they laid off 841 workers, which at a reasonable guess of $125,000 all-in cost per employee (salaries, benefits, space, phone, etc.) would represent annual savings of more than $100 million. And then the two partners borrowed $1.1 billion more on Travelport’s balance sheet and paid that money to themselves, presumably as a reward for their hard work. In just seven months, that is, they got their $1 billion fund investment back, plus a markup, plus all those banking fees and annual management fees, and they still owned the company. And note that the annual $100 million in layoff savings would almost exactly cover the debt service on the $1.1 billion. That’s elegant—what the financial press calls “creating value.”

The corporate geniuses at Boeing offer another display of modern-day business acumen.

The more stories like this you read, the more you realize that massive unemployment isn’t a bug in our economic system; it’s a feature. A country can’t have legal rules that permit these moves without expecting to hemorrhage jobs. All the Michael Porter homilies in the world can’t put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.