Category: Accounting

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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.

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What Damages Can E&Y Afford and Survive?

Probably $1 billion, but not much more.   Let’s explore.

Global banks are settling US government lawsuits for what looks like big money. Goldman Sachs earlier this year settled a securities fraud claim for $550 million. UBS recently settled tax fraud charges for $750 million. And Deutsche Bank will now fork over $553 million to settle a similar case.

These are large nominal amounts but they will not remotely break the banks. These firms are financial titans, each commanding some trillion in assets and boasting bountiful annual revenue: Goldman Sachs $52 billion; UBS $44 billion; and Deutsche Bank $37 billion. Payments such as those are significant but not crippling.

The same cannot be said of similar amounts if they had to be paid by the world’s global auditing firms. Those firms (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PWC) command financial assets trivial compared to those of the global banks, with firm value residing primarily in personal and professional reputation (so-called “human capital”). Revenues are much less than at banks too, about $20 billion for E&Y and KMPG and $25 billion for Deloitte and PWC.

That revenue costs more than bank revenue too and is spread across a far larger employee base. E&Y and KMPG employ about 140,000 apiece and the others about 170,000 each. By contrast, Goldman has a mere 35,000 employees, with 65,000 at UBS and 82,000 at Deutsche Bank. In addition, those financial firms have access to insurance to cover at least certain kinds of losses arising from legal liability, whereas the auditing firms lack that resource and instead self-insure.

Even so, the auditing firms have absorbed considerable payments in legal liability claims in the past decade. Each firm incurs up to a dozen or so settlements in the modest range of a few to ten or so million dollars in any given year. Occasionally larger payouts occur, with nine to date exceeding $100 million: $110 million, $125 million, $200 million, $217 million, $229 million, $250 million, $335 million, and $456 million. All those but the last involved single-company frauds—the latter, the record to date, is KMPG’s settlement of tax fraud charges akin to those Deutsche Bank and UBS likewise settled.

No doubt, those figures sting, but are affordable. It’s easy to infer that E&Y, roughly of equivalent capacity to KMPG, could pay $500 million or more, perhaps twice that, if it had to settle the case involving Lehman Brothers.  But amounts exceeding that could be crippling given the comparatively small asset base, fractional revenue, huge payroll,  and reliance on self-insurance.  The risk of a larger demand is realistic too, given the larger size of the  Lehman fraud  compared to the previous single-company cases the firms have settled.

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Cuomo Sues E&Y: Auditing Profession At Risk

Ernst & Young, one of the Big-4 auditing firms left in the world, faces a grave lawsuit filed a couple of hours ago by New York’s Andrew Cuomo, the incoming governor’s last major act as state attorney general.  The lawsuit is based on fraudulent accounting committed by Lehman Brothers, the failed investment bank, that E&Y either overlooked or condoned, as I explained last March.  

The AG seeks unspecified damages the audit failure caused, certainly running to the hundreds of millions and easily reaching into the billions.  Given that E&Y does not have external insurance to cover such losses, but self-insures, the lawsuit could put the firm’s survival at risk.   Even so, settlement talks, going off-and-on since March, failed, suggesting that the firm is banking on being exonerated.  That is quite a gamble. 

As I told the New York Times and readers of this blog in March, if the case impairs E&Y’s viability as a going concern, a corporate financial reporting crisis should be expected.  It would be acute compared to the modest scramble that corporate America faced after government prosecutors a decade ago drove from the profession the Big-5 firm, Arthur Andersen, auditor of Enron Corp.   Then, 1/5 of companies needed to find a new auditor and most were able to count on one of the remaining four with little trouble. 

Today, 1/4 of public companies would be obliged to find a replacement auditor; thanks to rules stated in the federal response to Enron, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, about 1/3 of those would be unable to engage any of the 3 remaining firms because of conflicts of interest (those other firms provide internal control or tax advisory services making them ineligible to render financial audits).   Amid such a crisis,  and with only 3 available firms, the existing structure of the auditing profession would be unsustainable.     

It would be reassuring if the Securities and Exchange Commission could tell the nation that is has foreseen this contingency and developed plans for addressing it, as urged last March and in 2006.  Alas, I am not sure that it is prepared to do either.

Outsourcing Safety. . . to the Marshall Islands

Just when you thought the BP mess could not get more surreal, this comes up:

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was built in South Korea. It was operated by a Swiss company under contract to a British oil firm. Primary responsibility for safety and other inspections rested not with the U.S. government but with the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a tiny, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean. And the Marshall Islands, a maze of tiny atolls, many smaller than the ill-fated oil rig, outsourced many of its responsibilities to private companies.

Now, as the government tries to figure out what went wrong in the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, this international patchwork of divided authority and sometimes conflicting priorities is emerging as a crucial underlying factor in the explosion of the rig.

Sounds a bit like asking a government to certify the safety of investments—and having it effectively delegate the job to Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations. Keeping authority in the US may have just made matters worse:

MMS depends largely on the self-reporting of oil and gas companies to determine how much they owe in royalties — a system the Interior Department’s former inspector general, Earl Devaney, described as “basically an honor system” in congressional testimony in 2007. . . . The MMS commonly negotiates settlements with petroleum companies over disputed royalties — but the process is often shrouded in secrecy. A 1996 inspector general report found that MMS officials kept no documents on nine out of 10 royalty settlements, to prevent disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. In one case, the MMS could provide no records to explain why the agency reduced its estimate of a company’s royalty debt by $360 million. . . . [More errors] sparked outrage in Congress and yet another probe by Devaney, the inspector general. He later called the oversight a “jaw-dropping example of bureaucratic bungling” and said it could cost the government as much as $10 billion.

It has become fashionable of late to contrast enlightened, US-style “free market capitalism” with the “state capitalism” of petro-states like Russia. Anyone familiar with the work of David Cay Johnston or James K. Galbraith would suspect that analysis. Recent oil debacles complicate the distinction even further.

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Danger: Banks Politicize Accounting

Anyone who cares about the reliability of corporate financial information in the US—and everyone should—ought to oppose threatend Congressional action that would expressly politicize accounting standard setting.   Since the 1930s, accounting standards in the US have been set by a private, independent, non-political body called, since the mid-1970s, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (pronounced faz-bee).

Corporate America often hates what FASB requires—on subjects ranging, over the years, from accounting for pensions, mergers, stock options, and, today, financial instruments. It plies friends in Congress to push back against FASB when stakes are high enough. Sometimes that means FASB fights for its life.  (For a scholarly take on this, see Bill Bratton’s insightful BC Law Review piece here.)

An example: in the late 1990s, corporate America got Senator Joe Lieberman to threaten to preempt FASB if it required corporate America to account for stock options—a threat FASB heeded until after that period’s financial frauds restored its insulation from political pressure. (Since, FASB has required corporate America to account for stock options as an expense.  Then-SEC Chair Arthur Levitt recounts the story in his memoir Take on the Street.)

Banks are today’s most vehement proponents of turning accounting standards into political products—detesting FASB’s accounting standards concerning off-balance sheet financing, securitizations, and, especially, measuring financial instruments at fair value.  Banks want to politicize accounting standards because they are extremely good at influencing politicians, but have essentially no power to manipulate FASB directly.  One reason is Washington’s revolving door—banks have teams of lobbyists who formerly worked there, on the Hill or in agencies. Read More

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You, Lehman’s Re-Po Magic, and Ernst & Young

Ernst & Young, one of four remaining large auditing firms, allegedly botched its financial audits of Lehman Brothers, the bankrupt investment banking firm. E&Y responds that its audits met legal and professional requirements.

My view, reported in today’s New York Times, wonders, suggesting E&Y offers a “technical compliance defense,” when what’s needed is an objective judgment, based on professional skepticism, of whether financials provide a fair presentation.

Though the allegations sound esoteric, it is easy to translate them into simple terms.  When considering the following analogue between Lehman’s deals and your personal finance, think about how an independent accountant would assess what I suppose you are doing.

Read More

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SEC Should Calm Markets, Ahead of Possible Audit Crisis

If you thought the 2008 credit crisis that temporarily froze global debt markets wrought havoc, watch out for the next shoe to drop.  At stake is the viability of global equity and other financial markets that could freeze if one of the four large auditing firms goes extinct.

And the existence of one of them, Ernst & Young, is threatened, as it faces the prospect of billion dollar liability for botched audits of Lehman Brothers, the defunct investment bank struggling in bankruptcy. It is an eerie echo of the fate of erstwhile big auditing firm Arthur Andersen, which dissolved after its culpability in 2001’s Enron fraud emerged.

Today, only four auditing firms have the resources and expertise to audit the vast majority of thousands of large public corporations. If one of those dissolved, its clients would have to scramble to find a replacement. Some of the remaining three lack requisite expertise for some of those corporations and others would be disqualified from auditing due to consulting work they do for them.

The result would be hundreds, possibly thousands, of large corporations who could not get their financial statements audited as required by US federal securities law. Stock markets could go berserk, along with other financial markets. The costs now, of moving from four firms to three, would dwarf those incurred when Andersen’s dissolution moved the total from five to four.

It does not appear that the US government, specifically its Securities and Exchange Commission, has any plans to deal with this prospect. It should. And it should announce them promptly to get ahead of any market crisis the failure of E&Y, or of the other three, would wreak. 

If not, the credit crisis of 2008 will look mild in comparison. After all, the credit crisis was readily addressed by government pumping enormous amounts of capital to rejuvenate liquidity; an auditing crisis cannot by solved by throwing money at it. Read More

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A Whopper of an Assumption in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB

In his dissent in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh characterized the SEC – Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) relationship as “Humphrey’s Executor squared.” His analysis assumes that two firewalls shield the PCAOB’s exercise of executive power from presidential control. First, PCAOB members can be removed only for cause by SEC commissioners. That’s clear enough. Second, SEC commissioners can be removed only for cause by the President.

The strange thing is that no statute says that the President may remove SEC commissioners only for cause. The idea that the President may not remove SEC commissioners except for cause turns out to be only a whopper of an assumption. Removing that erroneous assumption, there is only the PCAOB-SEC firewall to presidential control of the PCAOB and so understood that arrangement looks no worse than Humphrey’s Executor to the first power. Unless the Court is prepared to abandon Humphrey’s Executor altogether, this part of the challenge looks like a loser at this point in time.

The significance of the assumption was not lost on the Court during oral argument.

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The Globalization of Securities Regulation: Competition or Coordination?

Thanks to Danielle, Dan, and entire Concurring Opinions team, for having me back for a return stint.

I write from the University of Cincinnati Corporate Law Center’s 23rd Annual Symposium, on the subject of The Globalization of Securities Regulation: Competition or Coordination?

Our host is Professor Barbara Black, and other panelists include Bill Bratton, Chris Brummer, Hannah Buxbaum, Eric Chaffee, Andrea Corcoran, Steve Davidoff, Jim Fanto, Robert Patterson, and my colleague, Fred Tung.

I mention all this because, for those who may be interested, the symposium is being webcast as I type (and listen to Hannah’s presentation, on The ‘Global Enterprise’ in Cross-Border Securities Litigation).  You can find it here:

https://www.uc.edu/ucvision/event.aspx?eventid=245

And if you have questions you’d like raised, you can e-mail them to Barbara here: corporatelawsymposium@law.uc.edu.

Hope you can join the discussion!