Category: Corruption

Deceptive by Design: Derivatives as Secret Liens

Secretive practices and institutions are common in contemporary finance. For those who’ve ceased the search for long-term value creation, temporary information advantage is key. Even commonplace practices can be reinterpreted as havens of hiddenness. My colleague Michael Simkovic’s article “Secret Liens and the Financial Crisis of 2008” exposes the role of derivatives and securitization as secretive borrowing strategies, designed to keep the naive or trusting from discovering the fragility of the institutions they loan funds to. His work has been presented to the World Bank Task Force on the Bankruptcy Treatment of Financial Contracts, and is relevant to both private and sovereign debt risks.

Simkovic argues that 80 years of erosion of classic commercial law doctrine ensured that “complex and opaque financial products received the highest priority in bankruptcy.” Products like swaps and over-the-counter derivatives were not adequately disclosed (either by banks in their consolidated financial statements or by their counterparties in publicly accessible transaction registries). By concealing those debts, these already overleveraged financial institutions were able to attract ever more credit and investment, at better rates than those who reported their overall financial health more accurately. (All other things being equal, it’s safer to lend to an entity that owes 10 billion rather than 100 billion dollars.) The genius of Simkovic’s article is to show how “fundamental causes of the financial crisis are relatively old and simple,” even as an alphabet soup of instrument acronyms (CDO, CDS, MBS, ad nauseam) and government programs (TARP, TALF, PPIP, et al.) makes our time seem unique.
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The War Against Disclosure

Three remarkable recent lobbying campaigns go beyond the normal bounds of partisan sniping over “markets vs. regulation.” They threaten our capacity to understand how society is ordered: whom it serves, for what purposes, and at what costs. Consider these attacks on basic disclosure norms in politics and business:

1) Campaign Finance Disclosures: Regardless of ideology, almost everyone used to agree that campaign funding sources and amounts should be disclosed. 92% of Americans had that position in 2010. Justice Scalia has eloquently insisted that such disclosure laws violate no one’s rights. But thought leaders in the Republican party are now vigorously resisting disclosure, as Norm Ornstein observes:

The 2010 mid-term elections showed clearly how legal loopholes involving non-profit groups called 501(c)4s, and the failure to adopt clear regulations surrounding campaigns, can result in hundreds of millions of dollars of spending to influence campaigns that masked the identity of huge donors. In response to these realities, the Federal Communications Commission is considering requiring robust disclosure by TV stations of the major donors of political ads; the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering requiring public corporations to disclose to stockholders their spending on politics, and the White House has drafted an executive order to require companies applying for federal contracts to disclose their spending on political campaigns. . . .

Last month, Mitch McConnell [said] he views disclosure as “a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.” . . . The Wall Street Journal’s full-throated support for transparency has disappeared as well; it blasted the FCC recently for considering requiring TV stations to put donors of campaign spots on the Internet . . .

John Yoo has also joined the debate, arguing that presidential power stops just short of the prerogative to require federal contractors to disclose their political donations.

2) Conflict Mineral and Extractive Industry Disclosures: One of the surprising victories for decency in the Dodd-Frank Act last year was a provision requiring certain disclosures from mining and resource extraction companies, and companies using “conflict minerals” from in or around the Congo. If you’re a consumer with preferences for certain industrial processes (say, those that don’t create incentives for rape, murder, and starvation), you want to be able to see which companies are fueling conflict and corruption and which are not. But intense corporate pressure is now delaying the rulemaking process needed to implement the disclosure provisions. According to Gerry Fay, “it is estimated that going ‘conflict free’ would cost companies just one penny per product.” But apparently that is too high a price to end corporate complicity in one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.
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Ag-Gag: A Black-Boxed Food Supply

I recently discussed the OIRA’s contribution to some terrible incidents in egg safety. Denis Sterns has written a challenging article on the bigger picture, explaining “Why Food in the United States May Never be Safe:”

This article . . . interrogates the idea of food safety by opening the question of whether a rational economic actor in a free market for food can reasonably be expected to invest in improving the safety of the food products he makes and sells. It is precisely the lack of (cr)edibility in the market – i.e., the absence of reliable quality signals, the lack of traceability, the high degree of anonymity, and the destruction of trust – that creates the structural impediments and powerful disincentive for improving the quality and safety of food. . . . Recall the huge public uproar, and swift policy changes, that followed the release of video of “downer” cattle being abused at a California meat plant. To obtain the video, the Humane Society had to sneak someone inside the plant to secretly record the offending conduct.

The secrecy of some food suppliers is very troubling. Stearns proposes constant surveillance of their actions: “With video cameras always in place . . . one can only expect that most of the shocking conditions that are found after the fact of an outbreak would be less likely to occur in the first place.” Stearns also criticizes FDA’s “wholly voluntary and largely ineffective” traceback regulations, which would make it easier to find the source of contaminated food. (Maybe the FDA is too busy chasing down raw milk co-ops.)

Unfortunately, Big Meat appears all too eager to hide their actions from both concerned citizens and animal rights activists. Consider the rash of legislation designed to deter actions like the Humane Society’s:

The animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals sent an undercover investigator to E6 Cattle Company in Texas, where he filmed calf abuse over a two-week period. To prevent such whistleblowing, several states have passed so-called “Ag-gag” laws that would make it illegal to clandestinely film inside slaughterhouses, sparking what animal rights activists fear will be a nationwide trend. . . . “They’re trying to criminalize someone being an eyewitness to a crime,” Jeff Kerr, [PETA]’s general counsel, said.

One of Chinese dissident Ai WeiWei’s biggest “offenses” against the Chinese government was trying to publicize the names of the children killed when shoddy schools collapsed after an earthquake. Criminalization of exposes of contamination and animal abuse in America’s heartland could be one more step toward the convergence of Chinese and US politico-economic structures. Read More

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Power, Power, Power

In Washington, banking is known as one of the most powerful lobbies.  So this is an important call from an American Banker editorial “Big-Bank CEOs Need a Bigger Policy Profile in DC:”

The industry should enlist the help of its largest customers to make the case that big US companies need big US banks. Imagine the impact of having the CEOs of Boeing or Cisco testifying next to a couple of large financial firm CEOs.  The timing is ripe.  The Obama administration has adopted a more open attitude toward big business with the president hiring former JPM executive Bill Daley as his chief of staff and selecting GE chief Jeff Immelt to advise him on job creation. . . . Doors in Washington are opening.  Bankers should capitalize on the opportunity.

Thank goodness some things in America never change!  Best wishes to Prof. Elizabeth Warren and anybody else in Washington trying to help anyone other than those who can help themselves.  

Hat Tip: Lynn Turner

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Some Thoughts on DC Corruption

I’d like to thank the good folks at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to guest blog. The CoOp team has always been tremendously generous to me over the years–advising me on the teaching market (Dan, Frank), reading and commenting on draft  law review articles (Dan), and reposting some of my thoughts (Danielle).  And they’ve been kind enough to let me guest-blog for two months, as I was working through a law review article (grandly titled First Amendment Architecture–someone please publish it).

I tend to write about free speech and technology–like policies to ensure net neutrality, Internet access for all, or online innovation without permission. I am interested in media and the Internet because they are among our dominant means of speech, and speech is a basic input into all the decisions of our democracy. To the extent we design our speech systems more or less democratically, that affects all our policy decisions. I spent a few years in DC, working on media reform and network neutrality, among other issues.

I will write about technology soon. Today: corruption.

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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.

Liar Loans: White-Out & Scotch Tape at the Subprime Art Department

Doug Henwood has a good eye for the best of recent business analysis. Henwood’s interview with Michael W. Hudson (about Hudson’s new book, “The Monster”) is a must-hear for those interested in the subprime mess. From the book website:

This book tells the story of . . . subprime by chronicling the rise and fall of two corporate empires: Ameriquest and Lehman Brothers. . . . By the height of the nation’s mortgage boom, Orange County was home to four of the nation’s six biggest subprime lenders. Together, these four lenders—Ameriquest, Option One, Fremont Investment & Loan, and New Century—accounted for nearly a third of the subprime market. . . .

Under its pugnacious CEO, Richard Fuld, Lehman helped bankroll many of the nation’s shadiest subprime lenders, including Ameriquest. “Lehman never saw a subprime lender they didn’t like,” one consumer lawyer who fought the industry’s abuses said. Lehman and other Wall Street powers provided the financial backing and sheen of respectability that transformed subprime from a tiny corner of the mortgage market into an economic behemoth capable of triggering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. . . .

[Helped by Lehman,] Ameriquest Mortgage unleashed an army of salespeople on America. They numbered in the thousands. They were young, hungry, and relentless in their drive to sell loans and earn big commissions. One Ameriquest manager summed things up in an e-mail to his sales force: “We are all here to make as much f****** money as possible. Bottom line. Nothing else matters.” [This activity] helped fuel the mortgage empire that in 2004 produced $1.3 billion in profits [for Ameriquest’s CEO].

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Flaming the Victims

Two recent items have me wondering about overinvesting in victim claims: (1) Christine Hurt’s new article on the implications of the Madoff scandal, Evil has a new name, and (2) Janet Tavakoli’s claim (if the link doesn’t work, this is also squibbed in the margin) that financial institutions caused the mortgage mess, the “biggest fraud in history.”  Both tell important—and perhaps accurate—stories about massive frauds that certainly produced victims. But both overlook an obvious point:  Not all victims are created equal.  As Pogo said, “we’ve seen the enemy, and he is us.”

Pogo victim dance

When Madoff first hit, I heard two interesting things from (reasonably) reliable sources which complicate the victim calculus.  First, one person who claimed to know a number of Madoff investors, said that many  believed that Madoff was able to guarantee outsized returns because of his access to inside information.  This, of course, is a kind of securities fraud. So, my friend said, “everyone knew Madoff was committing fraud—they just thought it was a different fraud.” You have to wonder how innocent investors were if, as Hurt reports, they were sworn to secrecy when they gave him their money.

I realize I will likely be flamed by holocaust survivors for insensitivity to their losses.  To the extent they were innocent, of course, I have nothing but sympathy for them.  The point, however, is that, as Madoff’s bankruptcy trustee is learning, there is little moral clarity in some of these claims.

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Rule of Law in Russia

This presentation by Bill Browder at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is a pretty astonishing account of the Russian economy over the past two decades. I am familiar with the usual story of oligarch profiteering, but Browder’s experience shows how even the ostensibly sound legal arrangements of today can quickly unfold into a nightmare for investors. As the Stanford GSB news puts it,

Browder soared to fame and fortune investing in Russian equities amid the chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet economy. His hallmark: finding hidden values in Russian companies and driving up their share prices by exposing corporate malfeasance and mismanagement. His widely publicized campaigns for shareholder rights and corporate governance helped propel the Hermitage Fund from $25 million in 1996 to $4 billion a decade later. But eventually the U.S.-born financier ran afoul of the Russian government, which banned him from the country in 2005 as a threat to national security.

According to Browder, “Anyone who would make a long-term investment in Russia right now, almost at any valuation, is completely out of their mind. . . .My situation is not unusual. For every me, there are 100 others suffering in silence.” And for a “bigger picture” presentation about the “disembedded markets” and the types of forces Browder was a victim of, Nancy Fraser’s Storrs Lecture podcast on “Predatory Protections, Tragic Tradeoffs, and Dangerous Liaisons: Dilemmas of Justice in the Context of Capitalist Crisis” is also well worth listening to.

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Compstat and Police Subculture

Last Friday the New York Times reported that a New York City police commander and four officers are facing internal charges stemming from their alleged failure to record criminal complaints.  These charges are just one piece of a larger story about the reliability of information fed into NYC’s Compstat program.  In a study released earlier this year, more than 100 retired high-ranking officers reported that they were aware of “ethically inappropriate” changes to crime complaints that fell into the seven major felony categories tracked by Compstat.  A patrol officer in Brooklyn’s 81st precinct has also reported widespread manipulation of crime statistics in 2008 and 2009.  (You can hear a This American Life episode about that officer here, along with excerpts from surreptitious recordings the officer made on the job.)

These recent revelations raise questions about the extent to which crime has actually fallen in New York City.   But the focus on crime reduction obscures another important issue about the occupational subculture.  For decades, police reformers have written about the importance of bringing down the “blue curtain,” that is, an occupational subculture in which a code of loyalty and secretiveness reign.  This subculture is widely believed to contribute to an “us and them” mentality which, among other harms, encourages police officers to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and their fellow officers from criticism and administrative and legal penalties.  This mentality ultimately poses risks to those caught up in the criminal justice system and undermines public confidence in police work. 

When success is measured according to statistics, the temptation to manipulate is near irresistible.  Couple this with the dominant occupational subculture and almost anyone could have predicted that the data being fed into Compstat was unreliable.  The more important question is whether Compstat and its progeny are counterproductive to police reform over the long-term because they have the effect of reinforcing the dominant occupational subculture instead of remaking it.