Category: Securities Regulation


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).


GW’s Junior Scholars Finalists

Thanks to my colleague, Lisa Fairfax, GW has finalized the program for this year’s Junior Faculty Business and Financial Law Workshop and Prize (detailed here).   Of the more than 100 papers submitted, the following dozen presenters were chosen.  [Commentators appear in brackets; I’ve shortened some paper titles.]  

 The workshop will take place at GW on April 1 and 2, 2011.  We are delighted by the submissions, congratulate those chosen, and stress that making the selections was difficult because of the volume of amazing papers.  We encourage everyone interested to attend and look forward to the weekend.

Adam Leviton (Georgetown), In Defense of Bailouts [George Geis (Virginia) & Art Wilmarth (GW)]

Jodie Kirshner (Cambridge), A Transatlantic Perspective on Regional Dynamics and Societa Eurpoea [Francesca Bignami (GW) & Theresa Gabaldon (GW)]

Alan White (Valparaiso), Welfare Economics and Regulation of Small-Loan Credit: Lessons from Microlending in Developing Nations [Michael Pagano (Villanova) & Lawrence Mitchell (GW)]

Nicola Sharpe (Illinois), Corporate Board Performance and Organizational Strategy [Deborah Demott (Duke) & Michael Abramowicz (GW)]

Julie Hill (Houston), The Rise of Ad Hoc Bank Capital Requirements [Anna Gelpern (American) & John Buchman (E*Trade Bank & GW Adjunct)]

Michael Simkovic (Seton Hall), The Effects of Ownership and Stock Liquidity on the Timing of Repurchase Transactions [Richard Booth (Villanova) & Henry Butler (Mason)]

Michelle Harner (Maryland), Activist Distressed Debtors [Donna Nagy (Indiana Bloomington) & Lisa Fairfax (GW)]

Saule Omarova (UNC), The Federal Reserve Board’s Use of Exemptive Power [Patricia McCoy (Connecticut) & Arthur Wilmarth (GW)]

Heather Hughes (American), Suburban Sprawl, Finance Law and Environmental Harm [Scott Kieff (GW) & Lawrence Cunningham (GW)]

Robert Jackson (Columbia), Private Equity and Executive Compensation [Norman Veasey (Weil Gotshal) & William Bratton (Penn)]

Brian Quinn (BC), Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Post Closing Price Adjustments in Merger Agreements? [Gordon Smith (BYU) & John Pollack (Schulte Roth)]

Mehrsa Baradaran (BYU), Reconsidering Wal-Mart’s Bank [Heidi Schooner (Catholic) & Renee Jones (BC)]

This is one of many events sponsored by GW’s Center for Law, Economics and Finance.


Some Sense on Top Pay

Executive pay continues to spark heated debate: some want it curtailed across the board, the impetus of recent federal law, while others want no legal  oversight whatsoever, the effect of Delaware corporate law.   Contract law may provide an optimal solution, narrower than the overly broad federal regime yet targeting egregious cases ignored by Delaware.  

Thanks to readers of this blog for comments, forthcoming in the Iowa Law Review is my paper, now available on SSRN, “A New Legal Theory to Test Executive Pay: Contractual Unconscionability.”  The paper is available for free downloading here.  The abstract follows below.

Lucrative pay to corporate managers remains controversial yet continues to evade judicial scrutiny for legitimacy. Although many arrangements likely would pass the most rigorous scrutiny, it seems equally clear that some would not. Some agreements are not the product of arm’s-length bargaining, can rivet managers on short-term stock prices at the destruction of long-term business value, and can misalign manager–shareholder interests.

Yet even such objectionable arrangements are immune from serious legal oversight. In theory, they are open to judicial review under corporate law, but shareholders challenging pay contracts face formidable procedural hurdles in derivative litigation and substantive obstacles from corporation law’s business judgment rule and the anemic doctrine of waste. A new legal theory would be useful to check board excesses in the population of clearly objectionable cases.

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Surveillance of the War Games of Finance

Some of America’s greatest economists spent World War II devising formulas for optimal bombing. Milton Friedman, for instance, had to determine whether an anti-aircraft shell should burst into 600 small pieces or 20 big pieces in order to best accomplish a mission. Many translated their work into finance’s portfolio selection theory, which was “all about balancing risk and return.”* As Friedman said, “The logical character of the problem was the same. . . . How much power do you want to sacrifice in order to have a greater probability of hitting? [Finance theory involves] exactly the same thing: How much return do you want to sacrifice in order to increase the probability that you will get what you planned for?”

Today’s finance theorists probably have not spent much time on the battlefield. But they can still have fun with ballistics trajectories, in touchscreen video games like Angry Birds. To play, you use a virtual slingshot to launch squawking birds at pigs holed up in encampments made of glass, wood, and stone. The virtual materials in the game don’t act much like real structures; that’s not the point (who really cares whether a real vaulted bluebird would displace a girder)? Rather, you gradually learn from the game itself the strategies that cause optimal destruction, blissfully unmoored from the messiness of actual materials science.

From Wars to Games to High Finance

Stock trading now appears to be similarly deracinated, concerned less with actual fundamentals than with windows of opportunity for sudden arbitrage. In “Algorithms Take Control of Wall Street,” the indispensable econoblogger Felix Salmon (and Jon Stokes) extend a line of recent articles on high frequency trading. (I collect some earlier contributions here; this piece on news-reading technology also gives the flavor of the innovations they’re describing.) They define prop trading, algorithmic trading, and predatory trading, and tell the story of a former head of American Century Ventures who built a “neural network” to optimize his picks. They also discuss the unanticipated consequences of runaway algorithmic interactions.
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Hockett on the Financial Crisis

There is a growing consensus that our mortgage markets are fundamentally broken. In a recent article in The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner surveys a number of leading legal academics’ prescriptions for the foreclosure crisis:

Katherine Porter, a law professor at the University of Iowa and an expert in mortgage servicing, recently testified to the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that according to lawyers for both home-owners and banks, “a very large number (perhaps virtually all) securitized loans made in the boom period in the mid-2000s contain serious paperwork flaws, did not meet underwriting or other requirements of the trust, and have not been serviced properly as to default and foreclosure.” . . . .

One remedy, proposed by professor Adam Levitin of the Georgetown Law Center, would create a new chapter of the bankruptcy code and allow a home-owner to come before a bankruptcy judge and get the mortgage reduced to the present value of the home. The process would also clear the title. Another proposal, by professor Howell Jackson of Harvard Law School, would use government’s power of eminent domain to take securitized mortgages, compensate the holder at the securities’ (much reduced) fair market value, and use the savings to turn the paper back into whole mortgages with steep reductions in interest and principal. This would also allow millions of people to keep their home and help stem the broad decline in housing values.

I think each of these ideas is valuable. I’d also like to see them complement a broad set of proposals articulated by Robert Hockett in a recent piece in the Washington University Law Review. Hockett’s proposals are worth quoting at length, since he keenly grasps the historical dimensions of this crisis:
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Why Big Banks Fail to Act in Their Own Self Interest

In an earlier post, I characterized some financial institutions as “shadowy and unstable ensembles of desks and divisions whose main goal is slipping by whatever bonus-maximizing scheme won’t set off alarms among risk managers and regulators.” Too harsh? Well, today ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger offer offer yet another confirmation of value-destroying skulduggery at the core of contemporary finance. They explain how payments of a few million in “bonuses” to employees running one division of Merrill Lynch helped those running another division “offload” billions of dollars in toxic assets to their own firm:

Two years before the financial crisis hit . . . [n]o one, not even the bank’s own traders, wanted to buy the supposedly safe portions of the mortgage-backed securities Merrill was creating. Bank executives came up with a fix . . . .They formed a new group within Merrill, which took on the bank’s money-losing securities. But how to get the group to accept deals that were otherwise unprofitable? They paid them. The division creating the securities passed portions of their bonuses to the new group, according to two former Merrill executives with detailed knowledge of the arrangement.

The executives said this group, which earned millions in bonuses, played a crucial role in keeping the money machine moving long after it should have ground to a halt. “It was uneconomic for the traders” — that is, buyers at Merrill — “to take these things,” says one former Merrill executive with knowledge of how it worked. Within Merrill Lynch, some traders called it a “million for a billion” — meaning a million dollars in bonus money for every billion taken on in Merrill mortgage securities. Others referred to it as “the subsidy.” One former executive called it bribery. The group was being compensated for how much it took, not whether it made money.

The three men at the top of the scheme made about $6 million each that year, and there were probably some handsomely paid lieutenants beneath them. Surely, there must have been someone who objected to such deals? There was: “a Merrill trader [who refused to go along] . . . was sidelined and eventually fired.” The power in the firm was held by those who could make quick money in big deals. Has anything changed about the structure of these firms since the crisis to alter that dynamic?
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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.

Finance Sector as Ultimate Risk Manager?

David A. Moss’s When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager should be a vital guide to our future. Moss describes programs ranging from social security to bankruptcy as backstops of support for all classes. As volatility in prices, employment levels, and wages climbs, we should be exploring new “automatic stabilizers” to guarantee every family a “social minimum.” Instead, we appear to be privatizing and financializing risk via opaque institutions whose only mandate is to increase their own profits.

Consider, for instance, this vignette from Louise Story’s excellent reporting on derivatives trading:
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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.

Where Have You Gone, Hernando de Soto?

Remember Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s “bribe list” pricing—“$50,000 for every $1 million in appropriated funds he would obtain?” There are now allegations that certain firms offered to “fabricat[e] documents out of whole cloth” to lubricate the foreclosure machine. For a mere $95, one could “recreate entire collateral file,” which is all “the documents the trustee (or the custodian as an agent of the trustee) needs to have pursuant to its obligations under the pooling and servicing agreement on behalf of the mortgage backed security holder [including] the original of the note (the borrower IOU), copies of the mortgage (the lien on the property), the securitization agreement, and title insurance.” Yves Smith draws some interesting implications:

Amar Bhide, in a 1994 Harvard Business Review article, said the US capital markets were the deepest and most liquid in major part because they were recognized around the world as being the fairest and best policed. As remarkable as it may seem now, his statement was seem as an obvious truth back then. In a mere decade, we managed to allow a “free markets” ideology on steroids to gut investor and borrower protection. The result is a train wreck in US residential mortgage securities, the biggest asset class in the world. The problems are too widespread for the authorities to pretend they don’t exist, and there is no obvious way to put this Humpty Dumpty back together.

Smith’s global perspective reminds me of two items. I once heard that, in the wake of Bush v. Gore, a representative of the OAS began a meeting by saying something along the lines of: “We are now to hear from a fragile democracy, one that has suffered severe strains but which looks capable of attaining legitimate procedures for governance. Would the United States representative please come to the dais?” And policymakers who prescribe the titling work of Hernando de Soto for Latin America might want to apply it a bit more carefully at home.