Posts tagged ‘sec’

Moore's Law on Steroids: World Computing Power for One Type of Calculation is Doubling Every Three Weeks

Over at Forbes, I wrote this week about Bitcoin mining.  But don't be immediately put off.  This is not yet another article by a crazed libertarian and Cryptonomicon fan on the miracle effects of digital currencies.  Instead, I look at the crazy economics and absurdly steep capacity and technology curves of Bitcoin mining.  An excerpt:

Let’t take an example, and consider the Cointerra TerraMiner IV, a 2TH/sec machine priced at about $6000 which if purchased today would be delivered sometime in February, or about 3 months from now.  At current difficulties and exchange rates, such a machine would pay back its purchase price in less than a week, producing over $25,000 a month in Bitcoins.

A no-brainer, right?  But Bitcoin mining difficulty has been going up of late by a factor of 10 every 3 months.  Based on a mining difficulty ten times greater than today and current exchange rates, we could expect instead to be making at delivery something more like $575 a week.   Three months later we would be making a tenth of that.  If we factor in the costs of electricity, this machine will never cover its costs at current Bitcoin exchange rates.

I do not think I have ever seen a business technology obsoleted so quickly.  Essentially, the next generation of mining processors will be virtually obsoleted between the time of its sale and its delivery 3 months later.  Every three months one has to reduce his production costs by a factor of 10, in a business where cost reduction basically means throwing out all one’s existing capital assets and buying expensive new stuff.

Fannie and Freddie: Worse Than We Thought

From Edward Pinto at the American

Fannie and Freddie entered into agreements accepting responsibility for misleading conduct discovered by the SEC, including:

1.    As of June 30, 2008, Freddie had $244 billion in subprime loans, while investors were told it had only $6 billion in subprime exposure.

a.    Freddie knew it was inadequately compensated for the risks it was taking. For example, it was taking on “subprime-like loans to help achieve [its] HUD goals” that were similar to private fixed-rate subprime, but the latter typically received “returns five to six times as great,” says the complaint.

b.    Freddie had concerns about risk layering on loans with an LTV >90% and a FICO <680. (Yet, in Freddie’s disclosures it only noted risk layering concerns on loans with an LTV >90% and a FICO <620. This is a major difference since only 10 percent of its loans fell into the LTV >90% and a FICO <620 category, while nearly half fell into the LTV >90% and a FICO <680 one.)

2.    As of June 30, 2008, Fannie had $641 billion in Alt-A loans (23 percent of its single-family loan guaranty portfolio), while investors were told it had less than half that amount ($306 billion, or 11 percent of its single-family loan guaranty portfolio).

3.    The SEC complaint disclosed that Freddie had a coding system to track “subprime,” “other-wise subprime,” and “subprime-like” loans in its loan guaranty portfolio even as it denied having any significant subprime exposure.

These suits are important because they demonstrate that Fannie and Freddie “told the world their subprime exposure was substantially smaller than it really was … and mislead the market about the amount of risk on the companies’ books,” said Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division.

Green Jobs & Public Investment = Corporate Welfare

The recent naming of GE's Jeffrey Immelt to head a presidential commission on, err, something or other seems to have been an occasion for bipartisan gnashing of teeth about what I call the growth of the American corporate state.  I was encouraged by the bipartisan negative reaction from the left, right, and of course the libertarians, the latter of whom have always understood the difference between being pro-capitalism and pro-business.

But all it takes is a nomenclature change of this corporate welfare to "green jobs" or "investment in the future" or "bridge to the future" or similar bullsh*t and suddenly many of the exact same people, at least on the left, are swooning again.  Why is it not obvious that, for example, green energy subsidies are just the same old corporate welfare?

Here is one aggravating example

Despite millions in government grants and subsidies, the Manitowoc company President Barack Obama called a glimpse of the future lost $4.2 million last year and cannot promise shareholders it will be profitable in the foreseeable future....

“We may continue to incur further net losses and there can be no assurance that we will be able to increase our revenue, expand our customer base or be profitable,” the report indicates.

Investors have responded to the company’s volatility, and Orion stock has plummeted in the past four years.  It closed 2007 at $18.82 a share.  By the end of 2010 it was $3.34.

Regardless, President Obama is putting his, and the U.S. taxpayers’, money on companies like Orion.

“It’s important to remember that this plant, this company has also been supported over the years not just by the Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration, but by tax credits and awards we created to give a leg up to renewable energy companies,” Obama said at the Orion plant on Wednesday.

The State of Wisconsin has also given its share trying to help Orion to succeed.  Since 2005, the state has given the company $350,000 in community development zone tax credits, $506,000 in economic development funds, and $420,000 from the Wisconsin Energy Independence Fund.  Plus the company got another $260,000 in stimulus funds for a State Energy project.

In addition to direct aid, public policy has also helped the struggling company.  Wisconsin law requires that 10 percent of all electricity sold in the state come from renewable sources by 2015.  Orion knows that without government intervention like that, there would be little prospect for the green economy.

“The reduction, elimination or expiration of government mandates and subsidies or economic or tax rebates, credits and/or incentives for alternative renewable energy systems would likely substantially reduce the demand for, and economic feasibility of, any solar photovoltaic and/or wind electricity generating products, applications or services and could materially reduce any prospects for our successfully introducing any new products, applications or services using such technologies,” the SEC report states.

By the way, in 2010, while the government was pouring taxpayer money into Orion, its founder and CEO was pulling his out, selling (by my count of SEC filings) 130,000 shares, despite equity prices that were at a five year low.    It is dangerous to draw conclusions form insider sales (we don't know what personal financial issues may be driving their actions) but it is interesting that the president and founder is taking the exact opposite point of view on the company's prospects than is President Obama.

Transparency for Thee, But Not for Me

The government is the first organization, given its unique powers to use force against citizens, that should be subject to surveillance and transparency.  Unfortunately, since it is the government itself that sets the rules, it is usually the last.  Following in the tradition of a Congress that exempts itself form most of its workplace regulation, comes the new financial bill which apparently exempts the SEC from most public scrutiny

Under a little-noticed provision of the recently passed financial-reform legislation, the Securities and Exchange Commission no longer has to comply with virtually all requests for information releases from the public, including those filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The law, signed last week by President Obama, exempts the SEC from disclosing records or information derived from "surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities." Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say. Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.

That argument comes despite the President saying that one of the cornerstones of the sweeping new legislation was more transparent financial markets. Indeed, in touting the new law, Obama specifically said it would "increase transparency in financial dealings."

Apparently the children of the sixties, who once pushed for the Freedom of Information Act as a check to those in power, now are rolling it back once they are in power themselves.

This Has Never Made Sense To Me

This makes no sense to me.  The SEC is working to protect Dell shareholders by ... taking $100 million of their money.

SEC Climate Disclosures

From the SEC web site (via frequent contributor LK)

The Securities and Exchange Commission today voted to provide public companies with interpretive guidance on existing SEC disclosure requirements as they apply to business or legal developments relating to the issue of climate change.

I haven't seen anyone explain the reason for this requirement, so I thought I would do so.  Companies know that no real investor is going to pay any attention to these climate disclosures, so to avoid any future action accusing them of not being forthcoming enough, companies are going to go overboard outlining potential risks far beyond what they think is likely.  These exaggerations will protect them from the SEC while at the same time having no effect on their stock price.  Then, alarmists will collate all of these and use them as evidence of the high cost of climate change, saying "see, look at what all these public companies are saying climte change will do to them."  Lacking any evidence of harmful climate change in the actual climate or economy, this is one way to manufacture fake evidence.

By the way, here is the diclosure every oil company should put in their reports:

Notice:  Poplist politicians are very likely to demagogue this company for a wide-range of imagined crimes in an attempt to get re-elected, including crimes against the climate in various forms.   Politicians will attempt to preferentially saddle this company with new taxes and regulations given that this company is not liked by many voters (despite the fact that many of these voters freelydo business with this company).  Politicians will likely continue to try to sieze portions of this company's earnings, despite the fact that those earnings are relatively low given the magnitude of the our investments and the amount of value we add.

This Is Too Much -- The Smearing of Jim Balsillie

Harvard Business School has (or at least had in 1987) its own equivalent of the show Big Brother.  During the first year, a new student gets locked in a classroom for a year with 88 other high-strung, type-A overachievers in an explicitly zero-sum process (there are a fixed number of each grade to be handed out) conducted by sometimes sadistic professors bent on eeking out the maximum amount of stress, fear, and verbal conflict.  Think John Housman's class in the movie "Paper Chase."  Students for some reason react to this process by, instead of branching out and meeting the other 800 students in the class, spending most of their social time with these same 88  (the rugby team saved me to some extent from such narrowness).

By no means are all these folks my "friends," in part because I have a fairly limited definition of that word, but they all became pretty close associates.  I knew most all of them pretty well -- well enough that both the couple that ended up in jail and the couple that became spectacularly successful were no real surprise.

One of those 88 I spent a year with was a guy named Jim Balsillie, now famous as billionaire CEO of RIM (Blackberry) and, more recently, for trying to buy an NHL franchise.  Jim is not a close friend, and in fact I probably haven't exchanged a hundred words with him since we graduated.  But over the period of a year I feel like I had the measure of him, as quiet, bright, kind and fairly humble.   Jim was a much, much nicer guy than I was -- certainly I was far, far more likely in class to rip into another student for being an idiot in class discussion.   I once got so frustrated with a teacher that I went to the front of class and took over.  I can't even imagine Jim doing something like that.

I write this all because I just have to make a public statement concerning a recent statement about Jim Balsillie by the NHL.  The NHL recently chose to vote against letting Balsillie buy the Phoenix Coyotes.  Fine.  I think they are idiots - they should be begging to have a guy of his talents and money in their fraternity - but whatever.  What ticks me off, though, is that instead of dicussing the controversial business reasons for the vote and they choose to smear Jim:  (via Market Power)

"We voted to deny approval to Mr. Balsillie because we concluded he lacks the good character and integrity required of a new owner" under NHL bylaws, said Boston Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the league's board of governors.

I suppose it is possible that Jim is some kind of evil smiling sociopath and managed to fool 88 of us for over a year, despite living in close proximity.  I seriously doubt it, but it is remotely possible.  But even if that were the case, there is no way the NHL suddenly figured this out when those who know him better have not.

Matt Nestor has some fun with this:

The NHL owners are obviously good judges of character. Some that have been approved:

● William "Boots" Del Biaggio (Nashville Predators), now headed to jail on fraud charges.

● Henry Samueli (Anaheim Ducks), now awaiting sentencing on SEC violations.

● John Rigas (Buffalo Sabres), currently in jail on embezzlement charges.

● Sanjay Kumar (New York Islanders), now serving time for conspiracy.

● John Spano (Islanders), who deliberately misled the NHL and the Islanders about his net worth.

● Bruce McNall (Los Angeles Kings), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and defrauding six banks of $236 million.

Why would you want a successful businessman to taint such a group?

Double Standard

Jeff Skilling of Enron essentially sits in jail for being too publicly optimistic about his company's prospects in the face of a liquidity crisis  (despite popular perceptions, he was not convicted for accounting issues associated with off balance sheet entities).

I didn't follow the trial that closely, but my sense is that Skilling denied this charge.  But even if he had admitted it, it strikes me that he would have had an interesting case in his favor.  US securities law takes as an absolute core principle that relevant information must always be disclosed quickly and completely to both shareholders and potential shareholders alike.  It presumes that total openness is the best way to serve shareholders.

But in a short-term liquidity crisis, openness is the kiss of death.  As we have seen over the last 6 months, the merest hint that a liquidity crisis may exist at a company creates a real crisis, even if one did not exist before.  Liquidity crises are crises of confidence among short-term lenders, and the only way to fight such a crisis is to build confidence.  So what happens if the best way to serve shareholders is to keep silent about problems?  What if the best way to fulfill one's fiduciary responsibility to maintaining shareholder value is to be overly rosy in one's pronouncements during difficult times?

Fast forward to the Bear Stearn failure last year, from the Economist:

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was in trouble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble on March 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

And now, we hear that the Federal Government urged Bank of America's Kenneth Lewis to do exactly what Lay and Skilling were convicted of.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Department chief Henry Paulson pressured Bank of America Corp. to not discuss its increasingly troubled plan to buy Merrill Lynch & Co. -- a deal that later triggered a government bailout of BofA -- according to testimony by Kenneth Lewis, the bank's chief executive.

Mr. Lewis, testifying under oath before New York's attorney general in February, told prosecutors that he believed Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke were instructing him to keep silent about deepening financial difficulties at Merrill, the struggling brokerage giant. As part of his testimony, a transcript of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lewis said the government wanted him to keep quiet while the two sides negotiated government funding to help BofA absorb Merrill and its huge losses.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Department chief Henry Paulson pressured Bank of America Corp. to not discuss its increasingly troubled plan to buy Merrill Lynch & Co. -- a deal that later triggered a government bailout of BofA -- according to testimony by Kenneth Lewis, the bank's chief executive.

Mr. Lewis, testifying under oath before New York's attorney general in February, told prosecutors that he believed Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke were instructing him to keep silent about deepening financial difficulties at Merrill, the struggling brokerage giant. As part of his testimony, a transcript of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lewis said the government wanted him to keep quiet while the two sides negotiated government funding to help BofA absorb Merrill and its huge losses.

Many observers found it odd when Skilling was convicted of giving false information to shareholders but not for insider trading.  The implication, then, was that Skilling was guilty of lying to shareholders but not for personal gain.  Why then, people asked, did he do it?  It is becoming increasingly clear that putting on a happy face during an impending liquidity crisis is the only responsible approach for a leader to take.  Whether he goes to jail for it or gets rewarded by the Feds for it comes down to, what?  PR?

Update: In fact, one can argue that the Enron situation is more honorable than the BofA situation.  Enron management was trying to protect the value of Enron shareholders.  In the case of BofA, the feds demanded that BofA management hide information in order to complete a transaction that BofA shareholders might rightly oppose.

Wherin TJIC Again Shows He Cares

TJIC gives Meaghan Cheung -- who was chief of the enforcement division for the NYC branch of the SEC when Madoff was first investigated but who now claims to be an anonymous bureaucrat; and who ignored a number of detailed whisteleblower accounts that something was not right in the state of Madoff back in 2006; and who signed the report giving Madoff the "all clear, keep sending him your money" finding-- exactly as much sympathy as she deserves.

A Peak Inside the Boiler Room

I got another boiler room broker call today, so I guess the recent downturn has not flushed out all the cockroaches.  A while back I discussed the frequent calls I get from boiler room stock promoters.  The approach they use with me is this:

So the other day, I accidentally let one of them go further than I usually allow.  He said he was from Olympia Asset Management.  (There is an Olympia Asset Management web page, but I don't know if it is the same company and the web page has not been updated for several years.)  I let him run for a bit because a friend of mine runs a very well-respected financial planning firm with a different name but also with Olympia in the title, and for a moment I thought it might have been one of his folks.

Anyway, he proceeds to try to convince me that we have talked before and discussed a certain security.  "Remember me, we talked six months ago about ____".  Of course, I had never heard of the guy.  At this point I usually hang up, because I have heard this crap before -- it is a common pitch.

Its pretty clear to me now that this is what he is doing:

  1. Trying to imply that we have some kind of relationship we actually don't have.  Or worse...
  2. Trying to convince me that he touted stock A six months ago, so now he can tell me stock A has gone up in price.  Many reputable brokers built their reputation by cold calling people and saying:  Watch these 3 stocks and see how they do and I will call you back in 6 months.  That way, you can evaluate their stock picking without risk.  The modern sleazy approach is to pick a stock that has gone up a lot in the last 6 months, and then call some harried business person and pretend you called them with that pick 6 months ago, hoping that they will give you the benefit of the doubt.

The call just went downhill from there.  I hung up after his discussion of throwing Molotov cocktails into the cars of people he doesn't like.  That was right after I asked him if Tony Soprano was standing beside him listening in on the call.

Anyway, beware.  The guy today called me and asked me if I remembered him calling 6 months ago predicting the downturn in the mortgage market and the crash of the financial stocks.  You are not crazy - no matter how certain the guy seems, you really did not talk to him 6 months ago.

By the way, I am not the only one getting this pitch.  Ed Moed got the same pitch from the same script from the same company.  Many of his commenters share similar experiences.

Update: Wow, they sure do like Mitt Romney over at Olympia Asset Management.  I'm sure there was no arm-twisting here, when every single employee of the company seems to have given the max donation to the same candidate, with no breaking of ranks.

Update #2: Mike Murphy, CEO of Olympia Asset Management, was "a member of the [Hoffstra's] elite football team."  Wow.  Remember that time Hoffstra ripped through all those SEC teams?  Yeah, neither do I.  Anyway, this achievement does not hold a candle to the fact that I was once captain of Princeton Tower Club's elite intramural coed field hockey team.

Thoughts on the Lehman Bankrupcy

While I am not happy to see a historic company go bankrupt, and have vague but unspecific worries about some kind of general cascading financial problem, I am happy to see the government let Lehman go bankrupt without any sort of special intervention or bailout for a number of reasons:

  • Bailouts create awful incentives for other large companies managing their risk portfolios
  • I know many small business people who have gone bankrupt, and I once lost my job in a company bankruptcy.  There is no reason Lehman equity holders and managers should be immune from the same process just because their company is large and old. 
  • Lehman's management has failed to get a positive return from the assets in their care.  A bailout only keeps these assets under the same management.  A bankruptcy puts these assets in the hands of new parties who hopefully can do a better job with them. 
  • I strongly suspect that the hole in Lehman's balance sheet from underwater assets like certain mortgages is large compared to its equity but small compared to its total assets.  If this is true, equity holders will end up with nothing, but most creditors should come out close to whole when everything is unwound.

Like Megan McArdle, I found Obama's recent reaction to the Lehman bankruptcy to be wrong-headed but unsurprising.  Obama is blaming recent financial problems on an overly laissez faire approach by GWB in general (LOL,that's funny) and a lack of strong enforcement by the SEC in particular. 

But one has to ask, what laws were not enforced?  My sense is that these are all perfectly lawful portfolios of mortgages in which the one mistake was systematically being too generous in giving out credit.  Mr. Obama's party has always been a strong advocate of pushing banks to be more generous with credit, particularly to the poor, and of promoting home ownership as a national goal.  If anything, financial institutions are struggling because they were too aggressive in these goals.  McArdle writes:

This was not some criminal activity that the Bush administration should
have been investigating more thoroughly; it was a thorough, massive, systemic
mispricing of the risk attendant on lending to people with bad credit.
(These are, mind you, the same people that five years ago the Democrats
wanted to help enjoy the many booms of homeownership.) Lehman, Bear,
Merrill and so forth did not sneakily lend these people money in the
hope of putting one over on the American taxpayer while ruining their
shareholders and getting the senior executives fired.  They got it
wrong.  Badly wrong.  So did everyone else.

It appears from further Obama statements talking about lack of enforcement for predatory lending laws that the Democrats want to get back on the rollercoaster of whipsawing banks between charges of redlining (you are not lending enough to the poor) and predatory lending (you are lending too much to the poor).

Postscript:  While in retrospect there may turn out to have been laws broken, in situations like this, particularly when a management team is trying to head off a liquidity crisis, these tend to be of the reporting and disclosure ilk.  We saw back during the Enron failure that people tend to assume law-breaking of some sort to be the cause of a major bankrupcy or collapse, and to satisfy this notion the government aggresively pursued Enron executives.  But nothing for which Enron was prosecuted had anything to do with their failure -- all the violations were about disclosure and accounting methodologies.  The company would have still crashed, probably faster, without these violations.

Update:  More here

Paris Hilton Is a Better Investor than Harvard MBA

New SEC rules being drafted by the Bush administration are set to declare that Paris Hilton is a fully "accredited investor" with full freedom to invest in any way she likes.  I, who graduated near the top of my class at Harvard Business School, shall likewise be declared not capable of investing and the government will limit my options "for my own good"

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed
that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before
investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be
raised to as much as $2.5 million.

The largest program the government has for protecting us from our own investing incompetence is called Social Security, which takes retirement savings from us by force and has the government invest it for us.   As I showed in previous posts, Social Security is returning -0.8% a year on our savings.  Thank god the government is investing this money for us - no way I could have beaten a -0.8% a year return during the greatest 20-year bull market of all time.

Tinfoil Hat Observation:  I use Google search to find old posts on my site.  Usually it is flawless.  For some reason, though, my post titled Social Security Ripoff is not indexed by Google.  A follow-up post on the same day is indexed, as you can see from this search, but not the original.  I have never failed to pull up a post before, even with inexact search words, and have never failed with the exact title in the search.  Weird.   Maybe something in the comments, I will have to check.

Shareholder Suits

I posted on shareholder suits over at Overlawyered.  A reader sent me this great article from 2000 in Fortune on Bill Lerach, the kind of shareholder suits.  These thoughts echo my own (or, since I guess this was written long before my post, my thoughts echoes these):

Stanford law professor Joseph Grundfest, a former
SEC commissioner, goes so far as to describe the current system governing
securities fraud as "nuts." As he sees it, class-action settlements amount
to nothing more than an unproductive "transfer payment" from current shareholders
to past shareholders--with big contingency fees skimmed off the top. "The
plaintiffs lawyers are getting a cut of the money that flows from our left
pocket to our right pocket," he says. Even in those cases involving genuine
wrongdoing, he adds, the individual perpetrators rarely pay anything out
of their own pockets, thanks to insurance and indemnification policies.
Nor do the shareholders get much--generally no more than 15% of their losses,
studies show. "Fraud is wrong," says Grundfest. "It has to be punished.
But what we have here is a shell game."

Read the whole article.  In many of the anecdotes, Lerach seems to be channeling Tony Soprano.

More Arizona Cotton Subsidies

A while back, I wrote the Porkbusters post on Arizona farm subsidies, which are mainly cotton subsidies.  Cotton gets subsidized both with direct farm subsidies as well as price-subsidized water (this is a desert, after all, and unlike Egypt we don't have the Nile running through it).

Porkopolis is on the case with a further potential subsidy, as the US Government is apparently transferring a valuable piece of Phoenix commercial real estate to Arizona cotton growers:

A review of the final bill passed by both the House and the Senate shows that Senators DeWine and Voinovich, along with 97 other Senators,
voted for a provision that transfers a federal facility and surrounding
land to the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and Supima:

SEC.
783. As soon as practicable after the Agricultural Research Service
Operations at the Western Cotton Research Laboratory located at 4135
East Broadway Road in Phoenix, Arizona, have ceased, the Secretary of
Agriculture shall convey, without consideration, to the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and Supima all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to the real property at that location, including improvements.

They've got a very deep investigative report. 

Remind Me, Why is Dick Grasso on Trial?

Aspiring Governor, self-proclaimed substitute for the SEC, and enemy of Antarctica Eliot Spitzer is about to start a criminal trial against Dick Grasso, former head of the NY Stock Exchange (NYSE). 

And I have no idea why. 

Certainly it has something to do with Mr. Grasso's pay, which Mr. Spitzer thinks was too high.  The NYSE, for those who may be confused, is a private institution owned by some of the richest and supposedly financially savviest people in the country.  The owners or seat-holders select a board of directors, who in turn approved Mr. Grasso's pay package.  I imagine that there are folks who think that the stock exchange is a public institution or uses public money, but it is not and does not, though it does have some quasi-regulatory responsibilities.

The best I can figure it, Mr. Spitzer is arguing that Mr. Grasso somehow tricked these babes-in-the-woods on the board, which include naive and inexperienced people such as CEO's of Fortune 50 companies, heads of investment banks and brokerage firms, and a former US Secretary of State.  Now, I can imagine that the government might have an interest if Mr. Grasso somehow cooked the books to inflate his pay fraudulently.  In fact, the director of HR has admitted he did not give the board all the relevant information, but board members have already said that they did not rely on this person for their information.  Remember that most of the folks on the board themselves get paid in a similar league as Mr. Grasso's pay, so most saw it as a competitive offer, at least until negative publicity caused all the cockroaches to run for cover.

So Mr. Spitzer is starting criminal proceedings against people who he thinks negotiate too well for themselves or are paid more than they are worth.  I am sure glad he wasn't doing this 15 years ago.  I remember getting hired as a new Business school grad at McKinsey & Co. as a consultant for some ridiculous amount of money, and thinking "I can't be worth that!  I don't know anything!  Are they really paying me to tell experienced CEO's what to do?"  Boy, what panic I would have had if I had known there was an AG out there looking to send overpaid people to jail!

The WSJ has a really fascinating editorial that I will link to, though a paid subscription is required (update:  Try this link instead, it may get you there free or maybe here).  The overall picture is one of, if there was a crime at all, the wrong people are on trial.  Here is a taste:

In early June of 2003, when the
membership of the [NYSE] compensation committee changed, the Webb interviews
begin to tell a story of wider board dysfunction. And if there was a
screw loose in this new operation it appears to be not Mr. Langone --
who by all the interview accounts ran a tight ship -- but his
successor, [former New York State Comptroller Carl] McCall. This is a vital point, given that Mr. Spitzer, a
fellow Democrat, did not name Mr. McCall in his lawsuit. What toppled
Mr. Grasso was not the $139 million payment the board approved in
August of 2003 but the later news that Mr. Grasso was owed $48 million
more. Many board members said they didn't know about this payment and
for that many blame Mr. McCall.

The interview notes are rife with comments that Mr.
McCall had little inclination or ability to understand the contract he
took over negotiating. An outside consultant, William Mischell, said
that when he and Mr. Ashen explained the contract to Mr. McCall, "the
meeting . . . lasted somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes, with McCall
making or taking phone calls throughout and not really focusing on the
details." Mr. McCall himself told investigators that "the subject of
executive compensation was entirely foreign to him" -- yet he refused
offers of help to explain the contract to others. When asked why Mr.
McCall was chosen to chair the committee rather than someone more
knowledgeable, Mr. Karmazin told the Webb team that it was an "image
thing" (the NYSE had just instituted new governance standards).

Mr. McCall's excuse for not giving directors
"additional details" about the $48 million or other aspects of the
contract -- which were clearly stated in the text -- is that "he was
not aware of any." That's because, as he admitted, he didn't read the
full document, even before he signed it. Moreover, at least one
director, Van der Moolen's Mr. Fagenson "asked McCall twice to make
certain that all pension plans and other plans were going to terminate
on this date, but stated he never received any updates from McCall on
these issues."

As Mr. McCall went to brief the full board on Aug. 7,
2003, he was given talking points that referenced the extra $48 million
but didn't read these or tell the board. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO William
Harrison noted that Mr. McCall "did not appear to understand the
proposed payout very well. . ." Avon CEO Andrea Jung noted that "McCall
struggled" and that "others were more able to answer questions." Mr.
Karmazin described Mr. McCall as "flustered," and said he did a
"horrible job" of explaining the numbers. Leon Panetta, former Clinton
White House chief of staff, speaking of a later McCall performance, was
blunt: "Carl knew nothing."

The article sums up the Board this way:

The board, which was often
dysfunctional, was stocked with celebrities from diverse
constituencies, many of whom didn't understand the NYSE or take their
responsibilities seriously. Former New York State Comptroller Carl
McCall, who brought Mr. Grasso's contract to fruition, was viewed by
his colleagues as incompetent and, in the words of Goldman Sachs CEO
Henry Paulson, not "financially sophisticated." Former Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright felt she shouldn't "question" the pay; Bear
Stearns CEO James Cayne admitted he "tuned out" of the pay proceedings;
and Van der Moolen Vice Chairman Robert Fagenson suggested the only
real concern was "how this was going to reflect on the Board."

But the interviews also make clear that more astute
board members, such as Mr. Langone, former Viacom President Mel
Karmazin, and former Merrill Lynch Chairman David Komansky, took it
upon themselves to understand Mr. Grasso's contract, and offered strong
arguments for why they'd paid him as they had. "We knew what we were
doing when we paid him. We did it purposely, and we believed it was the
right compensation," Mr. Komansky said in his interview

In this environment, Grasso is culpable, how?

Those Sophisticated Europeans

I honestly thought this was a gag at first.  Those sophisticated Europeans, who are supposedly so much more protective of civil rights and privacy and the like than we neanderthals in the US, are requiring that Spanish executives register details of their sex life with the government:

SPANISH business leaders are being told they have to declare any illicit love affairs - to the stock market.

In an attempt to crack down on insider trading, the directors of
companies quoted on Spain's stock exchange will have to come clean, on
a twice-yearly basis, about anyone with whom they are having an
"affectionate relationship"...

Company directors must also provide information about their wives or
husbands and family, but it is the idea of a "lovers' register" - in
which bosses could have to admit to having affairs or out themselves as
gay - which has sparked reactions ranging from disbelief to fury among
businessmen.

Ricard Fornesa, the president of the huge La Caixa savings bank, described the legislation as "laughable".

A spokesman for another leading Spanish financial house - who would
not be named - was outraged, saying: "If I had a lover, which I don't,
would they expect me to admit it? What next? I get a call from someone
who has found out saying "˜pay me money or I tell your wife'. It's
stupid and it's ludicrous."

I don't think this even requires comment.  Some of course will have nothing to do with it or will remain silent.  Knowing a few Spanish gentlemen, though, I wonder if there will be some who will have the tendency to exaggerate and tack on names.  I would be tempted to submit a list of all the wives of male Congressmen.  I guess I should start working on my submission in case this approach is adopted by the SEC.  Lets see now ... Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins, Laura Bush, Maria Shriver, Martha Stewart, Lassie, the Little Mermaid, ...

Hat tip to Overlawyered.

SEC Takes a Dive

I have often criticized Aspiring Governor Eliot Spitzer for his overreaching tactics aimed more at keeping himself on the front page (and in the hearts and minds of voters) than in really catching bad guys.  However, one of the reasons Spitzer gets support for his tactics is that there seems to be an enforcement vacuum at the SEC in pursuing corporate and banking fraud.  The Adelphia case brings us a great example, courtesy of Professor Bainbridge.  It appears that the Rigas family is going to get off with forfeiting some of the assets they plundered - no jail time and no fines!

The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced that it and the United
States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York (USAO) reached an
agreement to settle a civil enforcement action and resolve criminal charges
against Adelphia Communications Corporation, its founder John J. Rigas, and his
three sons, Timothy J. Rigas, Michael J. Rigas and James P. Rigas, in one of the
most extensive financial frauds ever to take place at a public company.

In its complaint, the Commission charged that Adelphia, at the direction of
the individual defendants: (1) fraudulently excluded billions of dollars in
liabilities from its consolidated financial statements by hiding them on the
books of off-balance sheet affiliates; (2) falsified operating statistics and
inflated earnings to meet Wall Street estimates; and (3) concealed rampant
self-dealing by the Rigas family, including the undisclosed use of corporate
funds for purchases of Adelphia stock and luxury condominiums. The USAO also
announced that it had entered into a Non-Prosecution Agreement with Adelphia and
had settled forfeiture claims against Rigas family members.

Under the settlement agreement, which is subject to the approval of the
District and Bankruptcy Courts for the Southern District of New York, the Rigas
family members will forfeit in excess of $1.5 billion in assets that they
derived from the fraud, including the Rigas family's interests in certain cable
properties.

This is absurd.  The stay-at-home wife of the treasurer of Enron is in the slammer right now but the Rigas's get to walk?  Note that the Rigas's last year were convicted of numerous criminal charges, but there sentencing was delayed so they could negotiate.  I guess they negotiated pretty well.  In my understanding of the cases, this is a much worse case of fraud than Enron.  These guys looted the company for personal gain, and raped their minority stockholders.   Shame on the SEC.

More Parking Lot Blogging!

I bet you thought I was kidding here when I said I might pursue my new niche in parking lot blogging.  Not so - here today is an idea from Ross Mayfield:

My uncle was a guru on wall street when I asked him where I should invest my paper route money. He said to visit the parking lots of Silicon Valley companies during the weekend. If the parking lot was full, there was a good chance they were close to a breakthrough or release.

At the corporations I worked for, this would probably just mean that everyone was working on Powerpoint presentation for an upcoming planning conference.  Anyway, I don't know much about Silicon Valley, so I don't know if it will work, but this is an interesting suggestion to use the Internet to gather intelligence:

But with enough mobloggers, a panopticon of performance may be a great leading indicator.  So this weekend I started the Parking Lot Indicatr group and people have taken interest.

Hopefully, the cars are not all there responding to an SEC inquiry.

Caveat on Social Security Reform

I had some links on Social Security reform here

One thing I forgot to mention -- No matter what we decide to do, please, please do not let the government invest social security funds in private equities.  I am all for giving individuals control of their social security funds and allowing these individuals to make their own investment choices.  But, allowing the government to invest in equities will lead to all sorts of problems:

  1. The most obvious is creeping socialism and regulation, particularly of companies that are not well-loved by the intelligentsia.  Mad at Dick Cheney?  Pass a law that the trust fund can't invest in Haliburton.  Don't like Dan Rather?  Pass a law that the trust fund can't invest in CBS.  You get the idea.  The mere threat of disowning the company's equity from the trust fund investments portfolio would force companies to kowtow to the populist notion of the moment.
  2. If you worry about private individuals manipulating the stock market, just wait until the government has the incentive to get in the game.  The government has all kinds of ways, from small (control of economics data) to large (interest rates and SEC regulations) to manipulate the market for short term gain. 

Marginal Revolution also has an interesting post on whether the historic equity premium would still exist if the government invested massively in equities.