Late For A Fray, But Not For A Feast
The amount of money in both these pots may not be enough to solve the problem.
Allan Bloom, the Twentieth-Century American philosopher, bemoaned the state of modern culture. In the past, educated people would turn for guidance to the Bible, to The Philosophers, and to the works of Shakespeare. Bloom saw the decline of culture as a grand tragedy. For the abandonment of culture is not merely the loss of a moral compass - as though that were not devastation enough - it is the wholesale rejection of wisdom.
In the Gorgias, Plato draws from the mouth of Socrates one of his most famous and trenchant images. Against the notion that happiness comes from ridding oneself of all restraint, from the unfettered and endless exercise of power and appetite, Socrates presents the parable of a man filling jars with wine, honey and milk. Leaky jars, says Socrates, can never be full.
How far can we fill our leaky urns, before we realize that we are in the grip of a hunger that will not be sated? As our best wine and honey and milk flow through the cracks, how much longer before all our resources run dry?
To mix philosophers, governments too should bear in mind Keynes' dictum that markets can remain irrational longer than the money can hold out. Chairman Bernanke testified this week, with a smile, that we can continue to lend money in this environment, because it is not costing us anything. This was in reference to our current effective zero rate of interest on Treasurys. And when that rate turns up? Surely Chairman Bernanke is enough of an economist to realize that refinancing cheap money with dear is not a sound plan.
We were fascinated, too, to see Chairman Greenspan's speech in which he endorsed nationalizing the banks. Trotting out this old warrior - even though somewhat hobbled by his own inability to see the oncoming freight train - seems an obvious way for the Administration to prepare the markets for what comes next, as they approach the crisis caused by excessive consumption by urging the world to spend money.
The Government's pressing the banks to lend is really a plea for consumers to consume. There is no apparent shortage of money in the system, but banks may be right in their timidity to lend. Should they lend to the institutions? What happens when the Feds pull another Lehman? As to the shell-shocked consumer market, anyone running out to borrow money for a nonessential purchase, please step forward. Don't everyone come rushing up all at once, now.
Our Government is testing the waters on nationalizing the banks as the only way to force that money into circulation. If the consumer won't spend it, who will?
The compulsive shopper of last resort, that's who.
Quoth former Fed Chairman Greenspan, "what we are currently going through is a once-in-a-century type of event. It will pass." Which means, not that we shall return to wisdom, nor see the folly of permitting our resources to flow out of cracked jars, but that one day people will again start buying things they don't need. People's memories are short. The Government's program calls for a return to moral hazard as a way of life.
And we are working hard to share the hazard. Now, for example, instead of lending more money to the US, in return for "In God We Trust", the Chinese are lending money to the Russians in return for a long-term lock on the price of oil. No, no, says Hillary. You have to double down on Treasurys!
Welcome to our new Secretary of State - Stockbroker of Last Resort.
The Other White Meat
Oh, I love to eat it every day, and if you ask me why, I'll say,
"'Cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A."
President Obama's first bill has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It was the Bill Of Goods - his loudly trumpeted and ceaselessly repeated Bipartisan mantra.
Knowing full well that all politics are viciously partisan, President Obama got to ring the bell every time a Republican took issue with an item in the Pelosi stimulus package - and it is a porcine package, even by Bridge To Nowhere standards. To be fair, President Obama is not the only high-visibility politician to have made substantial hay of the Bipartisanship canard, but Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding, the Republicans do not need a failure to say "I told you so." The underlying argument is not that Obamulus won't work, but that it will have too little effect, for too much expense.
Whether it is Wall Street's appetite for cash, Detroit's refusal to acknowledge reality, or Washington's inability to say No to anyone, the jars are broken. Increasing the flow will not mend the leaks.
What might this mean for the securities industry?
Politicians are in a porcine snit about the compensation of the Top Dogs in banking. Meanwhile, Washington has blown close to a trillion dollars on restructuring Wall Street to make it impossible for the customer to say No. Wildly bullish stock analysts are feeding highly paid stockbrokers, who will soon be calling you. Remember that the thirty thousand-odd brokers newly acquired by B of A and JP Morgan will probably get most of this year's compensation from accelerated payout on commissions. Congress does not understand this, so you had better.
And you can forget the compensation cap. Top bankers will loophole their way around that boondoggle - for instance, by taking equity stakes in LLCs that act as trading or banking units of their own institutions, and drawing management fees, as well as a percentage of the top-line revenues.
You didn't think these guys were going to base their compensation on performance, did you? And neither do the guys we voted for. Sample from last year's Wall Street Journal (September 16, 2008, "Wall Street Political Donations Set To Slow"): "From the time Sen. Obama launched his presidential campaign last year until May 30 this year, the securities and investment industry had donated $9.2 million to his campaign." This was all while complaining that Obama was going to be a return to traditional Democrat high taxes. Those contributions will only continue to roll in to the extent the Greed Is Good crowd continue to pay themselves off the top.
Thus, vociferous calls to strengthen the hand of regulation and punish Wall Street run at cross purposes to the very business of politics. The electorate, being Customers of both the Street and the Hill, should bear this in mind. We would all do well to heed the words of John Maynard Keynes to President Roosevelt: "It is a mistake to think businessmen are more immoral than politicians."
Pork goes best with gravy.
In what should be "Friday the 13th, Part II" for Friends Of Chris ("FOC"), Mary Schapiro has appointed Kayla Gillan as Special Adviser to the Chairman of the SEC.
Ms. Gillan, most recently Chief Administrative Officer of RiskMetrics Group, launched the corporate governance program at CalPERS, taking on companies and their boards of directors over acts of fiscal irresponsibility. Gillan understands how companies destroy shareholder value, and how boards of directors resolutely don't do their jobs. She has proven to have the diligence and tenacity to bring real concerns to company boards, and the legal acumen to force them to listen. No wonder Chairman Cox didn't want her around.
Ms. Gillan and Chairman Cox butted heads over his refusal to implement tough accountability standards. After she launched the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, Cox finessed her out of any real control and cut short her term. Chairman Cox took his mission to seek greater harmony seriously, to the extent that he refused to alienate the very entities the Commission is charged with regulating.
Suffering a similar fate was Charles Niemeier, former Chief Accountant at SEC Enforcement, and likewise a proponent of strong controls. Rumor has it that Chairman Schapiro will be bringing him back as well, and with greatly increased visibility and clout.
We won't say that we are tired of hearing our own voice, but we applaud Chairman Schapiro and hope this is the tip of a very nasty iceberg.
But let's not forget that none of this would be happening without Bernard Madoff.
Bernie Madoff did a host of small investors a huge favor. Not to downplay the losses that may ultimately be identified in the unlikely event that this mess is sorted out, but look at the profile of many who lost money. Henry Kaufman - the granddaddy of all Wall Street economists and the original "Dr. Doom". Ezra Merkin, a leading money manager; Daniel Tully and David Komansky - former CEOs of Merrill Lynch - not to mention the likes of Steven Spielberg or Mort Zuckerman, who have access to good enough financial advice that they have only themselves to blame.
The sting of missing the warning signs at Bernie's shop has led the SEC to mobilize on a rash of other files that have been gathering dust for years. The highest visibility is the Stanford case - in which thousands of small investors, CD buyers and just plain bank depositors have been wiped out. We hear rumors that not only the SEC, but also the FBI have had allegations about Stanford going back more than a decade. Thanks to Bernie, they have now been brought to light.
Then there is Billion Coupons Inc, which the SEC accuses of bilking deaf investors out of over four million dollars. Linda "Smokey" Thomsen was quick to herald this new success. "This emergency action shows that the Commission will act quickly and decisively to help victims of affinity fraud." We are waiting to hear how long that docket sat around gathering dust in the SEC's offices.
Affinity Fraud cuts deeper than the press stories reveal. It's not just about Foundations. In the wake of the Madoff scandal, there are a number of wealthy individuals in the Jewish community who give both generously, and anonymously. We are aware of one New York investor who supports one hundred families, anonymously doling out tens of millions of dollars a year. If that money is the interest on a half-billion-dollar Stanford CD - or the returns on a $200 million Madoff portfolio - it may not change his family's lifestyle, but he is keenly aware of the effect on hundreds of people who rely on him for their sustenance.
This is the less visible side of affinity fraud. People taking care of their own. Across America and around the world, there are Catholic families, Jewish families, Moslem and Hindu families - and now deaf families - reeling from the losses that have hit their anonymous benefactors.
Bush Senior's famous Thousand Points of Light were real. We wonder how many of them are winking out.
Get With The Program
I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!
How did the FINRA and SEC examiners not detect that Bernie Madoff managed tens of billions of dollars without a single customer trade in over a decade? Because regulators look at what the firms present to them. No auditor will take a handful of recorded trades and track them through the broker, to the clearing firm, to the customer report, and tie this all in with specific trade information from the market and with trade counterparty reports. Even though all this information is readily available. Indeed, the regulators themselves create a significant part of it, and oversee the creation of all the rest. If this had been done on the Madoff audits, it would have become immediately apparent if there were falsified trade records. As someone once said: C'mon, guys!
Kayla Gillan recently told Compliance Weekly "Some people at the S.E.C. wanted the auditors to really only look at the process that companies go through... and not actually look at the controls themselves."
SEC examiners work from a standard audit checklist. Among the items they request are the firm's internal compliance checklists. If all boxes on both forms are checked, the auditors get to go home. But sometimes firms are slow to meet document requests. This upsets the examiners greatly, because it puts off their schedule, meaning they will take a hit to their efficiency ratings.
Now Lori Richards, Head of the SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), announced a get-tough policy on foot draggers. Ms. Richards has been concerned "for the past six months" (it's Madoff season, remember) that firms were not forthcoming in submitting documents. Note that Ms. Richards is not announcing a get-tough policy with auditors who do not dig for actual problems.
This appears to be an automatic Enforcement referral program for firms that delay submitting documents. Sort of a Rockefeller Law for registered investment advisers. But the SEC's only real clout comes from its ability to stop people from doing business, and to tie people up in criminal proceedings, both of which take excruciatingly long to implement.
In order to put teeth into Ms. Richards' threat, the SEC will have to wield its subpoena power liberally. But even this does not mean that Enforcement will actually investigate, much less find anything. This is primarily a mechanism for adding new fines, thus driving SEC revenues. Firms will be paying more in lawyer fees, and the focus of audit delays will shift from the inefficiency of both the firms' oversight and the SEC bureaucracy, to the logjam in the court system, as hedge fund and SEC Enforcement lawyers jockey for space before judges whose dockets are clogged with mortgage foreclosures.
The SEC should be kicking itself over not putting more weight behind the examination request letter that came out of the New York OCIE last year. The letter required firms to disclose real and actionable information, and was met with a firestorm of protest from the Managed Funds Association and other RIA and hedge fund groups. Chairman Cox dithered, apparently concerned that it would alienate the FOC's in the hedge fund community. Ultimately the letter was dropped, and the head of the New York office took more blame than he was entitled to.
Saying it again: Chairman Schapiro needs to use the momentum of the Madoff case to bring industry professionals on board. In the recent report from the Chamber of Commerce, former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt offered the notion of a panel of industry insiders who would review the business and the regulators every two years. This fits with what we have been saying: Chairman Schapiro must make it attractive - and feasible - for real Wall Street professionals to join up. When you know not only where the bodies are buried, but how they were buried, and by whom, and with which tools, then you don't need no stinkin' badges.
Watch for elements of the notorious New York OCIE audit letter to resurface. Unlike last time around, SEC staffers will be fighting to claim credit for it.
Widows And Orphans
There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it and when he can.
- Mark Twain
The North American Securities Administrators Association, the organization of state regulators, is urging Congress to revise the Accredited Investor standard.
If you are a stockbroker, an Accredited Investor is someone presumed to be sophisticated enough to open an account. This is the basic suitability standard, and often no further test will be applied.
An Accredited Investor is a person having a net worth of one million dollars. Not cash. Not a stock portfolio. Not a history of investing. This means that your grandmother, who has the family homestead and the farm in western Pennsylvania in her name, can open a brokerage account with one of the tens of thousands of taxpayer-funded salesmen at B of A. And when she loses her money - well, she was suitable.
The State Regulators, many of whom actually understand the industry, do not have the power to change industry suitability standards. That power resides with Congress - you know, the guys who get campaign donations from Wall Street - and the Accredited Investor definition has not changed appreciably in 25 years. We remember when a million dollars was enough to retire on. Today it is no longer enough to be financially secure. But it's still enough to open a brokerage account.
Now The Good News
At the latest Practising Law Institute's "SEC Speaks" conference, Chairman Schapiro said "Because of the unique role the SEC plays in our markets, I am confident the SEC will emerge from this process stronger and more relevant than ever before." This was taken as an affirmation that the SEC will remain independent, and will not be crammed together with the CFTC into a "super-regulator".
"The SEC is a proud institution with a remarkable history and a tradition of activism," said Chairman Schapiro. "In the days ahead, we will rise to the new challenges of today's financial and regulatory realities, both by embracing new approaches and by maintaining the great traditions that have defined this institution throughout its history."
Ms. Schapiro neglected to mention one of the greatest traditions of the heads of regulatory agencies: making the rounds on the Rubber Chicken circuit - such as the PLI luncheons - where We Who Are About To Be Regulated find out about these initiatives. These non-events take up tremendous amounts of regulatory resources, and give the regulators a much-needed break from the hard work of ignoring tips, not auditing the paper trail on firm trades, and refusing to share information across agency lines in an effort to get a full picture of what is going on in the markets.
In all the confusion and turmoil, the idea that the SEC will remain independent may be the best news of all. It's called containing the damage.