Archive for April, 2010

Using Financial Reform to Promote Deregulation

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Growing public rage over Wall Street misbehavior has snapped the Senate out of its lethargy on financial reform. Amid the get-tough posturing, however, the impulse to lighten the regulatory “burden” on business has not completely disappeared.

When Senate Republicans unveiled their alternative approach to reform on April 26, buried in the document was a provision that called for less rather than more regulation. The GOP proposal would make smaller publicly traded companies exempt from a key provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Sarbox, for short), the corporate accountability law enacted in 2002 in response to the accounting scandals at companies such as Enron and WorldCom.

The provision in question, Section 404, requires firms to maintain a system of internal controls to ensure the integrity of their financial statements, which must include an audited assessment of the adequacy of those measures. A breakdown in such controls is an invitation to financial fraud.

Senate Republicans would like to provide an immediate exemption to companies with a market capitalization of $150 million or less and would instruct the Securities and Exchange Commission to explore the possibility of setting the cutoff even higher. The SEC has already delayed implementation of the Section 404 requirement for smaller firms, and it convened a business-dominated advisory committee that recommended consideration of Sarbox relaxation for firms with market capitalization up to $787 million. The Commission, however, has refused to create a permanent exemption.

Truth be told, it is not just Republicans who are pushing the exemption idea. The financial reform bill that passed the House in December contains a Section 404 small-business exemption that was proposed – against the wishes of Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank – by Democrat John Adler along with Republican Scott Garrett, both of New Jersey. The amendment passed with the blessing of the Obama Administration, with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel personally lobbying members of the Committee on its behalf.  Senator Dodd, however, did not include a small-business exemption in his financial reform bill.

The Sarbox small-firm carve-out may win some friends in business circles, but it entails serious risks. Chief among them is that the exemption could serve as a stepping stone to further weakening or abolition of the entire law.

This is more than a remote possibility. Republicans make no secret of their distaste for Sarbox in general and have used this as a theme in criticizing the Dodd bill. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint called that bill “Sarbanes-Oxley on steroids,” adding: “Like Sarbanes-Oxley, it is reactionary legislation that’s more likely to hurt U.S. businesses than reform the financial system.” A recent Wall Street Journal editorial denounced Dodd’s bill as “a souped-up version of the Sarbanes-Oxley bill of 2002 – that is, a collection of ill-understood reforms whose main achievement will be to make Wall Street even more the vassal of Washington.”

Congress is not the only arena where Sarbanes-Oxley is under assault. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a challenge by the rabidly anti-regulation Competitive Enterprise Institute to the legitimacy of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which was created by Sarbox by regulate public accounting firms. Some legal observers believe that a high court ruling against the Board could lead to the demise of Sarbox in its entirety.

Even if this dark scenario does not come to pass, does it make sense to loosen the controls on smaller firms? Fraudulent behavior is hardly unknown among public companies of modest size. In fact, such companies have long been used as vehicles for criminal enterprises. A 1996 Business Week investigation found that “substantial elements of the small-cap market have been turned into a veritable Mob franchise, under the very noses of regulators and law enforcement.”

Lately, the focus has been on the sins of the financial giants, but that’s no reason to dilute oversight of smaller players. Now’s a time for tightening regulation across the board.

The (Investment) House Always Wins

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Goldman Sachs, which has long prided itself on being one of the smartest operators on Wall Street, has apparently decided that the best way to defend itself against federal fraud charges is to plead incompetence. The firm is taking the position that it is not guilty of misleading investors in a 2007 issue of mortgage securities because it allegedly lost money – more than $90 million, it claims – on its own stake in the deal.

In fact, Goldman would have us believe that it took a bath in the overall mortgage security arena. This story line is a far cry from the one put forth a couple of years ago, when the firm was being celebrated for anticipating the collapse in the mortgage market and shielding itself – though not its clients. In a November 2007 front-page article headlined “Goldman Sachs Rakes in Profit in Credit Crisis,” the New York Times reported that the firm “continued to package risky mortgages to sell to investors” while it reduced its own holdings in such securities and bought “expensive insurance as protection against further losses.” In 2007 Goldman posted a profit of $11.6 billion (up from $9.5 billion the year before), and CEO Lloyd Blankfein took home $70 million in compensation (not counting another $45 million in value he realized upon the vesting of previously granted stock awards). Some bath.

Goldman is not the only one rewriting financial history. Many of the firm’s mainstream critics are talking as if it is unheard of for an investment bank to act contrary to the interests of its clients, as Goldman is accused of doing by failing to disclose that it allowed hedge fund operator John Paulson to choose a set of particularly toxic mortgage securities for Goldman to peddle while Paulson was betting heavily that those securities would tank.

In fact, the history of Wall Street is filled with examples in which investment houses sought to hoodwink investors. Rampant stock manipulation, conflicts of interest and other fraudulent practices exposed by the Pecora Commission prompted the regulatory reforms of the 1930s. Those reforms reduced but did not eliminate shady practices. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a series of scandals involving firms on the American Stock Exchange that in 1964 inspired Congress to impose stricter disclosure requirements for over-the-counter securities.

The corporate takeover frenzy of the 1980s brought with it a wave of insider trading scandals. The culprits in these cases involved not only independent speculators such as Ivan Boesky, but also executives at prominent investment houses, above all Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham. Also caught in the net was Robert Freeman, head of risk arbitrage at Goldman, who in 1989 pleaded guilty to criminal charges. When players such as Freeman and Milken traded on inside information, they were profiting at the expense of other investors, including their own clients, who were not privy to that information.

During the past decade, various major banks were accused of helping crooked companies deceive investors. For example, in 2004 Citigroup agreed to pay $2.7 billion to settle such charges brought in connection with WorldCom and later paid $1.7 billion to former Enron investors. In 2005 Goldman and three other banks paid $100 million to settle charges in connection with WorldCom.

In other words, the allegation that Goldman was acting contrary to the interest of its clients in the sale of synthetic collateralized debt obligations was hardly unprecedented.

What’s not getting much attention during the current scandal is that in late 2007 Goldman had found another way to profit by exploiting its clients, though in this case the clients were not investors but homeowners.

Goldman quietly purchased a company called Litton Loan Servicing, a leading player in the business of servicing subprime (and frequently predatory) home mortgages. “Servicing” in this case means collecting payments from homeowners who frequently fall behind in payments and are at risk of foreclosure. As I wrote in 2008, Litton is “a type of collection agency dealing with those in the most vulnerable and desperate financial circumstances.” At the end of 2009, Litton was the 4th largest subprime servicer, with a portfolio of some $52 billion (National Mortgage News 4/5/2010).

Litton has frequently been charged with engaging in abusive practices, including the imposition of onerous late fees that allegedly violate the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. It has also been accused of being overly aggressive in pushing homeowners into foreclosure when they can’t make their payments.

Many of these complaints have ended up in court. According to the Justia database, Litton has been sued more than 300 times in federal court since the beginning of 2007. That year a federal judge in California granted class-action status to a group of plaintiffs, but the court later limited the scope of the potential damages, resulting in a settlement in which Litton agreed to pay out $500,000.

Meanwhile, individual lawsuits continue to be filed. Many of the more recent ones involve disputes over loan modifications. Complaints in this area persist even though Litton is participating in the Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program and is thus eligible for incentive payments through an extension of the Toxic Assets Relief Program.

There seems to be no end to the ways that Goldman manages to make money from toxic assets.  On Wall Street, as in Las Vegas, the house always wins.

BONUS FEATURE: Federal regulation of business leaves a lot to be desired, but it is worth knowing where to find information on those enforcement activities that are occurring. The Dirt Diggers Digest can help with our new Enforcement page, which has links to online enforcement data from a wide range of federal agencies. The page also includes links to inspection data, product recall announcements and lists of companies debarred from doing business with the federal government.

The People’s Regulator

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Government regulation of business is looking pretty lame these days. After 29 workers were killed in an explosion at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia, it came to light that the facility had accumulated more than 1,300 safety violations over the past five years but was not shut down by the Mine Safety and Health Administration – an agency labeled a “meek watchdog” in a recent New York Times headline.

It has also been revealed that Toyota managed to keep critical information about faulty gas pedals from federal regulators in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to avoid a massive recall of its vehicles. A pair of recent reports show that regulatory oversight of Citigroup was deficient both before and after the banking giant had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Again and again, it’s the same old story: aggressive corporations riding roughshod over feckless regulators.

Compare this to what recently happened when Consumer Reports issued a “don’t buy recommendation” for a Lexus sport-utility vehicle because its testing had shown a risk of rollovers. Within hours after the warning was issued, Toyota, the parent company of Lexus, announced that it would suspend sales of the GX 460. A company official stated: “We are taking the situation with the GX 460 very seriously and are determined to identify and correct the issue Consumer Reports identified.”

Toyota’s quick response was undoubtedly part of its effort to control the damage to its reputation from the sudden-acceleration controversy, but it also demonstrates the power of Consumer Reports. More than a magazine, it is a bulwark against shoddy manufacturing and dishonest practices that threaten the physical and financial well-being of the public. It is the people’s regulator.

The potency of Consumer Reports stems from its rock-solid integrity and its complete independence from the companies it is monitoring. While the magazine is often taken for granted these days, CR and its non-profit parent Consumers Union have not always been revered during their 70-plus years of existence.

The challenges Consumers Union (CU) faced in its early decades are documented in the work of Norman Silber, who wrote a dissertation on the subject in 1978 (available via the Dissertations & Theses database) which became the 1983 book Test and Protest.

CU was established in 1936 by a group of engineers, researchers, writers and editors who were unabashedly leftwing and saw their work as complementary to the growing labor movement. The organization’s mission was, Silber notes, threatening not only to manufacturers but also to the commercial media, which saw its independent product ratings as “an unfair and subversive attack upon legitimate advertising.” Many major magazines and newspapers refused to let CU advertise Consumer Reports in their pages.

CU was also an early target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, though the scrupulously non-partisan content of Consumer Reports saved the organization from serious persecution. During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, Silber recounts, CU suspended its reporting on labor conditions in the industries whose products it rated. Its own staff remained unionized, though it switched from the leftist Book and Magazine Guild to the more mainstream Newspaper Guild.

CU did nothing to dilute its assessment of business practices. During the late 1950s it was especially critical of the tobacco industry for engaging in misleading advertising and for selling a dangerous product. CU also took on the dairy industry over the issue of milk contamination caused by radioactive fallout. And it began arguing for improved auto safety starting well before Ralph Nader appeared on the scene. In the 1970s CU successfully pressured federal regulators to improve standards for microwave ovens to address radiation leakage.

CU also did not flinch when the recipients of poor product ratings decided to take the organization to court. It fought companies such as Bose audio and Suzuki Motor up to the Supreme Court to protect its right to offer candid assessments.

This is not to say that CU is completely above reproach. Critics have charged over the years that the organization’s preoccupation with product testing comes at the expense of broader consumer advocacy (this is what Nader said when he quit CU’s board in 1975). And in 2007 the organization suffered a black eye when it botched its testing of infant car seats and had to issue an unprecedented apology. Nonetheless, its overall track record, up through its reprimand of Lexus, is pretty impressive.

A private organization without formal enforcement powers is no substitute for government regulatory agencies, but CU does have something to teach those agencies – above all, that a watchdog can be truly effective only when it is completely uninfluenced by the companies it is monitoring.

It also helps to be able to issue definitive pronouncements about corporate misbehavior. CU’s statement about the dangers of the GX 460 was not tentative and was not subject to time-consuming appeals.

Once official regulators show as much spunk as the likes of Consumers Union, corporations may finally start to clean up their act.

Corporate Overkill

Friday, April 9th, 2010

There is so much corporate misbehavior taking place around us that it is possible to lose one’s sense of outrage. But every so often a company comes along that is so brazen in its misdeeds that it quickly restores our indignation.

Massey Energy is one of those companies. Evidence is piling up suggesting that corporate negligence and an obsession with productivity above all else were responsible for the horrendous explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed at least 25 workers.

This is not the first time Massey has been accused of such behavior. In 2008 a Massey subsidiary had to pay a record $4.2 million to settle federal criminal and civil charges of willful violation of mandatory safety standards in connection with a 2006 mine fire that caused the deaths of two workers in West Virginia.

Lax safety standards are far from Massey’s only sin. The unsafe conditions are made possible in part by the fact that Massey has managed to deprive nearly all its miners of union representation. That includes the workers at Upper Big Branch, who were pressured by management to vote against the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during organizing drives in 1995 and 1997. As of the end of 2009, only 76 out of the company’s 5,851 employees were members of the UMWA.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship (photo) flaunts his anti-union animus. It’s how he made his corporate bones. Back in 1984 Blankenship, then the head of a Massey subsidiary, convinced top management to end its practice of adhering to the industry-wide collective bargaining agreements that the major coal operators negotiated with the UMWA. After the union called a strike, the company prolonged the dispute by employing harsh tactics. The walkout, marked by violence on both sides, lasted 15 months.

In the years that followed, Massey phased out its unionized operations, got rid of union members when it took over new mines and fought hard against UMWA organizing drives. Without union work rules, Massey has had an easier time cutting corners on safety.

Massey has shown a similar disregard for the well-being of the communities in which it operates. The company’s environmental record is abysmal. In 2000 a poorly designed waste dam at a Massey facility in Martin County, Kentucky collapsed, releasing some 250 million gallons of toxic sludge. The spill, larger than the infamous Buffalo Creek flood of 1972, contaminated 100 miles of rivers and streams and forced the governor to declare a 10-county state of emergency.

This and a series of smaller spills in 2001 caused such resentment that the UMWA and environmental groups—not normally the closest of allies—came together to denounce the company. In 2002 UMWA President Cecil Roberts was arrested at a demonstration protesting the spills.

In 2008 Massey had to pay a record $20 million civil penalty to resolve federal charges that its operations in West Virginia and Kentucky had violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,000 times.

And to top it off, Blankenship is a global warming denier.

Massey is one of those corporations that has apparently concluded that it is far more profitable to defy the law and pay the price. What it gains from flouting safety standards, labor protections and environmental safeguards far outweighs even those record penalties that have been imposed. At the same time, Massey’s track record is so bad that it seems to be impervious to additional public disgrace.

Faced with an outlaw company such as Massey, perhaps it is time for us to resurrect the idea of a corporate death penalty, otherwise known as charter revocation. If corporations are to have rights, they should also have responsibilities—and should face serious consequences when they violate those responsibilities in an egregious way.

Profit, Baby, Profit

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

President Obama’s drill-baby-drill (but not quite everywhere) gambit does not only link him to an environmentally backward policy. It also will force his Administration to defend one of the most dysfunctional federal programs in modern history: the Interior Department’s offshore oil and gas leasing system.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) is supposed to collect royalties from companies drilling in offshore public waters. After new activity was restricted in the wake of the devastating spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969, the oil industry sought to make its leases more profitable by pressing for reductions in these payments.

In the mid-1990s, when energy prices were low, Big Oil got Congress to expand the “royalty relief” provisions that were already in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. Royalties were supposed to return to higher rates when prices rebounded, but things got complicated. First, it came to light that MMS had failed to write those provisions into some 1,000 deepwater leases it signed in 1998 and 1999, putting into question its ability to collect billions of dollars in back royalties.

While this was being sorted out, one of the drilling companies – Kerr-McGee (now part of Anadarko Petroleum) – filed suit challenging the right of MMS to impose the higher royalties on any leases. The company’s self-serving arguments found a sympathetic ear in federal court. Last fall the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate ruling in favor of the company, thus allowing Anadarko to avoid paying more than $350 million in back royalties. For the industry as a whole, the Court blocked the Interior Department from trying to collect on a bill that the Government Accountability Office once estimated could run as high as $53 billion.

Then there’s the small matter of the wild parties and gifts that industry representatives lavished on MMS employees in charge of the agency’s royalty-in-kind program. In September 2008 Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney (now in charge of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board) issued three reports describing gross misconduct at MMS, including cases in which agency employees were literally in bed with the industry. Devaney concluded that the royalty program was mired in “a culture of ethical failure.”

Not all MMS employees were bought off. Some agency auditors came forward and charged that they had been pressured by their superiors to terminate investigations of royalty underpayments.

Once the Obama Administration took office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took steps to clean up MMS. Last September he announced plans to terminate the royalty-in-kind program, whose staffers had been at the center of the sex and gifts scandal.

For a while it was unclear whether Salazar would tighten up the remaining royalty programs. In fact, he told the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle last fall that in some cases he thought drilling companies should pay even lower royalty rates. He changed his tune this year, and the Administration is seeking modest increases in royalties and fees.

Yet the entire offshore leasing program still amounts to a giant boondoggle. Thanks to the federal courts, artificially low royalty rates are now effectively an entitlement for the drilling industry. Research conducted by the Interior Department itself suggested that the incentives result in little additional oil production. Not to mention the environmental risks.

And now, thanks to a dubious calculation that making concessions on offshore drilling will help prospects for a climate bill, the Obama Administration is bringing about a major expansion of a program that is disastrous even if there are no spills. Profit, baby, profit.