Archive for February, 2013

Violating the Norm at Deutsche Bank

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Layout 1Corporate annual meetings and the publication of company annual reports usually come off like clockwork. Deutsche Bank, however, has found itself in the awkward position of having to call an extraordinary general meeting and delay the issuance of its annual financial documents until after that event.

These unusual measures are symptoms of the disarray of the giant German financial institution as it copes with a series of legal complications stemming from its own ethical shortcomings.

The special meeting was necessitated by a court ruling that invalidated votes that had been taken at last year’s scheduled shareholder gathering. That ruling came as the result of a legal challenge brought by the heirs of German media tycoon Leo Kirch, who blame the bank for forcing his company into bankruptcy.

There’s a silver lining in this for Deutsche Bank management, since the delay in the publication of the annual report (and the 20-F filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) means that it will have more time before it needs to give more details about the various legal messes it is in.

It’s not easy keeping track of them all. Deutsche Bank’s reputation has been tarnished in a variety of ways. This is not to say that the bank’s image started off spotless. It did, after all, actively collaborate with the Nazi regime, helping appropriate the assets of financial institutions in conquered countries.

The sins were not all in the distant past. In 1999 Deutsche Bank acquired New York-based Bankers Trust, which was embroiled in a scandal over its diversion of unclaimed customer assets into its own accounts; it had to pay a $60 million fine and plead guilty to criminal charges.

Deutsche Bank itself was then the subject of wide-ranging investigations of its role in helping wealthy customers, especially those from the U.S., engage in tax evasion. The bank was featured in an investigative report on offshore tax abuses issued by a U.S. Senate committee and was eventually charged by federal prosecutors. In 2010 it had to pay $553 million and admit to criminal wrongdoing to resolve allegations that it participated in transactions that promoted fraudulent tax shelters and generated billions of dollars in U.S. tax losses.

That did not put an end to Deutsche Bank’s tax evasion woes. It is currently reported to be the subject of an investigation by German prosecutors of tax dodging through the use of carbon credits. In December, the bank’s German offices were raided by some 500 police officers seeking evidence for the probe.

Deutsche Bank is also widely reported to be under investigation for its role in the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index. There has been speculation that the bank’s co-chief executive, Anshu Jain, might lose his job over the issue. Lower-level employees of the bank have already been disciplined.

There’s more. Deutsche Bank is one of the firms that were sued by the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency for abuses in the sale of mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the case is pending). Last year, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that Deutsche Bank would pay $202 million to settle charges that its MortgageIT unit had repeatedly made false certifications to the U.S. Federal Housing Administration about the quality of mortgages to qualify them for FHA insurance coverage.

In January Deutsche Bank agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to settle charges that it had manipulated energy markets in California in 2010.

Deutsche Bank’s misconduct goes beyond the realm of finance. The bank is being targeted by labor activists in Las Vegas, where it owns two casinos. Members of UNITE HERE have been picketing the bank’s Cosmopolitan casino over management’s insistence on weakening standard industry work rules during negotiations on the union’s first contract at the site. As part of its organizing drive, UNITE HERE created a website called Deutsche Bank Risk Alert to highlight the negative issues surrounding the casino’s parent. It has not lacked for content.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Deutsche Bank, which can be found here.

The Golden Gag and Other Sins of Novartis

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

vasellaNovartis raked in more than $12 billion in profits last year, but it was a planned expenditure of $78 million that prompted an uprising by the Swiss drug giant’s shareholders and compelled the company’s management to make an embarrassing about-face. The reason is that the $78 million was an unwarranted giveaway to the retiring chairman.

In January, Novartis announced that Daniel Vasella (photo) would leave the company after serving in top positions for the past 17 years. Vasella had already been granted more than $12 million in retirement benefits after he gave up the chief executive’s post in 2010 while staying on the board of directors as chairman with another $12 million in additional annual compensation. That payout was highly controversial, coming after years of fat CEO paychecks for Vasella.

It also set the stage for the current scandal, which grew out of a plan to pay Vasella not to work for another pharmaceutical company for the next six years. The non-competition agreement is referred to in the European press as a “golden gag” arrangement.

The pent up anger against Vasella was obvious in the reaction to the announcement. The corporate accountability group Ethos called on shareholders to withhold their support for the re-election of members of the board’s compensation committee. One Swiss official denounced the payment, saying “it does huge damage to the social cohesion in our country.” A lawyer in Zurich filed a criminal complaint against Novartis, the compensation committee and Vasella for breach of trust and lying to shareholders. A public statement by Vasella that he would donate the money to charity did little to quell the uproar.

The subsequent decision by Novartis to drop the plan was a significant victory for corporate accountability activists and critics of excessive executive and director pay, who have been targeting bloated compensation not only at Novartis but also at other large Swiss companies.

What’s ironic, however, is that this planned parting payment to Vasella generated a lot more controversy than other, arguably more serious sins of the company during his tenure, especially those committed in its U.S. operations.

For example, in 2010 Novartis had to pay $422 million to U.S. authorities to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from charges that it engaged in illegal marketing of its epilepsy drug Trileptal, including the payment of kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication for off-label and potentially dangerous purposes.

That same year, Eon Laboratories, a Novartis subsidiary, agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle allegations that it violated the U.S. False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate reports to the federal government that obscured the fact that the Food and Drug Administration had found that the company’s Nitroglycerin Sustained Release capsules lacked substantial evidence of effectiveness.

In 2005 a Novartis U.S. unit, OPI Properties, had agreed to pay $49.2 million in civil and criminal fines and be excluded from federal healthcare contracts to resolve charges relating to its improper marketing of nutritional products to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

In 2005 a group of women who had worked as sales representatives for Novartis in the United States filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially after becoming pregnant. In 2010 a federal jury ruled in favor of the women, awarding them $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Novartis appealed and then settled the case for $152 million.

Novartis has also been at the center of a worldwide controversy over the pricing of its cancer medication Gleevec (Glivec in Europe), a year’s supply of which in the early 2000s was priced at about $27,000. Novartis sought to quiet the criticism by promising to give the drug away to many of those who could not afford it, but in 2003 it was reported that the effort was falling far short of expectations.

Novartis later found itself in a battle with the Indian government, which rejected the company’s patent application for Gleevec as part of its effort to encourage the production of low-cost generic drugs for poor countries. A wide range of non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, called on Novartis to drop its suit, which was heard by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012.

Novartis was right to cancel its big giveaway to Vasella, but the company has a lot more to answer for.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is dossier number 41, describing the track record of another ethically challenged Swiss company, Credit Suisse.

UBS’s Ill-Fated Quest for Financial Glory

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

UBSUBS seems to be in the news these days more often in connection with its legal problems than in its role as a major financial services company.

This is a result both of some dubious cases brought against it and numerous instances of serious misconduct on the part of the Swiss company. UBS, after all, a corporation that not long ago had to pay $1.5 billion to settle charges that it helped manipulate the LIBOR interest rate index.

In the dubious category is a case brought by a group of its U.S. customers who tried to collect damages from the bank after it had revealed their secret accounts and they had to pay hefty penalties to avoid tax evasion charges for unreported income. A U.S. appellate court in Chicago recently upheld a lower court’s dismissal with a ruling that was, in more than one sense, dismissive. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner wrote that UBS “has no duty to treat [the plaintiffs] like children or illiterates, and thus remind them that they have to pay taxes on the income on their deposits.” Posner went on to state: “This lawsuit, including the appeal, is a travesty. We are surprised that UBS hasn’t asked for the imposition of sanctions on the plaintiffs and class counsel.”

This is not to say that UBS was blameless. The lawsuit came after a former UBS banker turned whistleblower had revealed how the bank actively assisted wealthy Americans seeking to hide income from the IRS. Federal prosecutors targeted UBS, which in 2009 had to pay $780 million and sign a deferred prosecution agreement to settle criminal charges of having defrauded U.S. tax authorities.

The feds then pressured UBS to hand over account information on more than 50,000 U.S. customers. UBS and the Swiss government, seeking to retain the country’s tradition of bank secrecy, resisted but in the end agreed to spill the beans on a smaller group of depositors. Using that information, the IRS went after a bunch of those tax dodgers, some of whom then foolishly thought they could use the courts to get UBS to cover their tax bills.

UBS recently prevailed in another lawsuit filed in response to a different instance of its misconduct. In 2004 the U.S. Federal Reserve fined the bank $100 million for violating U.S. trade sanctions by engaging in currency transactions with parties in countries such as Iran and Libya. Based on that, a group of Americans who had been injured in Hamas and Hezbollah attacks while in Israel sued UBS in 2008 under the Anti-Terrorism Act, arguing that the bank was liable for damages in light of its dealings with Iran, which is said to back those groups. The U.S. appeals court in New York has just upheld a dismissal of the case, though it ruled that the trial judge was wrong in holding that the victims lacked standing to bring the action in the first place.

UBS’s success in these two cases pales in comparison to the damage that its reputation has suffered both from the larger matters that prompted them and from a series of other scandals that have embroiled the company through most of the 15 years since it was created from the merger of two of Switzerland’s three big banks: Swiss Bank Corporation and Union Bank of Switzerland.

After the deal was completed, UBS’s chief executive at the time, Marcel Ospel, set out on an ambitious mission to make the company the world leader in investment banking. It was an ill-fated quest.

When UBS sought to increase its U.S. presence with the acquisition of brokerage house PaineWebber, it inherited a slew of legal problems relating both to PaineWebber’s own deceptive practices in the sale of limited partnerships and those the U.S. firm in turn took on when it bought Kidder Peabody, including a scandal in which a trader fabricated $350 million in trading profits to hide what were actually huge losses.

UBS’s U.S. operation was later caught up in the controversy over conflicts of interest between research and investment banking (UBS paid $80 million as its share of the settlement) and was sued by several U.S. state governments relating to its sale of auction-rate securities. UBS settled the actions by agreeing to pay a total of $150 million in penalties to the states and buy back more than $18 billion of the securities.

After getting bailed out to the tune of some $65 billion by the Swiss government during the financial meltdown in 2008, UBS had to pay $160 million to settle federal and state charges relating to bid-rigging in the municipal securities market. Just after that, UBS was sued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency in an action seeking to recover more than $900 million in losses suffered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from mortgage-backed securities purchased through UBS. (The case is pending.)

UBS faced criticism in 2011 after it came to light that a young trader named Kweku Adoboli working in the bank’s London offices had racked up more than $2 billion in losses. Adoboli was later found guilty of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison, while UBS was fined £29 million by British regulators for supervisory failures.

And late last year, there was the resolution of the LIBOR manipulation case. In addition to the $1.5 billion in penalties, a Japanese subsidiary of UBS pleaded guilty to a charge of felony wire fraud in U.S. federal court. (By having a foreign subsidiary take the fall, UBS shielded its U.S. operations.) The repercussions of the LIBOR case did not disappear. During a subsequent hearing on the matter in the British Parliament, several former UBS executives were accused of “gross negligence and incompetence.” So much for the dream of financial glory.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on UBS, which can be found here.

Prosecuting Ratesters and Banksters

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

DOJ_S&PThe U.S. Justice Department’s action against Standard & Poor’s is a welcome, if long overdue, step in the prosecution of the rating agencies, which were some of the key culprits in the financial meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing economic slump.

There are both encouraging and disheartening aspects of the case. DOJ is making use of a law enacted in the wake of the savings & loan scandals of the 1980s—the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA)—which permits it to seek penalties up to the amount of the losses suffered as a result of the alleged violations. During the period covered by the complaint, federally insured financial institutions suffered an estimated $5 billion in losses from the collateralized debt obligations that S&P is charged with giving inflated ratings. In other words, S&P may very well face a multi-billion-dollar hit.

On the other hand, despite the statement by Attorney General Eric Holder (photo) that the firm’s conduct was “egregious,” this is a civil rather than a criminal case, which means that no S&P executives will go to prison and S&P will be able to return to business as usual after it absorbs the financial blow. This is a repeat of the approach taken in the cases filed against the big banks.

At the press conference announcing the case, the head of DOJ’s civil division, Stuart Delery, noted that FIRREA allows prosecutors to seek civil penalties even though many of the underlying offenses are criminal in nature, including mail fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud. This, Delery emphasized, means that DOJ will have a lower burden of proof in making its case.

That’s convenient for prosecutors, but it lets S&P off a very large hook. Why couldn’t DOJ have brought civil and criminal charges?

Another limitation of this case, along with previous ones filed by DOJ, is that the rating agencies and the banks and investment houses that exploited their inflated ratings to peddle toxic assets are not being prosecuted at the same time. The use of separate cases means that the collusion between the groups—which can be called banksters and ratesters—is less likely to come to light.

A more aggressive approach was taken in a private suit filed back in 2008 against both a major investment house—Morgan Stanley—and the leading rating agencies—S&P and Moody’s. The case, which is still making its way through federal court, alleged that Morgan worked closely with the agencies to be sure that the large package of risky mortgage-backed securities it was selling to institutional investors received a better rating than it deserved. The plaintiffs allege that Morgan paid the agencies three times their usual fee to, in effect, guarantee that the securities would be highly rated.

To try to get around the clear implication of conflict of interest and collusion, the agencies fell back on the far-fetched claim that their ratings are a form of speech covered by the First Amendment, while Morgan tried to pin the blame on the agencies. As Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times noted in a piece about the case last July, documents that emerged in the case showed that Morgan bullied the agencies to raise the grade they attached to the securities.

It is no surprise to learn of Morgan’s behavior. The investment house has a long history of arrogance and insistence on getting its own way. It also has a long record of cutting corners when it comes to the protection of the interests of its customers, as can be seen in the frequent fines it has paid to industry and government regulators. For example, in 2007 Morgan had to pay $7.9 million to settle SEC fraud charges relating to its failure to get retail investors the best prices possible on more than 1 million over-the-counter transactions. In 2009 Morgan was fined $3 million and ordered to pay more than $4.2 million in restitution to resolve charges that its brokers persuaded employees of Eastman Kodak and Xerox to take early retirement based on misleading investment projections.

Morgan, which once dealt exclusively with the country’s largest corporations, later got caught up with predatory lending by purchasing Saxon Mortgage Services. In 2011 Saxon had to pay $2.35 million to settle charges that it violated federal law by foreclosing on the homes of active duty military personnel without first obtaining required court orders. Last month, Morgan agreed to pay $227 million to settle other charges of loan servicing and foreclosure abuses by Saxon (which it no longer owns).

The inescapable conclusion is that the investment houses, the banks and the rating agencies all have a high degree of culpability for reckless and fraudulent practices. Prosecuting them together as criminal co-conspirators will be the only way to bring some justice to the financial sector.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Morgan Stanley, which can be found here.