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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fraud as Fair: Lehman as Beneficiary of Society's Pro-Business Cultural Values

In 2010, Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, told a congressional committee that he had "absolutely no recollection whatsoever of hearing anything" about Repo 105 at the time of the transactions. Lehman's demise, he claimed, was caused by "uncontrollable market forces" and the U.S. government's unwillingness to rescue the firm. Of course, Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury Secretary in 2008, had tried in vain to get Fuld to accept a buyer offering a reasonable price; Fuld had been holding out for more in spite of the financial condition of Lehman. It is stunning that a man who had been allowed to reach such a pristine and lofty office in the business world would not even permit himself to acknowledge any contributory role in the downfall of the organization he had run. Such an attitude alone seems worthy of a prison sentence (and the return of his salary and bonuses); how he and his "team" had manipulated the books to make the bank look wealthier than it was would seem to make such a sentence inevitable.

However, as of March 15, 2011, no high-profile executives involved in the finacial crisis of 2008 had been successfully prosecuted. In Feburary of the same year, for example, a federal criminal investigation of former Countrywide Financial Corp. Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo had been, according to The New York Times, "closed without charges." Regarding "the battered real-estate portfolio and an accounting move known as Repo 105," the paper reported that SEC officials were growing more worried in the early months of 2011 that "they could lose a court battle if they bring civil charges that allege Lehman investors were duped by company executives. The key stumbling block: The accounting move, while controversial, isn't necessarily illegal." This is an extremely important point, for it means that FASB, the non-profit quasi-regulatory body that promulgates generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) in the United States, is too permissive--too accommodating of how executives of publicly-held corporations want to value assets and liabilities.

Punctum saliens, the means by which accounting standards are determined is too susceptible to influence from CPA firms and their clients, the public corporations being audited.  The structural conflict of interest existing between the "independent" auditors and their clients is magnified to the extent that either of the two parties have inordinate influence on FASB.  Even if a government agency such as the SEC were to set the regulations, there would still be the risk that the accounting firms and/or public corporations could gain leverage over the regulators, in what is called regulatory capture. The root problem behind both allowing the conflict of interest and being too accommodating in terms of GAAP is that Americans, and thus the values in American culture, are too conducive to business--meaning not sufficiently realistic concerning the possibility of greed and any resulting harm. An examination of why the Lehman executives could manipulate their books unfairly and yet legally points to this proclivity manifested through a too-flawed and friendly accounting regulatory system.

The New York Times reports that in March of the same year in which Richard Fuld testified before Congress to disavow any responsibility in the failure of the bank he had run, "the Repo 105 transactions were condemned by court-appointed examiner Anton R. Valukas, who said in a report that they enabled Lehman to 'paint a misleading picture of its financial condition.' . . . In the transactions, Lehman swapped fixed-income assets for cash shortly before the securities firm reported quarterly results, promising to buy back the securities later. The cash was used to pay down the company's debts. Emails sent by executives at the company referred to Repo 105 as a 'drug' and 'basically window dressing.'" Valukas concluded there were "colorable," or credible, legal claims against Ernst & Young, Fuld and former Lehman finance chiefs Ian Lowitt, Erin Callan and Christopher O'Meara. Indeed, when he was the Attorney General of New York, Andrew Cuomo criticized the Repo 105 transactions as a "house-of-cards business model, designed to hide billions in liabilities in the years before Lehman collapsed."  The implication is that Fuld and his subordinate managers had committed fraud.

Even so, Ernst & Young "had concluded that the accounting in the Repo 105 transactions was acceptable."  In a statement, Ernst & Young "said," we stand "behind our work on the Lehman audit and our opinion that Lehman's financial statements were fairly stated in accordance with the U.S. accounting standards that existed at the time." (italics added) Fairness, in other words, depends solely on whether the books of a company are in line with the accounting standards, rather than on whether the values recorded on the books reflect the values of the underlying assets and liabilities. In terms of the repos at Lehman, The New York Times reports that SEC officials generally concluded that "the transactions were consistent with accounting standards." Successfully prosecuting former Lehman execcutives for making misleading statements about the bank's financial condition is an uphill battle, according to the paper, because the executives relied on legal and accounting opinions. Furthermore, in his report, Valukas wrote that he didn't find "sufficient evidence to support a colorable claim for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with any of Lehman's valuations." Also, SEC officials were not "convinced that Lehman shareholders suffered material harm, since executives were trading one type of highly liquid asset for another." However, the apparently lower debt levels might have influenced existing and potential investors in their decision-making regarding their level of exposure from investing in Lehman. In other words, their risk was being deliberately understated by Lehman's management. Even if particular investors were not actually harmed, showing an apparent lower risk than would be the case without the repos (and cost valuations on the real estate investments) was not in the investors' interest. Moreover, it just isn't fair, even if it is legal because it is allowed by GAAP. The problem, in other words, extends from Fuld and his sycophants at Lehman to the FASB.

The wrench in the works with my thesis is the fact that there are indeed different ways in which an asset or liability can be valued fairly. There are different viable assumptions, for example, regarding whether an asset should be valued at cost or market. Each assumption has a downside. Showing a real estate investment at cost, for instance, has the downside that the market-value of the asset, if significantly lower, is not shown. That is, the transactions-value of the asset at the time is ignored. Even if the firm intends to hold the asset, the lower market value would determine what the firm could do with that asset in covering for any needed debt payments. On the other hand, if market values fluctuate substantially, changes in an asset's value may not make much difference to the underlying value of the asset, and thus to the firm, especially if the firm intends to hold the asset long term.  To the extent that speculators can artificially push up or short an asset's market price, the latter does not reflect the underlying, or fundamental, value of the asset or even the real supply and demand (e.g., oil price hikes in the wake of the Libyan disruptions in 2011). Unfortunately, the companies being regulated and the accounting firms they hire can use such authentic debates to open GAAP up wider than a sloppy whore so they can have their way with her in order to look better than they are. That such selfishness, deceitfulness and greed can be accommodated by GAAP, and thus the FASB, and ultimately the American electorates, is the real problem, and unfortunately there is not an easy solution because the basic problem lies in values and assumptions held by a population.

As useful as flexibility is in accommodating different assumptions and plans regarding assets and liabilities, the refusal of FASB to fortify its sanctioned accounting methods with conditions so investors are not misled--a refusal that I contend is from inordinate influence from the regulated and their public accountants--means that managers running publicly-held companies like Lehman Brothers are enabled to do practically-speaking whatever they want to show the public (and the owners) only the asset values and debt levels that they want. Allowing only cost to value real estate, for instance, could be conditioned not on whether the firm intends to hold the asset (a subjective matter that a manager could manipulate and even falsify), but rather on the extent of difference in percentage terms between the market value and cost. An accounting breed of relativism unchecked allows for and enables greed. Lest we want to succumb to such decadence, fairly stated ought not be tied to conforms to GAAP if the latter is too tolerant. The regulated will always prefer relativism in regulation.  Even if GAAP is tightened, fairly stated ought not to be determined solely in terms of those standards. Additionally, CPA firms ought to be on the look out for fraud or misleading practices even if they are allowed by the FASB's standards.  The latter are means rather than ends in themselves. According to Kant, beings of a rational nature must be treated as ends in themselves (as well as means). GAAP are not rational beings.

Beyond changes in GAAP and what CPA firms are charged to look at, the friendliness of the FASB to the business world, or at the very least the extent of the organization's accommodation, should convince the American people and government officials that more government regulatory involvement is warranted. While some government regulators could come from industry to contribute their technical knowledge, they should be checked by superiors who have a healthy skepticism of business and a salient regard, or value, for the public interest. Ultimately, it is up to the American people, operating through our elected officials and the related governmental agencies, to stand up to the temptation to have regulation esssentially by the regulatees. However, this requires esteeming values that are sufficiently realistic concerning the role that greed and selfishness can play in those of us who run the world of business. Power as well as money can be intoxicating, especially in high doses. Lest the value of economic liberty blind us to this subterranean all-too-human propensity, we as a society could pay more attention to the societal blind spot of structural or institutional conflicts of interest implicit in the very design of some of our most important regulatory systems.
Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703597804576194871565429108.html

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On greed, see related essay, "Godliness and Greed": http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/02/godliness-greed-how-effective-is.html

On Lehman's corporate governance, see: http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/02/godliness-greed-how-effective-is.html

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Eight Good Behaviors of Managers: Googled by Google

The New York Times reports that in early 2009 at Google, "statisticians . . . embarked on a plan code-named Project Oxygen. The 'people analytics' teams at the company produced what might be called the Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers. 'My first reaction was, that’s it?' says Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president . . .  for human resources. 'The starting point was that our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better,' Mr. Bock says. 'So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen. The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good? And then you start saying: Well, what makes them that good? And how do you do it?' He tells the story of one manager whose employees seemed to despise him. He was driving them too hard. They found him bossy, arrogant, political, secretive. They wanted to quit his team. 'He’s brilliant, but he did everything wrong when it came to leading a team,' Mr. Bock recalls. Because of that heavy hand, this manager was denied a promotion he wanted, and was told that his style was the reason. But Google gave him one-on-one coaching — the company has coaches on staff, rather than hiring from the outside. Six months later, team members were grudgingly acknowledging in surveys that the manager had improved." (1)

Analysis:

"What if every manager were good" sounds a lot like "What is everyone were above average?" One might reasonably ask: In what sense good?  Good people as in kind-hearted?  Good as in having mastered managerial skills?  Or good as in having a good style--meaning that it fits the particular corporate culture? The question of what makes a manager good hinges on what is meant by "good." In the case of the bossy and arrogant manager at Google, I contend that what was "bad" was not limited to or sourced in his style; rather, the problem was his personality, which transcends style. Arrogance, for example, is a basic attitude rather than a style. It is no surprise that "coaching" (a mismomer outside of sports even if a fad in business circles) did not turn the guy around. It sounds to me that the guy needed therapy or counseling. That Google would reduce a "bad" personality to leadership style and prescribe "coaching" rather than a therapist is no accident.

It is commonly taught in business schools and believed in business settings that the science of management is applicable for virtually any business in any industry. In fact, one can theoretically manage a "team" (another misnomer from sports--is business really so boring that such faddish terms need to be borrowed and used out of their context?) without having any skill or knowledge particular to the product.  The idea, in short, is that anything can be managed, and that knowledge of the particular thing is not requisite. Hence it is not surprising that managers would overstep onto psychology without having a knowledge of that field. What is actually a psychological problem is thus transmuted into managerial terms such as "style" and "coaching." Personality, in other words, is reduced to the extent to which it fits within leadership and the manager is assessed from the standpoint of leadership style (e.g., task vs. relationship). Moreover, reducing managing to behaviors, as if that which is inside the manager is a black box, is to ignore that which separates the mice from the men as managers in terms of getting along with others (i.e., "good" as interpersonal relations).  In other words, improving a manager's "style" by trying to change (manipulate?) her behavior is apt to be insufficient. It is like paddling a row boat without moving the anchor; the boat isn't going to move very far.
With this in mind, I turn now to critique the "Eight Good Behaviors" that the good people at Google recommend.
  • Be a good coach. Included: provide specific feedback without being too negative and "present" solutions to problems. But isn't this just management?  I don't see much actually transferred from what coaches do in sports.
  • Empower your team and don't micromanage. Freedom vs. advice. Challenge the "team" with "big" problems. Sounds like this was written by a "team" of kindergarden teachers (no offence to the latter). Empower is a faddish politically-correct term that is rarely defined adaquately. With regard to micromanaging, every micromanager I have encountered has had control issues--meaning psychological problems involving or impacting personality and interpersonal conduct (but not rooted in conduct, or style!).
  • Express interest in team members' success and personal well-being. Get to know about their lives outside of work and make new team members feel welcome. Helping new people to feel welcome is laudable; it is perhaps the area where a manager can truly be most human. Success, however, is a vague term implying an ending (e.g., Did you succeed in getting the kids to sleep last night?), whereas business typically is ongoing and thus not like a race or contest.  Another unsuccessful analogy unless used for particular tasks that have a clear end-point.  With regard to getting to know things about subordinates outside of work, this can be viewed as invasive and with a hidden agenda (e.g., to manipulate better "performance"). Also, ethical problems can arise if subordinates feel pressured to discuss matters such as their religion and politics. If a manager, as a human being, is genuinely interested in other people at work, subordinates will likely sense it; otherwise, they could feel manipulated.
  • Don't be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.  Focus on the "team" setting achievement goals and priorities.  We are back to kindergarden language (e.g., sissy and be productive!) and to what is essentially management itself (which is inherently geared to producing results). A business is a results-oriented enterprise.  A focus "on what employees want the team to achieve" belies a manager's true intention to set goals for the people working under them.
  • Be a good communicator and listen to the team. Two-way communication. "Hold all-hands meetings and be straightforward" in communicating . . . Encourage open dialogue and listen." All-hands? At any rate, should we really be encouraging managers to have more meetings?  Being straightforward is laudable, however, as is open dialogue. The question is perhaps whether this is even possible where managers view their subordinates as lower. In other words, can there be straightforward dialogue where there is a power relation between boss and employee?
  • Help your employees with career development. Here too, the difficult matter of being able to be straightforward is relevant, given how organizational politics and a manager's own interests can relate to others' career development.
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the term even in the midst of turmoil. Involve the team in setting the vision.  Here is yet another vague analogy that has been a fad: leadership vision. How does this differ from coming up with a goal? Has anyone in the study of leadership or management successfully defined vision?  The think about faddish words use as weak analogies is that people can use them without knowing what they mean--even as they are using them! Everyone just sorta looks the other way rather than asking: well, what do you mean exactly by vision as distinct from goal-setting? Long-term goal setting?  But is that to have sight or merely to plan further out? Lastly, the use of the word turmoil, particularly when one considers how a turbulent business environment pales in comparison with the protests in the Middle East and the Japanese earthquake in 2011, seems to be excessive. Do managers have a tendency to overstate--or overdramatize--what they face on a daily basis?
  • Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team. Work side by side with your subordinates when needed and understand the work they are doing. This principle, or "habit," challenges the notion that a person can learn management skills and apply them to virtually any business--knowledge of how to make the particular product being unnecessary.  I suspect this is an American view of management. The Japanese have traditionally hired managers from the factory floor precisely because they are familiar with the technical skills being used to make the particular products.  A good manager, I contend, is one who is already proficient with most of the tasks of his or her subordinates and can therefore help out when needed.  So it would appear that Google got one right.
1. Quoted from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=todayspaper

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