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Friday, May 27, 2011

Rating Moody’s and S & P: A Structural Conflict of Interest

For years, banks and other issuers have paid rating agencies to rate their securities. This is a bit like restaurants paying food critics to write on their food.  In the wake of the SEC’s charge that  people at Goldman Sachs built the Abacus investment to fall apart so a hedge fund manager, John A. Paulson, could bet against it, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations questioned representatives from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s about how they rate risky securities. Carl M. Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate panel, said in a statement: “A conveyor belt of high-risk securities, backed by toxic mortgages, got AAA ratings that turned out not to be worth the paper they were printed on.” Throughout the testimony, the institutional conflict of interest was salient whereby credit-rating agencies put market-share considerations foremost in rating securities presented by the banks that are paying the agencies.

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available at Amazon. 

Paper Tigers: Firewalls Forestalling Institutional Conflicts of Interest

Structural, or institutional, conflicts of interest are of great significance in applied ethics, even though they often play second fiddle to the conflicts centered on a person’s particular interests. An organizational or institutional conflict of interest, whether within one organization or in the arrangements between organizations, is not any less unethical than a personal conflict of interest.  Therefore, when we take the claims of vested organizational interests that their internal firewalls are more than just paper tigers at face value, our foolhardiness can really be at our detriment. I present a few cases to suggest that “firewalls” in an organization to prevent it from a conflict of interest are, in general, insufficient and thus ought not be relied on. Instead, the public (or government regulatory agencies) should insist that one of the two interests in an institutional conflict of interest be given up.


The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

A Structural Conflict of Interest in BP

Mark Bly, BP’s head of safety and operations, released on September 7, 2010 an internal report blaming not only the company, but also its partners for the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill. A spokesman at Transocean quickly lashed out, calling it a “self-serving report” that minimized what was critical: BP’s “fatally flawed” well design. Behind the self-serving aspect was a larger conflict of interest—one premised on the structure of two functions: an “objective” investigation and efforts to minimize legal damages.


The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court Deciding Federalism Cases: A Structural Conflict of Interest

Regarding the US Supreme Court being the decider of last resort, Madison’s Report of 1800 reads in part, “this resort must necessarily be deemed the last in relation to the authorities of the other departments of the government; not in relation to the rights of the parties to the constitutional compact, from which the judicial as well as the other departments hold their delegated trusts.”  The government being referred to is the U.S. The parties to the compact are the states.  Therefore, the theory here is that the U.S. Supreme Court can have its say after the U.S. President and the Congress, but not as binding on the States.  John Breckinridge, who sponsored the Kentucky Resolutions in the Kentucky House, wrote, “Who are the judiciary? Who are they, but a part of the servants of the people created by the Federal compact?”[1] The Federal Courts are part of the US Government that was created by the states, so those courts can’t be the final deciders with respect to the states.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.


1. James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1957), p. 75.

Institutional Conflicts of Interest

Although conflicts of interest do not inevitably lead to unethical conduct, they raise the probability that it will occur. Just as a tornado watch indicates that conditions are favorable to the formation of a twister, a conflict of interest evinces conditions favorable to unethical decisions. Interests conflicting in a conflict of interest pit an obligation against either another obligation or self-interest. That is to say, such conflicts tend to involve deontology and egoism.


The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available at Amazon.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Goldman's Ethical Conflict of Interest: Obviated or Enabled?

According to U.S. Senator Carl Levin, Goldman Sachs “profited by taking advantage of its clients’ reasonable expection[s] that it would not sell products that it did not want to succeed and that there was no conflict of economic interest between the firm and the customers that it had pledged to serve.” (Cohen, p. 19). Not only was the bank secretly betting against housing-related securities while selling them to clients, in at least one case a client shorting such a security was allowed to have a hand in picking the bonds. What is perhaps most striking, however, is how little Goldman Sachs has had to pay for acting at the expense of some of its clients. One might predict on this basis that the unethical culture at the bank is ongoing.


The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.



Sunday, May 22, 2011

Business Ethics in the Business World: A Glimpse from Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs’ ethics code reads in part, “[We] expect our people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do. . . . From time to time, the firm may waive certain provisions of this Code.” (Cohan, p. 18). The explicit conditionality is notable and significant. I contend that among other reasons, a negative impact on the bank’s financial position and/or profits is apt to trigger such a waiver not only at Goldman Sachs, but from the business standpoint more generally.

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.com.