As I read John Carney’s piece on CNBC.com (“In Defense of Morgan Stanley’s ‘Nuclear Holocaust’”) I decided a rebuttal of his opinion should be a post on this blog.
Among the news items this week was the release, in a civil trial, of the text of certain emails that were sent among staff at Morgan Stanley pertaining to the internally perceived quality of a mortgage backed CDO that they were preparing for the market. The emails speculated on an appropriate name for the CDO and included such labels as “Subprime Meltdown.” The emails were brought to light in a lawsuit by a Taiwanese bank that had invested in part of that CDO.
The original story was written by Jesse Eisinger in ProPublica on January 23rd and was also published by the New York Times’ DealBook that same day.
While there is a lot to ‘bite’ on, ethically speaking, in the story itself, I was particularly amazed by the defense of Morgan Stanley written by John Carney, Senior Editor at CNBC.com. Mr. Carney’s article attempts to defend Morgan Stanley from having done anything wrong. The core of his argument can be found in this statement: “There’s a big difference between selling a product to a retail investor and a bank, even a Taiwanese bank.”
Setting aside the obvious disrespectful phrase “even a Taiwanese bank” (implying that a Taiwanese bank is inherently not as competent as its Western counterparts), I find it incredible that anyone could hold out a distinction of this sort as a basis of a defense. At its foundation, this defense is the inevitable result of the caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) attitude that has permeated the financial industry for so long.
Carney goes on to say that it was no secret in the industry that Morgan Stanley was bearish on mortgage debt and that the bank had published articles on the approaching bubble as early as August of 2006. Evidently none of those articles reached the desk of then Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan. We all know that there were many contrary opinions within expert economic circles at that time.
Carney then points out that it is common practice, even today, for a bank to sell products to its customers that it does not itself believe to be good investments. In other words, everyone does this so therefore it is OK.
This defense of the bank’s actions is filled with flaws. I want to discuss those using my model for ethical standards, the Seven Layers of Integrity®. Quotations below are from his article, referenced above, and I encourage you to read his entire article.
The Law and Contracts and Agreements
We have laws and regulations governing the selling of securities to investors. A key focus of those rules is the attempt to ensure that the buyer is fully aware of the risks of the securities. That risk discussion is to be found in the prospectus or offering documents, not in “notes” from one of the company’s analysts appearing in an overall market assessment or industry hearsay that the bank was a bear on mortgages in general. The risks of the specific security being offered, not just the broad market or industry risks, should have been highlighted. The fact that fully $415 million of the $500 million package ended up being worthless and that this apparently came as a surprise to the buyer would raise the question of what was and was not revealed. The fact, via the emails in question, that the bank’s own staff who were putting the offering together believed it to be highly likely to default is tantamount to the bank itself knowing that the product being offered on the market was completely speculative and extremely risky. Is that how they categorized it?
The argument that these securities were not being sold to retail investors implies that for “sophisticated financial institutions” an investment bank can be less scrupulous, less transparent, in presenting the risks involved. I am not a registered financial broker or the like, and would invite the perspective of someone who is, but I am highly skeptical that an appropriate discussion of risk can be bypassed when the bank presenting the offering believes the securities to be highly risky. If that is actually acceptable, it should not be.
I would like to think that people in the banking industry who hold certain securities licenses have professional ethical standards that they should adhere to just as CPA s and attorneys do. I would like to think that independence and objectivity would be part of those standards, along with placing your clients’ interests above your own. I don’t see any of that being observed in this case, nor does Mr. Carney’s defense even attempt to address those issues, other than pointing to an industry standard.
The argument that “the investment banks have typically allowed clients to take the opposite sides of trades, even when they regard one side of the trade as misguided” states a current industry standard of expected behavior. As I point out in our book, industry standards can and do violate the standards found in the Law, Contracts, Professional Standards and the other layers in my model. When they do, and this is one case where I believe strongly that they are in conflict, the industry standard will ultimately be changed. I look forward to that day.
Community Standards – The Investing Public
Neither Mr. Carney nor anyone else can state without qualification that there were no retail investors involved. The odds are high that some were involved, albeit indirectly. For example, there could well have been retail investors holding shares of the purchasing bank that saw their investment in those shares hit when this CDO and others like it proved to be worth so much less on the bank’s books. And in general the losses on mortgage backed CDOs that were bought by municipalities, pension funds and other entities have affected retail investors and the non-investing public alike.
Interpersonal Standards and Spiritual Values
Not even raised by Mr. Carney as something to be defended, so the only flaw is that he doesn’t even mention them. Interpersonally, no one buys a second time from someone they had to sue. Spiritually, as I have said before, there is no spiritual value I am aware of that justifies what the banking industry has done to the global economy and millions of individuals in the name of greater profits for its own pockets.
Mr. Carney’s defense makes it clear that in his mind Morgan Stanley did little wrong, save for failing to teach their staff to not send emails of this sort. I don’t consider hiding bad actions to be a virtue.
For my part, and likely a large percentage of the retail investor market, the revelations coming from this lawsuit are of little surprise and may simply confirm our worst suspicions. There are so many instances of ethical failures and deception in this real world example that a reasonable person can only conclude that what the bank did in this case was simply wrong. It is one more reason why so many of us are reluctant to return to the market even now as it is clearing the decks for new highs.
Wall Street has tarnished itself mightily, doesn’t even realize it and most likely doesn’t even care.
Two other interesting opinions on the ethics of the investment banking industry are
“Wall Street Ethics Codes Make Me Want to Inhale” by Susan Antilla of Bloomberg News
“The Market Has Spoken, and It Is Rigged” by Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship, M.I.T. Sloan School