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Archive for the ‘Organizational Culture and Ethics’ Category

The JPMorgan Chase CEO deserves every dollar of his recent pay raise.  That statement places us at odds with most commentators. Marketwatch’s David Weidner just published a piece whose headline uses the phrase “mocks accountability” to describe the raise. Forbes bashed not only the CEO but also an “ineffective board” in its article a few days prior to Weidner’s. Other negative opinions were expressed in such disparate places as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Few of these headlines point out that the board had previously, almost a year ago, halved Mr. Dimon’s compensation to $11.5 million from about $22 million in the “London Whale’s” wake. So while his recent raise looks enormous, he is still making less than he was before. But whether we call it a pay raise or a smaller pay cut from his highest compensation, I believe this current increase was deserved for the following reasons.

First, as noted in a post on this blog at the time the “Whale” surfaced, Mr. Dimon tackled the problem of his rogue London trader within days. He very quickly dismissed both the individual trader and the head of the London hedging operation, went public without excuses on the $6 Billion loss, and tightened the reins of that operation.

Other problems that faced JPMorgan Chase were problems that crossed multiple banks: Libor rate setting, foreign currency exchange rates and mortgage packages. You can be sure that the Libor and foreign exchange rate fixing, the collusion of personnel across multiple banks in multiple countries, was not out in the open for their respective CEOs to observe. As for the mortgage securities, we have all too easily forgotten that at the peak of the financial meltdown in September 2008, the federal government seized Washington Mutual and sold it to JPMorgan Chase. These were not securities that Dimon’s operation created.

Following the exposure of the “Whale,” Mr. Dimon acted swiftly on each of these problems, cooperated fully with all investigations, worked to settle with the government and initiated programs to develop and implement additional controls. The same was true when one of his department’s involvement in the Madoff scandal came to light.

As for the board, they acted quickly and publicly to slam Mr. Dimon’s compensation last year. They reportedly argued strongly over this most recent compensation adjustment. I find those to be healthy signs of an involved board.

Contrast this with Aubrey McClendon and the board of Chesapeake Energy, the company who gave us fracking. Mr. McClendon treated the company as his own fiefdom long after it went public. He leveraged his operation as much as he could and when gas prices came down he was caught short. The board did nothing until it was too late, primarily because the board had been filled with McClendon’s friends.

Over a ten month period Mr. Dimon has settled each of the issues for the bank, while still making healthy profits and delivering shareholders a strong improvement in share price. In every case Dimon has directed his team to examine internal processes and strengthen them. He has not hesitated to remove personnel, which is a key to strengthening internal corporate culture.

In short, Mr. Dimon is exactly what you want in a professional executive and he deserves every dollar. His board also deserves more credit than they have been getting.

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A year ago we posted a number of predictions for 2013 and many proved accurate. One area in particular may be taking a significant turn for the better.

Our predictions for 2013 were:

Rebekah Brooks will go to trial. JPMorgan will further increase its reserve for bad trades by “The Whale.” No one in the investment banking industry will go to jail for anything other than insider trading. Goldman Sachs will continue to be bad. The global economy will continue to improve. Slowly. More dirt will come out regarding Walmart’s non-US operations. Somewhere in the US a bank will go under.

And there will be at least one big sex scandal.

What Did We See In 2013?

Ms. Brooks is on trial, JPMorgan did have greater Whale damage (along with several other huge financial settlements related to its business practices and flawed oversight), and several people are going to jail or being strongly pursued over insider trading. I won’t comment on the moral state of GS. The global economy has survived and is improving. Slowly. And without doing the research I am quite certain that at least one US bank somewhere was taken over by the FDIC.

I missed on Walmart’s non-US operations and a big sex scandal.

Yet the most significant change by far in terms of the financial industry is that the SEC, under new leadership, appears to have become more dedicated to putting some people in jail.

At the end of November 2012, SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro left that office and was replaced in mid December 2012 by Elisse Walter, an SEC commissioner. Walter was an appointment by the president, who then nominated Mary Jo White as the chair. White was confirmed by the Senate and was sworn in on April 10, 2013.

Chairwoman White lost no time in tackling the challenge of prosecuting people in the financial industry. On April 22nd she named George Canellos and Andrew Ceresney Co-Directors of the agency’s Division of Enforcement. Canellos had been Deputy Director and then Acting Director of the division. Per the agency’s press release, Ceresney “served as a Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he was a member of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force and the Major Crimes Unit. As a prosecutor, Mr. Ceresney handled numerous white collar criminal investigations, trials and appeals, including matters relating to securities fraud, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering.”

In particular White appears not interested in settlements that involve a fine with no admission of wrong doing. On her way in the door she got the board of the SEC to overturn a settlement with a hedge fund manager that included a no admission of wrong doing. Soon after, the individual involved signed a new settlement in which he admitted to most of the agency’s charges.  Later in the year, JPMorgan Chase reached its first settlement under the new leadership and it too included an admission of violating certain securities laws.

An article by Sheelah Kolhatkar in Bloomberg’s Business Week in mid October recaps this sea change and quotes Mr. Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets. “Mary Jo White has clearly changed the tone, and what she’s had to say is encouraging to anybody who wants the SEC to not only be successful, but be restored to its storied place as a protector of investors and markets.”

That’s the real story for investors coming out of 2013 and we look forward to more significantly stronger settlements in the year ahead.

Why this is important

Readers of this blog know that when it comes to ethical business behavior there is one key element that so often is overlooked to our detriment: the impact of corporate and industry culture on individual behavior. In the investment banking industry we have seen a cross company, industry level trading culture that has not only violated any sense of fair play and decency but has had tremendous real dollar impact on the global economy and investors’ trust. Alleged collusion on Libor rates was topped by collusion on foreign currency exchanges. Highly risky collateralized debt obligations were packaged and sold while the bankers made mockery of their  clients and customers. Massive bets were placed on global interest rates in a game of “top gun” between traders in different organizations.

This environment at an industry level makes it difficult for a CEO such as Jamie Dimon to totally manage his organization’s (and shareholders’ and customers’) risk. Mr. Dimon is doing all the right things in coming to relatively quick settlements and pledging to install new processes and oversight within his bank. I respect what he is doing. Yet until the industry as a whole changes its macho/top gun culture we global citizens are  not safe.

If there is one way to change that macho/top gun culture it is to prosecute, convict and sentence to jail a sufficient number of egregious individuals that the investment banking and trading community sobers up.

 

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The head of the New York Fed said in a speech yesterday that there is an “important problem evident within some large financial institutions—the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust.  There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions.”  The remarks came in  this speech given by William C. Dudley, the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

His topic was “Ending Too Big to Fail.” Dudley first discussed various regulatory efforts to prevent another international banking disaster and how to reduce the risk of failure. Near the end of this speech he honed in on the ethical tone and business culture that is all to prevalent on the Street, in our opinion. Readers of this blog know that we often focus on the ethical issues of the banking industry and the need for both organizational and industry culture improvement.

Mr. Dudley’s statement in context said:

“Some argue that what I have proposed—higher capital requirements and better incentives that reduce the probability of failure combined with a resolution regime that makes the prospect of failure fully credible—are insufficient.  Perhaps, this is correct.  After all, collectively these enhancements to our current regime may not solve another important problem evident within some large financial institutions—the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust.  There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions.  Whether this is due to size and complexity, bad incentives or some other issues is difficult to judge, but it is another critical problem that needs to be addressed.  Tough enforcement and high penalties will certainly help focus management’s attention on this issue.  But I am also hopeful that ending too big to fail and shifting the emphasis to longer-term sustainability will encourage the needed cultural shift necessary to restore public trust in the industry.”

Good points, Mr. Dudley.

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This week has been filled with tragedy and bravery. Once again, as they do without hesitation, our first responders and ordinary fellow citizens led by example. The Boston bombs were unexpected and events moved quickly. With many people wounded and the shock of two explosions still ringing in their ears, first responders, marathoners and people in the crowd aided the victims. Who can forget the scenes of people being raced to ambulances on gurneys and in wheelchairs, some with bleeding arteries held tight by another spectator.

The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas looked like a miniature nuclear bomb in the film clips I saw. A fire at the facility had already been burning, the town’s small fire department, a volunteer fire department, had raced to the scene. The ensuing explosion that leveled five city blocks hit them without warning. The evacuation of a nearby senior living facility, damaged by the explosion, took place with every vehicle that could be found. First responders arrived from nearby towns and cities. The wounded were transported as far away as Temple and Fort Worth.

In every tragedy our nation faces it is our fellow citizens, ordinary men and women who work for a living to support their families, who show us what ethical leadership really is. They don’t need corporate placards or SEC regulations to tell them what to do.

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Each of these firms had achieved the highest reputation for integrity and quality by placing their responsibility to the investing public ahead of all else. Then their corporate cultures changed.

For those of us who were a part of Arthur Andersen in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no question that the firm considered its reputation to be its principal asset. An asset to be safeguarded at all cost. Reputation was everything and reputation brought in the revenue. The foundations of that reputation were competence, independence and objectivity, all found by no coincidence in the ethical standards for CPAs. The people we served were not our clients; they were the investing public who relied upon competent and independent audit opinions; opinions that were signed “Arthur Andersen & Company.”

The firm invested greatly in achieving and maintaining those qualities throughout its organization. We were masters at training our personnel, developing and enforcing firm wide standards of practice across the globe and maintaining discipline in the use of those standards through a mechanism of internal quality assurance reviews of every audit, tax and consulting engagement combined with frequent and specific personnel reviews at all levels.

But we overlooked one key and fundamental element of maintaining a corporate culture that applies to all organizations, one that Standard & Poor’s may also have missed. We altered the values that generated real rewards and recognition for upward movement in the organization. Over time we collectively allowed the importance of independence and objectivity to slip and the importance of revenue generation by individuals to rise. Serving the investing public remained in our literature, but generating more revenue for the partners became the most important value within the partnership.

Had the partners ever sat down at an annual meeting and openly proposed that this be done it most likely would have been booed down. It was not really a conscious decision, nor do I believe that we ever actually viewed rewarding individual revenue production as something likely to be in conflict with our reputation and our integrity. (A prior generation of partners most definitely did.) But slowly over time the focus on admission to and advancement within the partnership shifted. Reputation did not drive revenue; individuals did. Service to investors was not the primary overriding importance; renewing audit contracts and deriving consulting and tax opportunities was.

So when a Chicago Headquarters partner with a well established reputation for audit and accounting expertise came down to Houston to provide the quality assurance review for the Enron audit, his disagreements with the treatment of certain off balance sheet partnerships resulted in his quick dismissal by the firm’s client. The client had no say in the selection of quality assurance partners in the old days. The firm’s top management would not have acquiesced to a clean opinion after such client actions. The threat of loss of consulting revenue from the client would not have swayed the objections presented in the audit opinion. This time they did.

Floyd Norris’s story in The New York Times draws potential parallels between the corporate culture issues underlying Andersen’s demise and those that are appearing to surface as the government brings its civil case against Standard & Poor’s. In the case of Andersen, damage to our economy was contained. In the case of the CDO s of the type that S&P and others rated, the damage was global and a near worldwide meltdown.

Corporate culture is the key to ethical behavior in any organization. But can a company of such importance police itself? Enron led to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which among other things established a new oversight agency, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), for a profession that had previously been proudly self-regulating. It is time to do the same for the ratings industry.  They are there to serve the public and the public should have the oversight.

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The Wrapper On 2012

What a year it was. I started this blog and its associated Twitter account, @ethicsbite, in March and since that time have covered and commented on an amazing number of stories. When I scroll down the list of tweets I realize first hand the extent of ethically questionable (and many times illegal) corporate behavior in our country. Ponzi schemes, insider trading, money laundering and (in the UK) phone hacking are among the illegal. Providing financial advice to clients while your own firm profits by the reverse position is unprofessional. Manipulating the rate determination for an international banking benchmark is likely a violation of regulations. I’ll stop there as the full list would no doubt cause my readers to move on. So we’ll switch to sex.

The Petraeus sex scandal seemed to dominate the corporate ethics news at the end of the year. The New York Times story regarding Walmart’s Mexico operations was more significant in scale.  But all of that was eclipsed by juicy, titillating tales from Washington, Tampa and Afghanistan.

2012 Awards

In addition to being amazed at the plethora of unethical activity, I have marveled at the crassness of the people involved. One has to wonder how they would explain their actions to Mom.

In terms of sheer and utter crassness, the 2012 award truly has to go to the News of the World, whose employees allegedly hacked into the cell phone of a young British girl who had disappeared, then proceeded to delete some of the messages on her cell phone so they could capture potential new incoming messages. Her parents detected that something was going on and informed the police. That case led to the demise of one Rebekah Brooks, a Rupert Murdoch “protégé” and the editor of News of the World. Ms. Brooks and her husband’s relationship with David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, tainted 10 Downing Street and created a political situation that could not be ignored. As the investigation continued, Rupert found himself testifying at Parliament and Ms. Brooks was formally charged in May, together with her husband and four others, with conspiring to interfere with the investigation. She allegedly attempted to carry off the evidence in boxes she took out of News of the World’s offices. Moreover it has turned out that phone hacking may have been a relatively common tool at News of the World as close to 200 individuals, many of them celebrities and political figures, have filed suit over the hacking of their personal cell phones. News of the World was shut down by Mr. Murdoch and he subsequently re-organized the News Corp. entity.

A close second place in crassness would be Chesapeake Energy’s founder, Aubrey McClendon. Mr. McClendon showed little bounds in his use of the company’s money and making a name for himself with it. From such relatively small amounts as corporate payment of his personal staff (to be reimbursed at year end without interest on the amounts advanced) to the millions of dollars he authorized be invested in a local NBA team and the construction of a shopping mall that just happened to have eateries owned by Mr. McClendon, the CEO continually used corporate funds to “match” expenditures from his personal wealth to foster his interests. Chesapeake by this time was a publicly held company traded on the NASDAQ and the CEO’s use of money in this manner should have been overseen by the Board. But as is often the case, the Board was beholding to the CEO.  Chesapeake’s stock fell on bad times (from around $34 on 8/1/2011 to around $17 on 12/14/2012), four new independent board members were elected and McClendon was stripped of his Chairman title. But those who paid the cost were the shareholders, of course.

What Will We See In 2013?

Here are our predictions: Rebekah Brooks will go to trial. JPMorgan will further increase its reserve for bad trades by “The Whale.” No one in the investment banking industry will go to jail for anything other than insider trading. Goldman Sachs will continue to be bad. The global economy will continue to improve. Slowly. More dirt will come out regarding Walmart’s non-US operations. Somewhere in the US a bank will go under.

And there will be at least one big sex scandal.

As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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Just in case we had all forgotten about it, Sex once again reminded us that Greed and Power are not the only players in town. Our corporate ethics related news this year has been so focused on financial Greed (Libor manipulation, Iran money laundering, insider trading) and ego driven Power (London Whale, anything Murdock) that we totally and completely forgot about the oldest corruptor of the human race: Sex.

But here is Sex right back in the news immediately on the heels of election night. The CIA Director, generals, a possible FBI agent, a famous biographer living in the same neighborhood as John Edwards’ former mistress, a Tampa socialite…. it doesn’t get any juicier than this folks. I mean really, this could have been a new episode of the Dallas TV soap. All of that overshadowed the relatively tame announcement from Lockheed Martin  that its named future CEO and then current COO resigned because of a “close personal relationship” with a subordinate.

How could military discipline break down at the the highest levels?  Lest we forget, the military is a vast organization run by executives called generals and subject to the same fundamental forces of organizational and human behavior that face Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and your own employer.

The forces of individual behavior are more or less clear: the temptation to commit adultery, no matter how dumb an idea it is. As of today, November 13, 2012, there are at least two generals and possibly one FBI investigator whose behavior has or may have strayed over the line due to sex.

The organizational culture forces involved are not nearly as clear, unless you frame the issue in the context of organizational culture in general together with a long history of prejudice against women. The problems women have faced in our 21st century military are well known: harassment on and off post, sexual assaults, rape, reported rapes being ignored or downplayed and few women in the highest levels of authority. An organization that can so easily overlook charges of rape will surely knowingly wink its eye at a mere affair.

Yet at the same time, organizational culture can be a force for good. The CIA hides its internal operations for obvious reasons, but one thing it has always been clear about is this: no member of the agency, regardless of rank, can conduct their personal life in a way that invites blackmail from a foreign entity. That’s why the General submitted his resignation so quickly when he was found out.

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