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A ‘Flawed’ SEC Program [A Retrospective “April Fool’s Day” Analysis]

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SEC Failed to Rein in Investment Banks [April Fool’s Day – 2015]

By Ben Protess, ProPublica – October 1, 2008 5:01 pm EDT

Editor’s Note: This investigative report was first published ten years ago. And so, we ask you to consider – on this April Fool’s Day 2019 – how [if] things have changed since then?  

***

Flag MOney

***

The Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] last week abolished the special regulatory program that it applied to Wall Street’s largest investment banks. Known as the “consolidated supervised entities” program, it relaxed the minimum capital requirements for firms that submitted to the commission’s oversight, and thus, in the view of some experts, helped create the current global financial crisis.

But, the SEC’s decision to ax the program currently affects no one, since three of the five firms that voluntarily joined the program previously collapsed and the other two reorganized.

The Decision – 18 Months Ago

The decision came last Friday, one day after the commission’s inspector general released a report [1] (PDF) detailing the program’s failed oversight of Bear Stearns before the firm collapsed in March. The commission’s chairman, Christopher Cox, a longtime opponent of industry regulation, said in a statement [2] that the report “validates and echoes the concerns” he had about the program, which had been voluntary for the five Wall Street titans since 2004.

The report found that the SEC division that oversees trading and markets was “not fulfilling its obligations. “These reports are another indictment of failed leadership,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who requested the inspector general’s investigation.

The SEC program, approved by the commission in 2004 under Cox’s predecessor, William Donaldson, allowed investment banks to increase their amount of leveraged debt. But, there was a tradeoff: Banks that participated allowed their broker-dealer operations and holding companies to be subject to SEC oversight. Previous to 2004, the SEC only had authority to oversee the banks’ broker dealers.

Longstanding SEC rules required the broker dealers to limit their debt-to-net-capital ratio and issue an early warning if they began to approach the limit. The limit was about 15-to-1, according to the inspector general report, meaning that for every $15 of debt, the banks were required to have $1 of equity.

But the 2004 “consolidated supervised entities” program revoked these limits. The new program also eliminated the requirement that firms keep a certain amount of capital as a cushion in case an asset defaults.

Bear Sterns

As a result, the oversight program created the conditions that helped cause the collapse of Bear Stearns. Bear had a gross debt ratio of about 33-to-1 prior to its demise, the inspector general found. The inspector general also found that Bear was fully compliant with the programs’ requirements when it collapsed, which raised “serious questions about whether the capital requirement amounts were adequate,” the report said.

The report quoted Lee Pickard, a former SEC official who helped write the original debt-limit requirements in 1975 and now argues the 2004 program is largely to blame for the current Wall Street crisis.

“The SEC gave up the very protections that caused these firms to go under,” Pickard said in an interview with ProPublica. “The SEC in 2004 thought it gained something in oversight, but in turn it gave up too much public protection. You don’t bargain in a way that causes you to give up serious protections.”

Pickard, now a senior partner at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, estimated that prior to the 2004 program most firms never exceeded an 8-to-1 debt-to-net capital ratio.

The previous program “had an excellent track record in preserving the securities markets’ financial integrity and protecting customer assets,” Pickard wrote [3] in American Banker this August. The new program required “substantial SEC resources for complex oversight, which apparently are not always available.”

Asked if he believes the 2004 program was a direct cause of the current crisis, Pickard told ProPublica, “I’m afraid I do.”

The New York Times reported Saturday that the SEC created the program after “heavy lobbying” for the plan from the investment banks. The banks favored the SEC as their regulator, the Times reported, because that let them avoid regulation of their fast-growing European operations by the European Union, which has been threatening to impose its own rules since 2002.

SEC Spokesman

A SEC spokesman declined to comment for this article, referring inquires to Chairman Cox’s statement. In the statement, Cox admitted the program “was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.” But Cox, a former Republican congressman from California, offered mild support for the program as recently as July when he testified before the House Committee on Financial Services. The program, among other oversight efforts, Cox said, had “gone far to adapt the existing regulatory structure to today’s exigencies.” He added that legislative improvements were necessary as well, and has since told Congress that the program failed.

More Questions

So why did the commission not end the program sooner? Some say that the program’s flaws only recently became apparent. “As late as 2005, the program seemed to make a lot of sense,” said Charles Morris, a former banker who predicted the current financial crisis in his book written last year, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown [4]. The SEC “didn’t know it didn’t work until we had this stress.”

And leverage does not always spell trouble. In a strong economy, leverage can also be attractive because it can increase the profitability of banks through lending.

In his recent statement, Cox said the inspector general’s findings reflect a deeper problem: “the lack of specific legal authority for the SEC or any other agency to act as the regulator of these large investment bank holding companies.”

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has called for a refining of the regulatory structure to reflect the global and interconnected nature of today’s financial system. In any case, the program’s failure can be seen in the disappearance of the participating banks: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

skeleton-jpeg1

***

Assessment

Merrill Lynch’s leverage ratio was possibly as high as 40-to-1 this year and Lehman Brothers faced a ratio of about 30-to-1, according to Bloomberg [5].

The Fed and Treasury Department forced Bear Stearns into a merger with JPMorgan Chase in March. And the last two months, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and sold their core U.S. business to British bank Barclays PLC, and Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, the two remaining large independent investment banks, changed their corporate structures to become bank holding companies, which are regulated by the Federal Reserve.

As these banks have folded or reorganized over the last several months, the Federal Reserve has largely assumed the SEC’s oversight responsibilities, though the commission will still have the power to regulate broker dealers.

Original Essay: http://www.propublica.org/article/flawed-sec-program-failed-to-rein-in-investment-banks-101

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Keep your Investing Options Open – Doctor

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By Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA CMP™

http://www.CertifiedMedicalPlanner.org

[Publisher-in-Chief]

As a physician executive or investor, if you don’t ordinarily deal in options or other financial derivatives, you may need to brush up on puts and calls, straddles, strangles (or combinations), forwards, futures, swaps, spreads, and non-equity options such as stock index options. Options and other financial derivatives can be used by astute physicians, financial advisors and investment managers not only as a tool to better manage the investment risks potentially affecting portfolio returns, but to craft truly value-added investment strategies customized to meet investors’ needs. The three main types of risk of equity securities (individual company, industry, and market) can be mitigated with options.

Individual Company Risk

Individual company risk can be addressed with equity options in that company’s stock. Industry risk can be reduced through the use of narrow-based index options, while market risk can be mitigated with broad-based index options. Sophisticated hedging and risk management strategies can be designed using both equity and stock index options.

Exotic Stock Options?

Some doctors feel that options have been generally thought of as too risky or exotic or requiring too much capital, resulting in a general lack of comfort. A decade ago, these opinions have no doubt been shaped by the collapse of Bearings and the resulting bitter litigation by Proctor & Gamble and Gibson Greetings against Bankers Trust. More recently it has been Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, AIG, BA, Fannie, Freddie and all those involved in the “flash-crash” of 2008-09; etc.

Assessment

Generally, premiums paid in buying puts or calls are nondeductible capital expenditures and may produce a capital gain or loss depending upon whether the option is sold prior to exercise, the call expires unexercised, or, if the option is exercised, it is added to the basis of the stock (call) or deducted from it (put). Premiums received for writing puts or calls are not included in income upon receipt but are deferred until the option expires, is exercised, or a closing transaction is entered into. Non-equity options (index options) are marked to market at year end (same as for futures) with 60% considered long-term capital gain and 40% considered short-term.

Note: “An Introduction to Options and Other Financial Derivative Strategies,” by Thomas J. Boczar, Trust & Estates, February 1997, pp. 43–68, INTERTEC/K-III Publishing.

The primary objectives in using derivatives are:

1. Risk management and hedging (reducing or eliminating downside risk, monetizing a position, deferring and possibly avoiding capital gains taxes)

2. Leveraging investment capital

3. Enhancing after-tax returns

4. Creating customized risk/return profiles

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Conclusion

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Where Are the Financial Crisis Prosecutions?

The White Collar Slump?

By Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica: jesse@propublica.org

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You may have noticed that prosecutors in this country are in something of a white-collar slump lately.

The stock options backdating prosecutions have largely been a bust [1], not because it wasn’t a true scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department investigated more than 100 companies. Over a hundred took accounting restatements. Yet only a handful of executives went to prison, with some high-profile cases fizzling out. Prosecutors also stumbled in other high priority corporate fraud prosecutions, like the KPMG [2] tax shelter and the stock-exchange specialists [3] cases.

Bear Sterns

The most spectacular prosecutorial flameout [4] was the case against the Bear Stearns hedge fund managers. The consequences of that disaster are still reverberating. The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn rushed to haul low-level executives in front of a jury based on a few seemingly incriminating emails. The defense was easily able to convince jurors that these represented only out-of-context glimpses of fear as markets swooned, not a conspiracy to mislead. But, now we have a supposedly new push: the insider trading scandal.

Insider Trading

The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, and the United States Attorney, General Eric H. Holder Jr., are hyping their efforts. “Illegal insider trading is rampant and may even be on the rise,” Mr. Bharara dubiously pronounced in a speech [5] in October. The Feds are raiding [6] hedge funds and publicly celebrating their criminal investigations related to insider trading.

The storyline is that Wall Street now lives in fear. Hedge fund managers’ phones might be tapped, any stray remark is suspect, and old trades are being exhumed so that the entrails can be examined.

In fact, plenty of folks on Wall Street are happy about the investigation. A scant few — the ones with clean consciences — like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason: They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness. Everyone is wondering: Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

Enron, Lehman, Merrill, Citigroup and Others

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders: “Have they committed the resources in the right place? Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything. No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted. All former American International Group executives are running free. No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

How about someone other than the Fabulous Fab [7] at Goldman Sachs? How could the Securities and Exchange Commission merely settle with Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo [8] — and for a fraction of what he made as CEO?

The world was almost brought low by the American banking system and we are supposed to think that no one did anything wrong?

The most common explanation from lawyers for this bizarre state of affairs is that it’s hard work. It’s complicated to make criminal cases in corporate fraud. Getting a case that shows the wrong-doer acted with intent — and proving it to a jury — is difficult.

But, of course, Enron was complicated too, and prosecutors got the big boys. Ken Lay was found guilty (he died before he served his time). Jeff Skilling is in prison now, though the end result was bittersweet for prosecutors when much of his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski are wearing stripes.

Complicated Cases

Sure, it takes time to investigate complicated cases. Many people think that the SEC, at the least, will bring some charges against top executives at Lehman Brothers. The huge, ground-breaking special examiner’s report [9] on Lehman Brothers laid bare problems with Lehman’s accounting. But that report came out back in March — on a bank that blew up more than two years ago. That seems awfully slow.

The most popular reason offered for the dearth of financial crisis prosecutions is the 100-year flood excuse: The banking system was hit by a systemic and unforeseeable disaster, which means that, as unpleasant as it may be to laymen, it’s unlikely that anyone committed any crimes.

Stupidity is No Crime

Or, barring that wildly implausible explanation (since, indeed, many people saw the crash coming and warned about it), the argument is that acting stupidly and recklessly is no crime.

As I ride the subway every morning, I often fantasize about criminalizing stupidity and fecklessness. But alas, it’s not to be.

Nevertheless, it’s hardly reassuring that bankers, out of necessity, have universally adopted the dumb-rather-than-venal justification. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of us need to buy it. It’s shocking how pervasive and triumphant this narrative of the financial crisis has been.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/thetrade/item/where-are-the-financial-crisis-prosecutions/

Assessment

Just as it’s clear that not all bankers were guilty of crimes in the lead-up to the crisis, it strains credulity to contend no one was. Corporate crime is usually the act of desperate people who have initially made relatively innocent mistakes and then seek to cover them up. Some banks went down innocently. Surely some housed bad actors who broke laws.

As a society, we have the bankers we deserve. Sadly, it’s looking like we have the regulators and prosecutors we deserve, too.

Conclusion

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Behind the Financial Reform Push

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Of Worries on Warring Regulators

By Jeff Gerth, ProPublica – April 14, 2010 12:07 pm EDT

Backers of financial regulatory reform are gearing up for the final stretch in a yearlong effort to construct a new, streamlined architecture. But, recent reports and testimony about the financial crisis suggest a crucial ingredient in any new structure is in short supply: cooperation among the watchdogs.

Office of Thrift Supervision

A proposal to eliminate one regulator seen by many as particularly weak—the Office of Thrift Supervision—could alleviate some friction. A soon-to-be-released federal examination of the Washington Mutual collapse found that OTS resisted efforts by a more skeptical regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to take a closer look at WaMu, according to an account in The New York Times [1].

Reform legislation pending in the Senate [2] (PDF) would also create new agencies, including a financial stability council to assess risk and a consumer protection watchdog. To work as envisioned, the agencies would need new levels of information sharing and decision making. By contrast, history suggests agencies can be stingy with what they know and eager to point blame at sister regulators.

Fall of the House of Lehman

Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that collapsed in September 2008, presents a case in point.

A lengthy examiner’s report [3] for the judge overseeing Lehman’s bankruptcy found that the Federal Reserve Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission kept crucial data from each other even though they had “overlapping” functions. The heads of the Federal Reserve and the SEC reached a formal sharing agreement in July 2008, but the two regulators “did not share all material information that each collected about Lehman’s liquidity.”

SEC Queries

The SEC, asked by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to provide data on Lehman’s commercial real estate exposure and liquidity, “affirmatively declined to share” the information because it was still in draft form, the bankruptcy report found. The reserve bank never turned down an information request from the SEC, but bank officials “did not perceive any duty to volunteer” information about a $7 billion shortfall in Lehman’s liquidity they uncovered in August 2008.

The reason? The report says it was “because the SEC did not always share information” with them. One official at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York told the examiner “there was not a warm audience” for information sharing between the New York Fed and the SEC.

Lehman fell under the scrutiny of the Fed after it was allowed to tap Fed lending facilities, normally reserved for banks, in the spring of 2008.

Oh … the Irony

Ironically, examiners at the Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulated Lehman’s bank subsidiary, concluded in July 2008 that Lehman had violated its own risk limits by placing an “outsized bet” on commercial real estate. But, the OTS appears as a bit player in the autopsy of Lehman’s collapse; top Federal Reserve officials “considered the SEC to be Lehman’s regulator,” the bankruptcy report found.

One of those officials, Timothy Geithner, was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2003 until early 2009, when he became secretary of the Treasury. Shortly after he joined the cabinet, Geithner was asked by a senator about the Fed’s supervisory responsibility [4] in connection with the collapse of institutions like Lehman and the insurance giant AIG.

“I just want to point out,” Geithner told the Senate Finance Committee, “the Federal Reserve was not given responsibility for overseeing investment banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, non-bank financial systems that were a critical part of making this crisis so intense.”

networking_0

Fed Responsibilities

The Fed is responsible for supervising bank holding companies, such as Citigroup. Those holding companies include investment banks and, as a sister regulator quietly pointed out last week, the Fed shared responsibility with the SEC for overseeing the risky practices of Citigroup’s broker dealer.

John C. Dugan, who oversees nationally chartered banks as comptroller of the currency, told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission [5] (PDF) last week that most of the problems that led to a massive bailout for Citigroup took place under the umbrella of the weaker holding company regulated by the Fed—not at Citibank, the banking subsidiary under Dugan’s authority.

Most of the losses, Dugan said at the end of a lengthy report to the commission, were in subprime lending, leveraged loans and the structuring and warehousing of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) that are supervised, either all or in part, “by the Federal Reserve.”

Geithner has acknowledged [6] that he could have done a better job of supervising Citigroup during his tenure at the New York Fed.

Assessment

If the Senate bill becomes law, Geithner would sit atop the new financial stability council, whose members will include representatives of several different agencies—including the Fed, the SEC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

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Tim Geithner’s Letter Shows Opposition to Fixed Capital Requirements for Banks

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In Financial Reform Bill

By Marian Wang, ProPublica – April 2, 2010 2:10 pm EDT

Remember how earlier this week, in a post about financial reform and liquidity requirements [1], we noted how vague [2] Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was being with The New York Times about setting hard and fast rules about how much cash should be required to hold?

Here’s what we excerpted from the Times on Tuesday: Mr. Geithner insists that if there is one change that needs to be made to the banking system to protect it against another high-stakes bank run like the one that claimed the life of Lehman Brothers, increasing capital requirements is it.

Bank

Pinning Down Geithner

But try pinning down Mr. Geithner, or anyone else in the Beltway, on how much capital banks should be required to keep, or even how the word “capital” should be defined, and certainties disappear.

Turns out he had a lot more to say on the subject than what he told the Times. Mike Konczal [3], blogging for Ezra Klein, unearthed a letter Geithner sent to a lawmaker in January, explaining his hesitancy—really, his opposition—to setting fixed capital requirements in current financial reform proposals. From the letter [4]:

Although the Administration strongly supports imposing a simple, non-risk-based leverage constraint on banks, bank holding companies, and other major financial firms, we do not believe that codifying a specific numerical leverage requirement in statute would be appropriate.

Assessment

So when Geithner said, “We have not made a judgment yet on the number,” what he really was thinking—if this letter is any indication—is that as far as financial reform legislation itself goes, he doesn’t want a number, period. And when it comes to actually imposing tighter capital requirements on financial institutions, he wants the Treasury, the Fed or some combination of regulators to have a free hand to pick and change the number. In other words, pretty close to the way things are now.

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More on Lehman Brothers and Repo 105

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The Auditors Attempt to Explain

By Marian Wang, ProPublica – March 25, 2010 4:18 pm

Ever since we began following the storyline of “Repo 105”, a sly balance-sheet maneuver performed by Lehman Brothers that helped it hide billions in dodgy assets, we noted that Lehman auditor Ernst & Young had some explaining to do. That explaining has begun.

The Contrarian Pundit

Contrarian Pundit posted a letter that Ernst & Young sent out yesterday, defending itself: not to the media, but to its clients. Check out both pages of the letter (PDFs).

A Few More Choice Bits

Lehman’s bankruptcy was the result of a series of unprecedented adverse events in the financial markets. The months leading up to Lehman’s bankruptcy were among the most turbulent periods in our economic history. Lehman’s bankruptcy was caused by a collapse in its liquidity, which was in turn caused by declining asset values and loss of market confidence in Lehman. It was not caused by accounting issues or disclosure issues.

Assessment

While no specific disclosures around Repo 105 transactions were reflected in Lehman’s financial statement footnotes, the 2007 audited financial statements were presented in accordance with US GAAP, and clearly portrayed Lehman as a leveraged entity operating in a risky and volatile industry. In other words, we at Ernst & Young didn’t point out that Lehman was doing things to hide its risks, but you should’ve known Lehman was in trouble anyway. Felix Salmon points out that at least they’re no longer denying that they knew about Repo 105.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/ion/blog/item/more-on-lehman-and-repo-105-the-auditors-attempt-to-explain

Conclusion

And so, your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated.

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