Cuomo sues Lewis of Bank of America… Did Lewis act unethically or is Cuomo grandstanding?

February 9, 2010

Reported on in Bloomberg…(see the full article here).

The former Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America, Kenneth Lewis was sued by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for supposedly defrauding investors and the government when buying Merrill Lynch & Co.  Recently, the bank agreed to pay $150 million to settle a related lawsuit by U.S. regulators which is being considered by U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.  Last year, Rakoff called the SEC’s initial settlement neither fair nor reasonable and questioned why the bank’s executives and lawyers weren’t sued. The agency said it lacked evidence to bring claims against specific individuals.

Cuomo also sued the bank’s former chief financial officer Joe Price and the bank itself for not disclosing about $16 billion in losses Merrill had incurred before it was bought by Bank of America in an effort to get the merger approved.  Afterward, Lewis demanded government bailout funds, Cuomo said.

“We believe the bank management understated the Merrill Lynch losses to shareholders, then they overstated their ability to terminate their agreement to secure $20 billion of TARP money, and that is just a fraud,” Cuomo said yesterday during a telephone press conference. “Bank of America and its officials defrauded the government and the taxpayers at a very difficult time.”

Interestingly enough, Cuomo is pursuing individuals at the bank while the SEC has declined to do so. The suit is being filed under the Martin Act, a New York securities law that permits both civil and criminal penalties.

Cuomo said he coordinated efforts with the SEC. “Our case will bring individuals to justice and will make a point to people that this is a very serious matter,” he said yesterday. “When you settle a case the way the SEC is settling today, the upside is you implement immediate regulatory reforms.”

Last month, the SEC expanded its claims against the bank, accusing it of failing to disclose Merrill Lynch’s mounting losses before holding a shareholder vote on the acquisition.

The proposed fine would be distributed back to harmed shareholders, the SEC said yesterday.

The SEC settlement “addresses the judge’s concerns of penalizing shareholders so it’s likely to pass muster,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “At the same time, it’s hard to show any monetary damage to shareholders at this point because the Merrill deal has turned out to be a good acquisition for the bank.”

The conduct of Brian Moynihan, the bank’s current chief executive, is not under investigation, said David Markowitz, Cuomo’s special deputy attorney general for investor protection. Moynihan, who became general counsel in the middle of events, was candid with Cuomo’s office in the probe, Markowitz said.

According to the complaint, Lewis and his lieutenants Moynihan and Price calculated that if they threatened “to get out of the deal, the federal government would counter with more taxpayer funds out of a concern for the greater economy.”

The U.S. injected $45 billion into Bank of America through the purchase of preferred shares, including $20 billion approved after the acquisition in January 2009 to keep the deal from collapsing. The bank redeemed the shares in December.

“We find it regrettable and are disappointed that the NYAG has chosen to file these charges, which we believe are totally without merit,” the bank said in a statement. “In fact, the SEC had access to the same evidence as the NYAG and concluded that there was no basis to enter either a charge of fraud or to charge individuals. The company and these executives will vigorously defend ourselves.”

Lawyers for Lewis and Price denied wrongdoing. “The allegation that Mr. Price deliberately caused Bank of America to withhold from shareholders information they were entitled to know is utterly false,” said William H. Jeffress Jr. and Julia E. Guttman of Baker Botts LLP in Washington, in a statement.

SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

Is the decision to sue Mr. Lewis and other Bank of America Executives by Mr. Cuomo a political move that has more to do with advancing political aspirations than bringing justice?  Or, is Mr. Cuomo the only person to have the fortitude to bring justice to an unethical action by BofA executives?

“The decision by Mr. Cuomo to sue Bank of America, Mr. Lewis and other executives in connection with BofA’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch is a badly misguided decision without support in the facts or the law,” said Mary Jo White of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, who represents Lewis. “There is not a shred of objective evidence to support the allegations by the Attorney General.”

Bank of America agreed to buy Merrill on Sept. 15, 2008, after just 25 hours of due diligence, according to the suit. When the board of directors met that day to approve the transaction, they thought they were going to buy Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the suit says.

WOW…is that true?  If so, and it is proven, then one would have to wonder about not only Mr. Lewis actions, but the actions of the Board of Directors. Who makes a decision like this with only 25 hours of due diligence?

Cuomo said Bank of America scheduled a shareholder vote to approve its plan to buy Merrill on Dec. 5, 2008. By that date, Merrill incurred losses of more than $16 billion, Cuomo said. Bank of America’s management, including Lewis and Price, knew of the losses and knew that more were coming, Cuomo said.

After the merger was approved, Lewis told federal regulators the bank couldn’t complete the deal without a taxpayer bailout because of accelerated losses from Merrill, Cuomo said. However, between the time the shareholders approved the deal and the time Lewis sought the bailout, Merrill’s losses only increased by $1.4 billion, Cuomo said.

Greed, Hubris

“The conduct of Bank of America, through its top management, was motivated by self-interest, greed, hubris, and a palpable sense that the normal rules of fair play did not apply to them,” Cuomo said in the lawsuit. “Bank of America’s management thought of itself as too big to play by the rules and, just as disturbingly, too big to tell the truth.”

But wait…is Bank of America the only culprit in this grand scheme?  We (the taxpayers) lost substantially more with AIG, so where is Mr. Cuomo when it comes to that grand deception?  I respect the grandstanding claiming “greed and hubris” but I’m not sure why the BofA – Merrill merger is being focused on when there seems to be much bigger fish to fry.  Any help here?

The suit claims Bank of America received more than $20 billion in taxpayer aid as a result of their misleading efforts. Cuomo’s statement said the bank can’t explain why they didn’t disclose the losses to shareholders though the merger “would have threatened the bank’s very existence if there had been no taxpayer bailout.”

Cuomo also claims management failed to disclose to shareholders it was allowing Merrill to pay $3.57 billion in bonuses. Nor did the bank’s management tell the bank’s lawyers about the extent of Merrill’s losses before the shareholder vote.

Here’s what appears to be the sad truth…  Lewis will be defended by attorney’s for Bank of America.  BofA received bailout money.  Merrill is now part of BofA.  And, even if found guilty, more than likely any fines assessed will be paid from BofA’s insurance.  Perhaps…this is all posturing for something else.  Bank of America likely was wrong, but I’m not sure that Attorney General Cuomo is truly motivated by bringing justice…

But then again…I could be wrong.  YOUR THOUGHTS?


President Obama and Those Fat Cats from Wall Street – 2009 Ethics a Year in Review (1 of 3)

January 1, 2010

Frankly I couldn’t believe what I heard on the news when President Obama, in an interview, called bankers into the White House to seek their help with the economy – having referred to them the day before as “Fat Cat” bankers.  Hum…the President of the United States resorting to labeling people in less than a professional manner.  Perhaps it is just his folksy style, but that type of approach seems much less than presidential.  But then I got to thinking…

Seems like in this administration there was some effort to curb the abuses that the banks have hurled at consumers when it came to credit cards.  That, for everyone but the banks, was hailed as “about time” legislation.  Ethically, the banks have played less than fair with consumers.  Personal example…my wife, who has spotless credit had a Bank of American card with a zero balance and substantial credit limit, received a letter from BofA increasing her interest rate to 22.9% from 8.9%.  She called asking why and was told it was a mistake, but one that could not be undone.  After expressing her deep dissatisfaction and then vowing (after she got off the phone not to ever use the card), she got a letter from Bank of America (just a week later) cutting her credit line by 75%.  Ethical actions by Bank of America – yea right.

According to Money Magazine senior writer – Donna Rosato – “Lawmakers gave issuers till February 2010 to fully comply with the new law. Meanwhile, issuers have rushed to raise interest rates, impose new fees and cut credit limits. The median rate on credit cards surged 13% to 23% from December 2008 to July 2009, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Meanwhile, a bill to expedite the credit card reforms, the Credit Card Rate Freeze Act, has gone nowhere. When the new law kicks in in 2010, consumers will have more protection.”

Maybe the term “Fat Cat” Bankers was justified.

Ah…but there’s more.

Fortune Magazine states:

What Ken Lewis wanted, Ken Lewis got. During his eight-year tenure as Bank of America’s CEO, he embarked on a dizzying series of acquisitions to create the nation’s biggest financial services company.

But when his last two big buys — toxic-mortgage giant Countrywide and dead-on-its-feet bank Merrill Lynch — drew too much scrutiny from regulators and shareholders, Lewis packed up his golden parachute last October and bailed.

Maybe I should be a bit kinder in my blog.  Perhaps after squandering Bank of American funds on losing propositions, they needed the rate increase on credit cards.  Of course, that assumes that folks use those credit cards.  In our case, I think not.

BUT TO TOP IT OFF…

When the government, back in the Clinton administration, asked Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to extend credit to many American who, otherwise, were not credit worthy – I have to ask the question – with rising deficits and massive government spending – why should anyone in the government call anyone names when the government is doing just what those Wall Street “Fat Cats” did – namely living above their means.  We have massive debt and seem to believe that living in debt is O.K.

Perhaps the ethical thing to do is say – NO to additional government debt and do what is being preached to the population – live within your means and act ethically and in a responsible manner.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?


AIG Bonuses – Now Is Not The Time For Irresponsible Rhetoric Senator Grassley

March 16, 2009

aigthumb How many adjectives can we use to describe the feelings associated with the news that AIG paid $165 million in bonuses when the Federal Government spend over $170 Billion – yes, that is Billion, in bail out money to save the ailing giant?

There is outrage and many in government leadership are expressing their opinions about how they feel about the audicity of AIG to effect those payments.  That said, it is also important to make sure that leadership on both sides of the isle don’t get carried away with their comments.

CNN reported the following comments:

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa didn’t appear to be joking, however, when he spoke with Cedar Rapids, Iowa, radio station WMT.charles-grassley

“I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little better toward them [AIG executives] is if they follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, ‘I am sorry,’ and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide,” he said.

“And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide.”

Now I know that emotions are high, but come on Senator Grassley – that is political rhetoric and frankly is uncalled for.  I can’t believe for a minute that Grassley would, in fact, want anyone to commit suicide.  After all – we are talking about money and money can be replaced – human life can’t.

Perhaps as the night wears on cooler heads will prevail.  The right and ethical thing to do is reconsider how and when bonuses should be paid to a company that – but for the help of the taxpayers – would be bankrupt and out of business.  Further, more – this whole scenario should serve as a less for other businesses that line up to receive their bailout money.

Bonuses should be paid for outstanding performance.  When performance is lacking and, in fact, when a company faces the very real possibility of not continuing, then different choices should be made.  As a business ethics speaker, I understand Grassley’s frustration, but would hope that he would be more careful with his words.   Now is the time for level headed leadership, not sound bites spoken to garner media attention.

YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!


AIG Bonuses – Ethical or Insane? Business Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher Comments…

March 16, 2009

I want to make this clear – I am pro business!  I think that free enterprise is the life blood of our economic system and I fully support people making lots of aigmoney.  But, I have to question whether the payment of upwards of $165 million in bonuses to AIG employees is ethical or just insane?

QUESTION ONE:

The arguement in favor of AIG paying the bonuses is that the contracts that generated the bonuses were established before the economic meltdown and before AIG accepted government bailout money.  Employees who work(ed) for AIG therefore should be entitled to payment under the terms of their contract for services performed.

  • Do you agree?
  • Does the company have an ethical or moral obligation to pay regardless of circumstances?

QUESTION TWO:

AIG has accepted, according to published reports, upwards of $170 BILLION of government bailout money.  Sorry for the editoral content, but that is quite amazing by any standard that I could consider.  Nothing like that has happened in my lifetime and I’m over a half century in years.  So – here are some questions to consider:

  • Should AIG be forced to void pre-existing employment and bonus contracts if they accept government bailout money?
  • Should bonuses be paid?
  • What basis or grounds for payment or nonpayment make sense for AIG?

QUESTION THREE:

If a homebuilder constructs a home and finds that he/she cannot sell it for the asking price and, in fact, finds that the market for his product is below the construction loan – what happens?  Most of the time, the bank will foreclose and the sub-contractors, who have mechanic leins against the property, lose their time and receivable.  In other words, they lose because circumstances have changed.

  • Is AIG in the same circumstance?
  • Should the employment compensation contracts be treated similar to a mechanics lien – void through forclosure?
  • Is the government’s bailout of AIG in effect a forclosure to avoid bankrupcy?
  • Is there any reason that AIG should be treated differently than other small businesses that are unable to honor their commitments today?

FINAL THOUGHTS:

The definition of business ethics is, in business situations, the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with a moral duty and obligation.  The question for AIG is – what is the ethical thing to do?  As a business ethics speaker, there is no right or wrong answer to most situations, it rather is a function of doing the right thing considering all the facts and circumstances.  My opinion – the moral duty and obligation in this situation is to void the employment bonus contracts and accept that were it not for the taxpayers, AIG would not be in business!

Now is the time for AIG and any organization that accpets bailout money to make the tough decisions that honor the trust that the federal government and taxpayers have given them.  Look to Lee Iacocca’s example – when the government bailed out Chrysler, he took $1 as his compensation.  Perhaps the folks at AIG should take note.  One thing is for sure they are not winning friends and influencing people – at least not positively.

YOUR COMMENTS WELCOME!



Credit Crisis – Subprime Mortgage Collapse – New York Times Article Shows That Choices Made Ten Years Ago Haunt Us Today! Comments by Mortgage Fraud Speaker Chuck Gallagher

February 24, 2009

Every day there is more news about the sagging economy.  Banks being considered for nationalization.  Companies contracting and downsizing.  Workers being laid off.  It’s hard to find the bright spots as there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

But – every choice has a consequence – and the consequences we are living in today had a beginning with choices that were once made in good faith.  The more I research the more I find that is isn’t the banks who are totally at fault or greedy wall street tycoons.  Rather, the problem started with government pressure or direction.  Encouragement by our own federal government, coupled with shareholder profit pressure, created the momentum that has now turned into disaster.  new-york-times-building-sign

The following is an article written by Steven A. Holmes for the New York Times on September 30, 1999. (copyright New York Times 1999)  A portion of the article is reprinted here:

In a move that could help home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders.

The action, which will begin as a pilot program involving 24 banks in 15 markets — including the New York metropolitan region — will encourage those banks to extend home mortgages to individuals whose credit is not generally not good enough to qualify for conventional loans.  Fannie Mae officials say they hope to make it a nationwide program by next spring.

Fannie Mae, the nations biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stockholders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called supprime borrowers.  These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates — anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans.

“Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of families in the 1990′s by reducing down payment requirements,” said Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.  “Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch below what our underwriting has required who have been regulated to paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime market.”

Demographic information on these borrowers is sketchy.  But at least one study indicates that at least 18 percent of the loans in the subprime market went to black borrowers, compared to 5 percent of loans in the conventional market.

In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose difficulties during flush economic times.  But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980′s.

“From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,” said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  “If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.”

The whole article can be seen here.

Almost ten years ago, writer, Steven A. Holmes reported on what was the infancy of what would bring the US to its economic knees some ten years later.  The clarity of his comments are a haunting reminder simple reality checks and what many would now say is common sense business.

QUICK OVERVIEW:

  • Politicians wanted the purse strings loosened so that more people could get what they wanted  – even though they couldn’t afford it.  Hum that seems to me to be bad economics but good politics.  Get more people what they want so they will vote for you.  After all, with term limits, most folks won’t be in power when the crisis hits.
  • Shareholders – of Fannie Mae – push for higher and higher returns.  Gordon Gecko – “Greed is good” – yea right!  I have been a Sr. VP in a public company and know what that shareholder pressure is like.  But here’s a reality check:  the tide comes in and the tide goes out.  It is unrealistic to assume that there will always be growth.  If companies were run for the long haul, then some of the dumb decisions that are made would be avoided.  It is terribly frustrating to see what kind of decisions are made just to make the earnings work for the current quarter.
  • Banks and investment firms wanted Fannie Mae’s expansion – why?  Obvious – another line of profitable business (at least for the short term).  I wonder today if those who were so quick to jump on the bandwagon would have done so – if they knew then what they know now.

Were the choices made then ethical?  As a business ethics speaker, I’m interested in your opinions.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?


And the Fraud Begins – Gordon Grigg and his firm, ProTrust Management Inc. Charged with Securities Fraud – I Shall Call Him “Mini Madoff”

February 3, 2009

In tough economic times fraud will rise!  And with government funds flooding the markets to stimulate the economy, there is no doubt that some will see this as an opportunity to – well take advantage of an unregulated environment.  That seems to the be case with Gordon Grigg of Nashville and his firm, ProTrust Management Inc.

According to the Associated Press – “Federal regulators on Wednesday charged an investment adviser with securities fraud, saying he bilked clients of at least $6.5 million in the first scheme using the government’s $700 billion financial bailout program as a front to lure investments.”

Need, opportunity and rationalization – these are the three components of fraud – white collar crime.  And while a person is considered innocent until proven innocent, it would seem that there is enough evidence to cause the Securities and Exchange Commission to obtain a court order freezing the assets of Gordon Grigg of Nashville and his firm, ProTrust Management Inc.

It would seem that based on the information thus far that Grigg could be called “Mini Madoff.”  No he might not have yet created a Ponzi scheme, but it does seem it was headed in that direction.

The Associated Press reports:

Grigg represents himself as a financial planner and investment adviser, but neither he nor his firm is registered with the SEC or a state regulator, the agency said in its civil lawsuit filed in federal court in Nashville. The SEC said that Grigg, who obtained control over funds of at least 27 clients, falsely claimed to have invested their money in securities described as “private placements,” creating phony account statements.

BE AWARE:

One of the first indications of fraud is when the investment advisor says – he/she has something that is “private” something that no one else has – something that is special.  Madoff had something special – and now it seems so did Grigg.  Only in both cases it appears that neither was true.

According to the SEC, Grigg began falsely claiming that his firm could invest client funds in government-guaranteed commercial paper and bank debt as part of the federal TARP program. His claims also included that he had partnerships and other business relationships with several leading U.S. investment firms.

Grigg and his firm “preyed upon investors’ desire for safety by claiming associations with reputable investment firms and the government’s TARP program,” Katherine Addleman, regional director of the SEC’s Atlanta office, said in a statement. “Investors should carefully check any purported affiliations. In this case, not only were such claims false, but there is in fact no program in which investors can buy debt guaranteed by the TARP program.”

THE VICTIMS:

As reported in the Charolotte Observer – “Davidson resident Steve Wieland has prayed with Gordon Grigg, invited the former Charlotte resident into his home and trusted him enough to let Grigg’s company invest his life savings.  Wieland, 59, a disabled former pilot who flew for US Airways for 25 years, said he lost $252,000, the bulk of his life savings.

“You read about this happening in the newspaper. But when it happens to you, you go, ‘Oh my God, how do I recover,’” Wieland said. “I can’t. I’m done.”

Grigg’s alleged fraud started in 2003 and according to reports – ProTrust also was subject to a cease and desist order in North Dakota in 2006 for allegedly selling nonexistent securities, records show.

THE PIT – THAT HOLE THAT INVESTORS FALL INTO (AND DON’T RECOVER FROM):

As a fraud prevention expert and business ethics speaker, I am often asked how is it that people get suckered into investments like this?  I wish I could say it was difficult.  But from experience that cost me time in prison – I have to admit it is easy.   More times that not the scammed investors fall into what I have referred to as the PIT.

But here is what Mr. Wieland had to say, “I gave my money to a ‘friend’ instead of doing my research,” Wieland said. “Never do that. I don’t want anybody else to lose any more money.”

P – first there is the “promise” that the investor can get something that is special – something that the average person can’t get.  That “something special” is the allure of a better return – or something that gives one a chance at the gold at the end of the rainbow.  The fraudster plays on that emotional need.

I – second there is the “illusion.” In Grigg’s case – he claimed to have “private placements.”  That was supported by false and fraudulent account statements reflecting client ownership of the non-existent securities.  The false information is part of the illusion.  When you see it on paper or on the web in a fake account, you are lulled into believing it’s truth.

T – the final part is the all important aspect of “trust.” As stated in the Charlotte Observer article – “Steve Wieland has prayed with Gordon Grigg, invited the former Charlotte resident into his home and trusted him enough to let Grigg’s company invest his life savings.”  Ah…there’s that word – TRUST. Bernie Madoff had it, Gordon Grigg had it and so did I.  And in each case the abuse of trust was a key factor in a fraud taking place.

THIS STORY ISN’T OVER:

There is more to this story and likely many more victims.  I feel for them and hope that this writing might alert others to the importance of due diligence when investing.  Grigg, if convicted, will spend time in Federal Prison where he’ll have ample opportunity to think about this choices and the consequences that follow.  As I speak nationwide on ethics and fraud prevention – the first words out of my mouth are – “Every choice has a consequence.”

YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!


Business Ethics Alive in Small Banks – Strong Ethics Equal Healthy Banks

October 18, 2008

It’s easy to become cynical when all you hear in the media is bad news.  But not all news is bad.  In a recent CNN article there was some refreshing comments from small, but healthy, banks.  They were making loans and, for the most part, it was business as usual.

Here are some comments from the article:

Conservative lending practices seem to be a common denominator among banks that have remained strong and stable during the current banking crisis, and those banks are still making loans.

Peoples Bank President Todd McKee, left, chats with customer Tommy McVay on Friday in Lubbock, Texas.

Peoples Bank President Todd McKee, left, chats with customer Tommy McVay on Friday in Lubbock, Texas.

The failures of behemoths such as Washington Mutual and IndyMac have drawn media attention, but not all big banks are in trouble — and smaller banks are not immune.

For sometime, as a business ethics speaker, I have said that the underlying problem related to the economic crisis we’re facing today has been founded in a lack of business ethics.  For those comments I have been the brunt of criticism.  But, if ETHICS is choosing good from bad with a moral obligation and duty…then I submit that what is reported in the CNN report supports my position.

“Our underwriting standards have tightened a little bit,” said Ronald Heaton, president of the Cedar City, Utah, bank. “… Our standards haven’t changed drastically, and we’re still loaning … but we’re watching our underwriting standards closely so that people are able to repay their loans.”

Mortgages that didn’t require borrowers to prove their income or make a down payment got many lenders into trouble, but his bank never offered those: “Didn’t make sense,” he said.

Some would-be borrowers “wanted us to do everything, and we said, ‘We don’t do everything. We have standards,’ ” Heaton added.

Nonbank mortgage lenders were able to generate substandard mortgages because they were not adequately regulated by the federal government, Heaton said.

Now those bad loans have come home to roost, the nonbank lenders are out of the game, and State Bank of Southern Utah’s mortgage business is picking up, Heaton said.

Folks…that’s just plain ole good ethics.  Heaton (whom I’ve never spoken to or met) is 100% accurate.  If you have standards (founded by sound business ethics) you won’t find yourself in major financial trouble.  I contend that lending practices, that were not founded with sound ethical principles, are in large part the root cause of why we are where we are today.

Another part of the CNN report states:

In Texas, the state Department of Banking says state-chartered institutions wisely stayed out of the subprime game.

“That’s not what we do. We’re not in the subprime market whatsoever,” said Todd McKee, president of Peoples Bank in Lubbock. “Lending here is the same as it’s always been.”

The way it’s always been is up close and personal. McKee said his bank’s customers prefer to do business with tellers face-to-face rather than through the drive-up window.

“I’m president of the bank, and I sit right by the front door, so I wave at every single soul that walks in the bank. Everybody has access to me,” he said. “My partner [Larry Allen] is the CEO. … He sits at the other door. So we know everybody that comes in the door.

May sound “hokey” but that is banking the way it was meant to be.  I recall my first loan when I was 18 years old (I’m now 51) was made – not by a credit score – (funny I don’t think they existed then), but rather the loan was made on character and the fact that the bank president trusted me to repay (and knew where my mama was if I didn’t).  I paid the loan back and was proud to do business with them.

This last comment from the article states it best – “You can look at credit all day, you can look at collateral, but if they can’t make that payment, there’s no sense in making that loan. And we’ve always done that. We’re all supposed to do that.”  That is business ethics!


Business Ethics be Damned…A Receipe for Disaster Led To This Banking Bailout Bandaid!

October 16, 2008

We ain’t seen nothing yet!  As a business ethics speaker, as I write those words I feel tension building in my shoulders and neck.  Stress for sure.  But unfortunately the worst is yet to come and for many, especially younger adults, it will be the first time you will have witnessed a severe financial correction.  This will not be a mild recession but a full blown catagory 4 storm, if you will.

Recessions:

Let’s first explore a little of the history of recessions.  A great article that is simple to read an understand was written not long ago which outlines the recessions in our past and the depth of their pain in months.  A portion of that article is reprinted here for reference:

The National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER, is considered the official arbiter of recessions, but it doesn’t define a recessions by the school book measure of two or more consecutive quarters of economic contraction as measured by GDP. It states that “a recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months.

The last recession, so declares NBER, was from March 2001 through November 2001.   Now most of us remember that time but not because of a declared recession, but because of 9/11.  The tragedy of 9/11 was so focused that we forgot how the economy felt and where we were before then – assuming that all that happened economically was a direct result of the 9/11 incident.

Now, when a country is in a recession there is a cry from the population to get it over with an get back on the track to economic health.  That is, in essence, just what we attempted to do.  However, we got so caught up in HEALTH that we looked past practical sensible medicine and pushed too hard.

What We Did:

Just like a doctor has skill, training, and tools to help restore health, from an economic perspective so does the government along with the Federal Reserve.  So, Dr. Fed to the rescue.  Surely we could not and would not stay in this ’91 recession long.  Our pride was hurt along with our pocket books and we needed fast action.

#1 – in response to the 9/11 attacks our country went to war.  Now, within reason, up to that point there was a widespread concern about the national deficit.  However, that disappeared from the political scene, as we elected to go to war.  Do not assume I am against this action, I am looking at it, however, from an economic standpoint.  War changes perspectives and allows the government to increase spending and debt without much cry from the populous.   War increases productivity and we all witnessed many companies showing record profits.  Government spending changed dramatically – essentially an economic stimulus.

#2 – the Federal Reserve reached in its bag of goodies and began a systematic dramatic and unprecedented drop in interest rates.  Never in its history had the Fed dropped the interest rate to 1% – NEVER.  Over time it almost became “free” money.  Artificially low interest rates became a powerful economic stimulus.

#3 – not only does the Federal Reserve have the ability to set interest rates, but they also control the flow of money.  In other words, they control the printing press or just how much money is in circulation.  Another powerful tool to fight “recession” – access to money makes economic growth easier.  More money in circulation became an economic stimulus.

#4 – tax law change was also a factor that changed the face of our economic growth.  In the past when a person sold their home, they were taxed on the gain unless it was reinvested into something of equal or higher value.  In the mid nineties, that changed effectively eliminating tax on most home sale gains.  No taxes proved to be another economic stimulator.

How We Responded:

Now, while some would disagree – that is where the breech of ethics occurred. Let me us an example:  If you are a star baseball player and practice everyday – honing your skills and lifting weights, etc. in order to be your best, well that would be ethical.  Agree?  If, however, you do all of those things and take performance enhancing drugs, that would be unethical.  Agree?

How we responded was in a sense like doing all the right things, but too excess and assuming that there would be no consequence.  That assumption is unethical stupidity.

So we:

(1) took our eye off of living with a balanced budget, allowing the government to stimulate the economy through the war effort;

(2) we borrowed at a record pace (after all if there is free money wouldn’t you take it)?  We, as consumers, increased our credit card debt dramatically falling for most ever zero percent offer that was placed before us.  And, with that new found credit, we bought items that in the prior decade we might have postponed.  In fact, we believed that we didn’t have to pay the borrowed money back, all we had to do was “transfer balance” it.; and

(3) we used our homes as a credit card.  Up until then, there were reasonable rules in place for borrowing to buy a home.  But during that time, with lots of money in circulation and low rates, we were encouraged to borrow…borrow…borrow believing that our home was safe.

(4) now the straw that broke the camels back was unrealistic appreciation.  In many (not all) parts of the country we saw home prices skyrocket.  Heretofore, home prices increase at a steady 1% to 3% per year.  Our home was sacred.  Now, with double digit increases, homeowners and builders began to believe that with no taxes on the gain, there could not be a better investment.

Every choice has a consequence:

The example of the ball player up above ties into this perfectly.  If he/she had done the right things in moderation, they would have an outstanding career and perhaps make it in the baseball hall of fame.  But, once discovered for performance enhancing drugs, they would likely be banned from the sport or suffer some humiliating consequence that would cost them dearly.

That is just where we are today.  Ethically, the Fed knew better.  The economy needed to be stimulated only so much.  Those are sharp folks and I don’t believe for a minute that they could not have seen this coming.  Fairly enough, they did begin to raise rates several years ago, but by then the bubble was set to pop.  And pop it did!

Likewise, our financial institutions knew better.  You don’t make loans to people that you honestly know can’t repay them, just to turn a quick profit in order to meet analystists expectations on Wall Street.  That, to me, is unethical.  Nonetheless, it was done – DAILY!

Builders, gorged with profit, continued to build knowing that the supply was outstripping the demand based on any reasonable demographic study.  In one area in NC near Raleigh, on average 1.5 homes were sold per month, yet 6 new builders flocked to the area and began building multiple spec homes.  There were no buyers and today they sit on them – some having been on the market well over 600 days.  That is greed outstripping ethical sense.

What Now?

#1 – the government is scrambling to figure out what to do.  My prediction is the $700 Billion dollar bailout is more like $2 Trillion.  The US Government will use our money (wrong borrowed money) to buy up bad loans (doesn’t give me the warm and fuzzies inside) and they will buy equity interests into our banks.  To me that is historic – it appears almost like a nationalization of the banks -scarry…!

#2 – the Federal Reserve, will once again, lower interest rates in hopes that they will stimulate BORROWING so the economy will again move forward.  Sorry, but I don’t think we need more debt!

#3 – the housing market will see double digit declines in home prices.  What goes up must come down (at least to reasonable levels) and many home owners who bought at the top will find themselves foreclosed on and have ruined credit.

#4 – builders will go belly up and banks will be in the physical real estate business – something they no little about.

#5 – credit will freeze.  No longer will you see the “free money” ads from your credit card company.  In fact, when you pay your card off…they may reduce your credit limit – taking a more conservative approach.

#6 – Consumers faced with increased medical costs, gas costs and utility cost, will spend less and this Christmas buying season will be dismal.  Retailers will be forced out of business and the pain will be heard world wide.

#7 – many smaller banks will shut their doors with the FDIC taking them over; and

#8 – the market will go much lower than it is today.  There will be minor up turns, but the down will outweigh the up and we will see another loss of 20% before it is over.  As a result, we will be less wealthy as our retirement funds decrease.

Conclusion:

Every choice has a consequence.  We chose the route of performance enhancing programs to stimulate our economy (an unethical choice in my opinion) and today and for the near term we will face the consequences – painful as they may be.


AIG’s Financial Crisis – Forget Business Ethics – We Need More Money!

October 8, 2008

$700 Billion for the banking bailout – $85 Billion for AIG (a private company) – these amounts are only a drop in the bucket of what it will truly cost before this financial fiasco is complete in the history books.  The sad thing is – in order to clean up the mess, the goverment will have to “borrow” money to correct – OVERBORROWING!

Now AIG says it needs more – almost $38 billion more!  Talking about missing a projection.  And the biggest question of all, where will it end?

Read the following according to CNN:

The New York Federal Reserve is lending up to $37.8 billion to American International Group to give the troubled insurer access to much-needed cash.

In exchange, AIG is giving the New York Fed investment-grade, fixed-income securities that it had previously lent out to other institutions for a fee. Those institutions are now returning these securities and want their money back.

The new program, announced Wednesday, is on top of the $85 billion the federal government agreed to lend to AIG last month to prevent the global company from collapsing. AIG said last Friday it had drawn down $61 billion.

To be sure none of us want to see a financial collaspe, but $38 billion on top of $85 billion – the question seems to be where will it end?  And what seems amazing is the magnitude of which the federal goverment is being the backbone of private “for profit” financial institutions.  Frankly put, if the issue were just you or I “Joe Citizen” and we were about to go under – we’d drown.  So why on the back of the taxpayers is the federal goverment backing institutions that have apparently thrown ethics to the wind when making financial desisions?

As a business ethics speaker, I am told daily that my phone should be ringing off the hook – “apparently Washington and Wall Street need your help.”  I can’t disagree with the sentiment, but they needed the help before they made poor business choices that have a clear unethical smell to them.

In a Forbes Article the following was stated:

AIG’s problems stemmed primarily from its insurance of mortgage-backed securities and other risky debt.

On Tuesday former top executives at AIG testified before the House Oversight Committee blaming everything but themselves for the company’s problems and subsequent bailout that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. (See “‘Wasn’t Us’ Former AIG Execs Say)

“Wasn’t us” my ass.  Sorry for the language, but if you’re an exec with a firm like AIG the buck stops with you.  Any person who runs a company has the power to make decisions that “should” be in the best interest of the shareholders.  With an equity decline of 95.4% – YES THAT IS 95.4% – who else to blame but the execs who set the course for the company.  Sure the market has changed, but it changed because “unethically” corporate executives have placed short term quarterly profits above common business sense.

My sense is – it will be a long cold financial winter that may practically last several seasons, if not years.  Your comments are always welcome!


Business Ethics, Bank Failures and Government Bailouts – Are They Compatable?

October 5, 2008

Just last night I was having dinner with with the head of a company and two retired physicians, none of whom I knew before my wife and I were seated.  As one might expect, the conversation turned to career as we played the get to know you game.

“What do you do,” one of the retired physicians asked?

“I speak across the country to businesses and associations on ‘ethics’,” I replied.

“Well,” the business exec at the table spoke up immediately, “you should be booked solid now.  I’ve never seen it so bad.  Seems that those guys on Wall Street and in Washington need your service desperately.”

With those comments the table broke into a sad sort of laughter, although the comment made was no laughing matter.  Rarely, if ever, in my lifetime (and I’m 51) have we seen a time in our country where the choices that have been made have had the potential for a more disastrous outcome.

Before the month of October begins in earnest the headline late on a Sunday night on CNN is: U. S. bank failures almost certain to increase in next year. Based on all that we’ve seen in the short scope of the last two months I tend to agree.  And here’s what is more baffling – people much smarter than I must have known that we would one day face this outcome.  The writing was on the wall.  You can’t extend credit to someone who can’t afford to pay you back and assume that everything will somehow work out.

Every choice has a consequence.  That is a universal law (although it seems that many people would prefer to ignor its existence).  All we heard for the past several years is how robust the US economy was.  The housing market was strong in most sectors of the nation and it would appear that we were set to continue to enjoy long term economic prosperity.  Really?  Here’s a segment of the CNN story:

Weakened by huge losses on risky home loans, the banking industry is now on the shakiest ground since the early 1990s, when more than 800 federally insured institutions failed in a three-year period. That was during the clean-up phase of a decade-long savings-and-loan meltdown that wound up costing U.S. taxpayers $170 billion to $205 billion, after adjusting for inflation.

Now, like many who read this, I was around during the Savings and Loan crisis.  It wasn’t pretty and friends, I hate to say this, but this is no savings and loan crisis.  That economic hardship pales in comparison to what we could face based on bad choices and business ethics gone awry.  The government bailout – hum, let me rephrase – the taxpayer bailout may preserve some of the “stronger” institutions, but there is a substantial belief that many more will fail, buried under the weight of their poor choices.

The following quote from the CNN article is very accurate:

“I don’t see why things will be that much different this time,” said Joseph Mason, an economist who worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in the 1990s and is now a finance professor at Louisiana State University. “We just had a big party where people and businesses overborrowed. We had a bubble and now we want to get back to normal. Is it going to be painless? No.”

I think it is interesting his choice of words, “people and businesses overborrowed.”   That statement is factual, but the more significant underlying question is how did that occur and why?  The answer to that is where – ETHICS – comes into play.

Now let me simply define ETHICS for the purpose of this discussion:  “Ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”

So let me get back to the comment “people and businesses overborrowed.”  While the comment is true neither people or businesses had control of the purse strings.  People were “unethically” encouraged to overborrow.  Rarely a day would go by without the mailbox being filled with credit offers.  “Zero percent this and transfer balance that.”  We saw big burley viking men touting Capital One and God knows my college aged son received more offers for credit than he could count – even though he had no source of income.

While there is plenty of blame to go around, YOU CAN’T BLAME THE PEOPLE.  People did what people do – they responded to effective marketing campaigns and accepted offers made by many of those very banks who soon will be buried in the business grave yard of failure.  Poor business choices combined with poor business ethics will equal business failure.

We hear all too much about the mortgage crisis again with many stating that people over borrowed.  That may be true, but the bank or financial institution again controlled access to the money.  Now if a bank is so overzealous to prop up growth and earnings that they make loans to unqualified individuals or loan against property that is overvalued, I contend that is unethical.

Banks have more than a duty to earn money and grow, their greater duty is to do both of those things and (most importantly) survive!  Their moral duty and obligation (their ethical duty) is to survive while achieving success.  I agree with my dinner mates, if there is ever a time for ethical reflection it is now!

Another comment from the article that has alarming numbers attached:

Using statistics from the S&L crisis as a guide, Mason estimates total deposits in banks that fail during the current crisis at $1.1 trillion. After calculating gains from selling deposits and some of the assets of the failed banks, Mason estimates the clean-up this time will cost the FDIC $140 billion to $200 billion.

The FDIC’s fund currently has about $45 billion, a five-year low. But the agency can make up for any shortfalls by borrowing from the U.S. Treasury and eventually repaying the money by raising the premiums that it charges the healthy banks and S&Ls.

Perhaps next is the issue of Goverment Ethics.  By all accounts, Alan Greenspan reported to Congress many years back – talking in “Greenspeak” about what was likely to happen and how it could be avoided.  Did the government take action?  NO!  The concern, it seems, for most politicians is staying elected or getting elected, not making ethical decisions.  The moral duty and obligation that our elected officials have (or should have) is to represent those they govern and protect them from the disaster we are now facing.

And, not to be a cynic, but when have you known any financial projection to come in at or under the budget or estimate.  In my lifetime – never!  So by guess is the $700 billion will be more like $2 trillion when it is over.  The bailout here and proping up the FDIC there, not counting what else will arise that is undisclosed at this time.  It all adds up and is dumped on our shoulders.  In reality all we, as a nation, are doing is on a bigger scale exactly what the “people and businesses” did – borrow to pay off what we could not afford in the first place.

So back to the question – Bank Failure and Government Bailouts – are they compatable?  Neither represent good business ethics and yet both will happen.  Perhaps the comment was right at dinner, I need to camp out in Washington and NY – although now it might be too little too late.

For information about my presentations visit my web site.  Your comments, by the way, are welcome.


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