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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