Robert Allen Stanford – Stanford International Bank and Stanford Capital Management – Fraud In the News! What Motivates Fraud?

February 22, 2009

It seems that the flood gates are open with no hope of shutting – at least any time soon – with investigations and indictments of fraud!  Madoff, Dryer, Grigg and now Stanford.  Every where you turn there is another fraud or investment scam being reported.  I’ve seen a lot over the years as a business ethics and fraud prevention speaker, but this is a profound season for fraud discovery.  So the question – what motivates fraud?  robert-allen-stanford

To address a question like that you need to look at the scope and magitude of the frauds being reported.  And, make no mistake in this economic climate this is the tip of the iceberg.  As I write this, no doubt, there are frauds taking place that will be discovered in years to come.  Not a great comfort.  And, in this environment, the time is ripe for people to be scammed or victimized.

Before, however, look at the motivation, let’s examine what Stanford is being accused of.  According to the Dallas Business Journal:

A Houston-based broker-dealer and investment advisory firm with an office in Dallas has been charged in an $8 billion investment scheme that centers around a CD program and involves false promises to investors.

The Securities and Exchange Commission out of its Fort Worth Regional office alleges in a lawsuit filed in Dallas that Robert Allen Stanford through three of his companies — Antiguan-based Stanford International Bank, Houston-based Stanford Group Co. and Stanford Capital Management — were involved in orchestrating a fraudulent investor scenario where the parties made false promises to investors and fabricated return data on investments, the SEC stated.

“As we allege in our complaint, Stanford and the close circle of family and friends with whom he runs his businesses perpetrated a massive fraud based on false promises and fabricated historical return data to prey on investors,” said Linda Chatman Thomsen, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “We are moving quickly and decisively in this enforcement action to stop this fraudulent conduct and preserve assets for investors.”

Rose Romero, regional director of the SEC’s Fort Worth office, called the scheme “a fraud of shocking magnitude that has spread its tentacles throughout the world.”

This was originally reported on February 17, 2009.  Since that time there has been a massive ripple effect related to Stanford’s SEC investigation. Investors have found that their assets have been frozen as Stanford’s assets were frozen to protect investors.  This fraud expands far beyond the boundaries of the US.

The Jamaica Observer states: His is a household name in the tiny Eastern Caribbean island of Antigua & Barbuda.

Likewise, the New York Times reports: Having seized control of Robert Allen Stanford’s two banks in recent days, Antiguan government officials are now pledging to work closely with American regulators to investigate their banking system, long suspected by federal officials of being a center for laundering money from around the region.

Now…as the Stanford saga unfolds so does the mystery.  Keep in mind, fraud – to be successful – has to be based on illusion.  And, as we have seen, the grander the illusion the more plausible the fraud – Bernie Madoff – master illusionist.  So in Stanford’s case the illusion is mystified by a story of an “undisclosed island.”

Again, the New York Times reported on February 20, 2009 – In an October 2008 article, Mr. Stanford told Forbes that he was planning to build an elite resort on what the magazine described as an “undisclosed island in the Caribbean.” At the time, Mr. Stanford said that he was working with 17 architectural and engineering firms to build 30 mansions for a development to be called the Islands Club.

Scheduled to open in 2011, it would have featured the largest private aviation complex in the world, Forbes said, with enough room to park 100 private jets as well as a jumbo marina with enough dock space for 30 massive yachts. The super-exclusive resort would require members to shell out a $50 million deposit, which would be refunded if they left the development. That was on top of the $15 million annual membership fee.

The foundation of a scam is based on three components:  Promises – something that people want and most can’t get; Illusion – the grand scheme that allows people to believe in something unseen as truth; and Trust – the belief that all is right, that somehow the government is overseeing the illusion and that if others do it – well then so should I.

BUT WHAT MOTIVATES A FRAUD IN THE FIRST PLACE?

That’s a good question and one that is not easy to answer.  However, one thing is true – a fraud usually has three distinct components: (1) Need; (2) Opportunity; and (3) Rationalization.  While I am not qualified to speak at this time as to each of these critical components, I can safely say that his NEED was driven by emotion (likely first) and (direct need perhaps second).

Note the following reported by chron.com:  With a net worth north of $2 billion, he owns glitzy homes in and around Miami, the Virgin Islands and Antigua, and in them he has entertained powerful American politicians from both sides of the aisle.

He has an estranged wife, a girlfriend, former girlfriends and at least six children by four women. The monthly tab to support them all runs upward of $200,000, according to court records.

He loves to flash cash and to flaunt the toys that immense wealth can bring, be it yachts, private jets and helicopters, his own professional cricket team or a string of top-shelf pro golfers whom he pays to wear his logo.

An outstanding article appeared in the Wall Street Journal – a link to that article is here.

The flamboyant life style required money to fund the illusion, but more than that the emotional need to be larger than life is likely the key trigger to what and why this whole fraud began.

STANFORD’S JOURNEY CONTINUES:

The story will no doubt unravel.  So consider the following:

  1. If you were an investor who was defrauded, consider making contact with me as I am doing research into how the fraud was carried out.  Your comments might help others avoid your plight.
  2. What do you think should be Stanford’s consequence for the massive fraud he’s accused of?
  3. If you did invest – did it cross your mind that the returns (far better than what the market provided) might be – well – shady?

AS ALWAYS COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!


Bernie Madoff – Confined by a Prison of His Own Making – Comments by Fraud Prevention Expert Chuck Gallagher

January 15, 2009

ABC News wrote about “Bullet Proof Bernie” – nice article but predictable – here’s a link.   It seems that whenever a crime is discovered there is the public outcry for justice.  From most every angle by most media outlets, there is a profuse desire to see Bernie Madoff suffer as others have suffered at his hand or by his doing.  It is a logical desire as it is driven by human emotion.

madoff1The article states in its beginning:

The federal government today took a second shot at attempting to argue in court that alleged $50 billion fraudster Bernard Madoff ought be put behind bars while it gets its case against him into shape for court, and a second federal judge deflected the attempt to revoke the current bail conditions.

Perhaps that is the story.  Perhaps it is as simple as an eye for an eye.  Perhaps it is all about the process.  Perhaps it is more?

While fascinated with were Bernie Madoff will be temporarily imprisoned, I suggest that his incarceration began sometime back – before any of us knew the scope and maginatude of his fraud –  and has been on going – just not the way the public would like to see – as evidenced by the media frenzy.    The article talks about Bernie’s entrance into the court room with a bullet proof vest worn over his clothing.  It further goes on to describe his current method of confinement:

He is currently confined, except for court appearances, to his Manhattan cooperative apartment. There is an armed security guard on duty at all times, video cameras recording visitors at both the front and rear entrances, and Madoff also wears an electronic security ankle bracelet that would instantly notify the U.S. Marshals or the FBI if he attempted to leave the premises without permission and an escort.

All of this interest in how Bernie Madoff will be punished is certainly interesting, but fails to address the much larger issue that allows such a crime to take place in the first place.  Two questions to ponder…

  • What would motivate an otherwise intelligent, competent person to choose to defraud his friends, close business associates and disappoint those closest to him? What was in the “Mind of Madoff” that could make such a crime possible?
  • More importantly, how could very bright, influential and astute investors be taking for so much so easily?  Was the sheer masterful illusion he created so powerful that it would take down the very powerful and influential of our country?

I believe that the “why” he did it and the “how” he did it is far more important than what happens now.  Agree?

On my Facebook wall the following was written:

Chuck – well Madoff remains in home confinment. Appropriate legally. He has created his prison and its much deeper than where the government might send him. 5:53pm
Betsy Rodgers Smith at 5:55pm January 14
Agreed….he has been in the prison of his own making for a very long time.
Chuck Gallagher at 6:00pm January 14
Yes. I’ve been there (on a much MUCH smaller scale and the pain was tremendous. Odd, but I understand where he is and yet see the pain felt by his victims. Likely he will die in prison – either figuratively or literally or both.
Jimmy Carter at 6:35pm January 14
I am certain that even the luxurious walls of a Manhatten apartment will tend to grow close given a sufficient amount of time.
Terence Washington at 7:53pm January 14
They’re still “luxurious” meanwhile the unemployment line grow longer and longer. All his brethren need to be shipped off to a small island populated with wolves,sharks,weasels..so they can mingle with creatures of their own ilk.
Chuck Gallagher at 9:03am January 15
Interesting to see what responses folks feel. I had an entry on my blog that generated similar emotions. I often wondered if the person who was most critical found themselves in the shoes of the accused, would they have the same attitude for “wolves, sharks and weasels”?

By the way, Madoff is a prisoner in a nice place, but will – no doubt – be a prisoner (if he lives that long) is federal prison – and that is not so nice. I know – I’ve been there.

Terence Washington at 9:08am January 15
After reviewing my acerbic comments I would have to say I still stick by them. I mean, Madoff is the Master of his own Universe( in the scope of reality). Greed fed his universe, like it does so many people.

The bible says never judge “lest he be judged”, but I’ll never ever ever( cubed, squared,etc) be in a loathsome situated as Mr.Madoff–I’m way to level headed for that. His prison is his own, how he resides in or his mental anguish it is not my concern.

Chuck Gallagher at 1:17pm January 15
Fair enough…he does reside in a prison of his own doing. I wonder however if greed fed his universe or if it was fed by ego? By the way…thanks for the comments.
Ask youself this question – when you read or hear about Bernie Madoff – what emotion comes up for you.  Take the time to feel deeply.  It is far too easy to take the “I’d never do that path” than it is to explore the “whys” and “hows.”
While there will be much more to come – as this issue and case is far to complex for one writing – the real value will come in understanding the “Mind of Madoff.”   While I must be honest, I don’t know Bernie Madoff personally, I have been in his shoes.  Not proud of it, but I did  perpetrate a Ponzi scheme (for which I spent time in federal prison) so I know, from experience, what is in the mind of someone who commits such a fraud, and likewise, how easy it is to achieve. Today I help organizations prevent fraud and deal with ethical issues.  See here.
Madoff set a standard that will be written about for years.  The people he defrauded will suffer the consequences of his actions and their inactions.  As for Bernie’s future…  well he is already in prison – a prison of his own doing.  He will be cut off from life as we (who are free) know it.  That disconnection is more painful than you can imagine.  He will be reduced to a number and sent to federal prison where – he will likely die.  The bright young man who faced a bright future at 22 when he first started investing will leave this world, more than likely, the shell of a man who will be remembered for the illusion he created.
For all involved it is sad…

Lawyer – Ted Russell Schwartz Murray – Guilty! White Collar Crime Speaker Chuck Gallagher Comments

October 26, 2008

As the time of decision grew near, the only thing that Ted Russell Schwartz Murray could likely have wished for is another storm.

The trial which began on Sept. 8, 2008, was interrupted by Hurricane Ike, and concluded with the return of the guilty verdicts yesterday.  A Houston federal jury has convicted Ted Russell Schwartz Murray, a lawyer licensed in Texas and Florida, of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and securities fraud in connection with the operation of Money Mortgage Corporation of America, a subsidiary of Premiere Holdings, LP, a real estate investment program.  Murray was also convicted Murray of making a False Statement on Tax Returns for the years 1999 and 2000.

Murray and co-defendants David Isaac Lapin and Jeffrey Carl Wigginton, Sr. were all charged by indictment in August, 2006. Lapin and Wigginton pleaded guilty in August 2008 to the conspiracy to commit mail fraud and securities fraud for their roles in the scheme and are pending sentencing in Nov. 2008.  Murray was charged separately in a second indictment with the tax offenses.

Every choice has a consequence.  As a business ethics and white collar crime speaker I have seen over and over the consequences of greed motivated actions.  For a fraud to exist three things exit: (1) need; (2) opportunity and (3) rationalization.  The verdict was guilty.  The question is what was the motivation of Murray and his co-conspirators.

According to the US Attorney’s news release:

During trial, the United States presented its evidence proving that between 1996 and 2001, Murray, 57, conspired to commit mail fraud and securities fraud in the promotion and marketing of the Premiere 72 or “P72″ mortgage investment program. Murray testified at trial and denied he had made false representations to investors when the program was promoted with promises of (1) 12% interest; (2) 1st liens on real estate; (3) 72 hour liquidity; and (4) 70% loan to value ratio. However, the evidence proved that so-called interest payments were actually set aside from a portion of the investor’s principle and returned to them as interest; many loans were not secured by 1st liens on real estate; and many loans were not based on a 70% loan to value ratio. Lapin, a co-conspirator in the scheme, testified that he and his co-defendants failed to disclose to investors the fact that loans on certain projects were actually in default at the time the funds of new investors were placed in these loans. An expert witness, qualified in forensic accounting, testified that the Premiere 72 program was conducted like a Ponzi scheme, where the money from new investors is used to pay earlier investors.

Mortgage Crisis – no wonder.  With practically free money and a country that seemed to believe that real estate had no ceiling, the opportunity was right the perpetration of such a fraud.  Likewise, in the current economic climate with fear leading the way, others will rise to fill the void.

While admitting that the above material facts were not disclosed to investors, Murray blamed his partners claiming Lapin had failed to live up to his fiduciary duties and both Lapin and Wigginton failed to disclose to investors that Premiere Holdings charged fees ranging from 15 -25% from investor funds. Murray denied any responsibility to disclose any material facts to investors.

With sentencing following in March 2009 the failure to accept personal accountability will no doubt play a role in the length of sentence.

Over 500 people invested in the fraudulent mortgage investment program promoted by Murray and his co-conspirators.  During the five year period the scheme operated, Premier Holdings, LP, Murray and his co-conspirators generated more than $200 million in gross receipts. Premier Holdings, LP, filed for bankruptcy in Oct. 2001 at which time the company had more than $160 million of investor funds tied up in the fraudulent scheme.  Murray filed for personal bankruptcy a short time thereafter.

The jury found Murray guilty of all 20 counts submitted to the jury arising from the scheme to defraud investors including the conspiracy charge, 14 counts of mail fraud, and four counts of securities fraud. The conspiracy conviction and each of the convictions for mail fraud carry a maximum statutory penalty of five years imprisonment. The securities fraud counts of conviction each carry a maximum penalty  of  10 years imprisonment.  Each count also carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

In addition to the scheme to defraud, Murray was also charged and convicted in a separate case with two counts of making a false statement on his tax returns based upon evidence which proved that Murray disguised personal expenses as business expenses and deducted a portion of those expenses on his tax returns, including a $29,000 Rolex watch, payments to casinos, a series of payments totaling over $5 million for return of principal to investors, payments for a $1 million ownership interest in the building where Premiere held its offices at 11451 Katy Freeway, and gifts to family members.  Murray faces a maximum of three years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine on each of two counts of conviction.

Considering where we are today – economically – I would not be surprised to see that the sentence would err on the heavy side.  For those who read this – if you know Murray perhaps you could give some clue as to what motivated his behavior.  Obviously, Murray was educated and hence would know the difference between right and wrong, between ethical behavior and unethical behavior.

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 – Fraud Awareness: There Is Definitely A Link!

October 17, 2008

My how times change.  Just a few short years ago the economy could do no wrong.  People commented about the large movement in the housing market “caused” by the Baby Boomers.  Baby Boomers were buying second homes, downsizing, and making room for the next wave of new home buyers – or so we thought.  But hind sight is 20/20.

Perhaps less of that was true that what we thought.  Looking back there were many artificial factors in play that were, in my opinion, a clear violation of what most people would say are sound business ethics.  As a business ethics speaker, I know as I consult with companies frequently who want to know how to get out of some of the messes that have been created.

No where is this more evident than in the mortgage and banking industries.  And let me be clear – WHERE THERE IS A BREACH OF BUSINESS ETHICS – THERE IS FRAUD.  When companies turn their back on maintaining a strong ethical foundation for themselves and their employees, they run the very real risk of exposing themselves to fraud.  And, no one that I know of wants to be on the back end of a very messy fraud investigation.

As an example, the Dallas Independent School District has been dragged through the mud with all that has taken place – FBI investigations for fraud and all.  Now the DISD is not a bad organization, in fact, it does good work and should be proud of its place in the community.  But, with lax controls and an environment that did not fully promote ethical behavior, it was clear that when temptation was presented the obvious outcome would be fraud.

Now the question is – what does the Dallas Independent School District have to do with mortgages and banking?  NOTHING!  Rather, it serves only as an easy example of how an otherwise good organization can be featured in a negative light – and that is because of the choices they made.

The larger question is – with the economy where it is today, which banking institutions will survive and which will implode under the weight of the poor choices made during what appeared to be more “healthy” times?  There wil be bank failures as this “recession” and, yes I called it a recession picks up steam.  We are no where close to the end with more unpleasant news to come.

WHAT NOW?

Frankly, that is the question that the business community should be asking!  It has been said over and over, only the strong will survive.

When there is an economic downturn there will be FRAUD.  Make no mistake that is a given.  There are three elements involved in most frauds: (1) need; (2) opportunity and (3) rationalization.  When the economy goes south…there is NEED!  That is the first step and if ever there has been a time when NEED is growing – it is NOW!

Here where the ethics equation comes into play.  NEED alone does not create fraud – it is just one component.  If the opportunity is eliminated then the fraud cannot happen.  That’s where a commitment to ethics and fraud awareness come into play.  As a business ethics speaker and fraud prevention consultant, I (and certainly I am not the only one) help businesses understand how to create a culture that supports “doing the right and ethical thing” – I call it MOTIVATIONAL ETHICS; and, looks carefully at methods to eliminate opportunity.  If the business promotes ethics and reduces opportunity there will a strong chance that it will survive and become stronger – even during poor economic times.

MORTGAGE FRAUD TWISTS:

CNN did a great article on several new twists in the ever changing mortgage fraud arean.  Bank and financial instititutions be aware.  The mortgage industry is in a state of disarray and as such there is definitly a NEED (one of the components of fraud).

Here are the three that CNN reported:

(1) under-appraising property values:

These schemes involve short sales, which come up when a struggling homeowner is “underwater,” or owes more on his mortgage than the home is worth.

When done legitimately, the owner sells the home for the lower market value, and the lender agrees to accept just that amount and forgive the difference.

When illegitimate, fraudsters fake very low appraisals for the homes and use those appraisals to justify low short-sale prices – well below true market values.

If busy bankers don’t check the appraisal closely, they may agree to sales of homes that should be worth $200,000, for $150,000 or even less.

The buyers – in cahoots with the owner – then flip them for a big profit.

Over the past four months I have seen, through my consulting work, a tremendous increase in “short-sale” interest – and that is something that many financial institutions are ill prepared to deal with.  It is new to them and an area ripe for fraud.

(2)  Liar Loans:

“Liar loans are now fully documented – but with really good fraudulent documents,” according to the CNN article.

In one case investigated by Interthinx, a New York man buying an investment property in Georgia provided documents that showed double his actual salary.

Advanced information technology and photocopying equipment have gotten so accurate that very convincing papers, including income statements, savings accounts and tax returns can be produced on demand.

Scams that misrepresent income or employment are still the most common type of fraud.

(3)  Buy and bail:

Example: You’re underwater on your mortgage and want a new, cheaper home down the block. You could just bail on the existing home, but no lender would give you a mortgage for the new one.  So you tell the bank you plan to rent out the current home – even though you have no intention of doing so.

“This is a very difficult scam to pin down,” said Jennifer Butts, a spokeswoman for MARI, because the rental agreements that borrowers proffer may not be scrutinized by lenders.

The Federal Home Administration announced in late September that it hoped to head off many buy-and-bails by no longer insuring mortgages if the homeowners had existing loans – unless they could show enough income to pay off both loans simultaneously.

Now, just because a home is rented does not mean a scam is taking place.  For example, my wife and I just sold a home in Dallas, TX and moved to Raleigh.  It is a “buyers” market there, so rather than make a hasty decision, we elected to rent a home.  Turns out that the landlord bought another home and was unable to easily sell the one we rented.  This is an example of a legitimate transaction.  However, the action by the FHA may add undue stress on an otherwise tight market – just in an effort to eliminate opportunity (the second part of the fraud equation).

WHERE FROM HERE?

(1)  Honestly evaluate you and/or your company’s commitment to ethics.  Everyone says they beleive but the real question is – what have you done to set the right tone?  By that question, I don’t mean what have you done to comply with the law, but is there a tone of ethics in the company?

(2)  Have you or the company done anything within the past year to raise ethics awareness or fraud awareness?  Seminars, workshops, team meetings, on-line awareness programs – to name a few – are visible symbols of a company’s commitment to a foundation of solid business ethics.

(3)  Has an evaluation been done to consider what opportunities for fraud may exist and more importantly – how to eliminate or reduce them?

Now is the time for businesses who want to survive to take action.  Failure could be catastrophic as the “perfect storm” is rising for business fraud and ethics failures.  One thing is true…YOU DON’T WANT TO BE IN THE HEADLINES ON CNN TOMORROW FOR AN ETHICS FAILURE!


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!