Last week, when almost every major US bank manufactured profits out of thin air by changing their regular reporting periods to exclude months in which huge losses occurred, by changing their definitions of bad debt, and by revaluing their assets at fantasy land valuations that they will never receive in the open market courtesy of FASB, this event was a non-event to me because it merely continued the process known as the Enronization of America. This event, the systemic injection of fraud and deceit into nearly every aspect of American life, has been unfolding for decades, even prior to the Enron scandal itself.
Recently, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis testified that former US Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson instructed him to disobey securities law and conceal material losses in the Merrill Lynch merger from investors. Lewis additionally testified that Paulson threatened to fire him and his entire board if he tried to back out of the Merrill deal. These revelations, too, did not surprise me, for these kinds of activities, devoid of all morals and ethics, have been occurring regularly within the financial industry for decades. It only seems as if such transgressions are more numerous today because of the recent attention given them in the media, but in reality, they have neither proliferated in frequency nor expanded in egregiousness.
Anyone that has ever worked for a Wall Street firm is well aware of the danger an analyst brings upon himself when he refuses to tow the official corporate party line regarding stock ratings for a firm that is simultaneously closing a financially significant deal with the analyst’s employer. Even though this atmosphere of “unspoken coercion” of inflated stock ratings existed for decades, when the bull was strong on Wall Street, very few journalists found this story newsworthy. Even though regulatory laws were passed many years ago to separate investment banking interests from securities interests within the same firm, the percent of US stocks covered by Wall Street firms rated as a “buy or hold” actually increased from 89% (2003) to 93% (2007) after the passage of aforementioned regulations. Who in their right mind would ever believe that 93% of all stocks covered by Wall Street should be rated a “buy or hold” and that only 7% should be rated a “sell”?
When regulations are enforced through self-monitoring and self-policing as is too often the situation, and when all financial regulatory agencies are themselves lacking in integrity and transparency, new regulations can be enacted every day without effect. Self-regulations and regulations imposed by morally bankrupt people have never been effective. How quickly we forget that UBS Paine Webber financial consultant Chang Wu was fired by branch manager Patrick Mendenhall no more than several hours after Enron executive Aaron Brown complained to Mr. Mendenhall about an email Mr. Wu had sent to his clients. In the email that Mr. Brown found “extremely disturbing”, Mr. Wu had advised all of his clients to sell Enron stock due to massive liquidity problems he had uncovered, even though UBS Paine Webber had rated it a strong buy. (Source: CNN, “Financial Adviser Fired Over Enron Advice”, 26 March 2002). After Mendenhall fired Wu, UBS sent an email to their clients retracting Mr. Wu’s statement, informing them that Enron stock was “likely heading higher than lower from here on out.” (Source: New York Post, 4 October 2006).
We should be cognizant that in light of the Enron scandal, that this level of deceit has not been a recent development. In 2001-2002, a partial list of companies that had to re-declare earnings due to erroneous information contained in previous earnings announcements included the following companies: Adelphia, AOL Time Warner, Arthur Anderson, Bristol-Meyers, Squibb, Freddie Mac, ImClone, Citigroup, General Electric, JP Morgan, Tyco, Worldcom, Dynergy, Enron, General Motors, AIG and Hyundai. Many of the company names on this list are the same companies that have be