The head of President Obama’s Security and Exchange Commission went before Congress Wednesday to wring her hands about how the Lehman fiasco “raises serious concerns” about the effectiveness of post-Enron reforms.
“One would hope,” SEC chair Mary Schapiro told a congressional committee wanly, that the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley Act “would have prevented this kind of conduct.”
Eight years after Congress passed reforms that were supposed to prevent another Enron or WorldCom scandal, the Lehman mess reminds us how the government regulators and the accountants that are supposed to be vigilant watchdogs against destructive, deceptive bookkeeping continue to fail. They have remained in cahoots to ensure that the financial titans can ignore the rules and then evade the consequences for their bad and even fraudulent decisions.
According to the bankruptcy trustee’s scathing but sober 2,200 page report, Lehman used a financial maneuver known as Repo 105s, manipulating their financial reports disguise its bad debt from investors and the public as the company’s condition worsened before it finally went bankrupt, triggering the worst economic collapse since the Depression. The Repo 105 transactions secretly moved billions of dollars of debts off of Lehman’s books.
One would hope that President Obama and the Democrats would finally recognize in the Lehman debacle that while Wall Street chieftains like Lehman CEO Richard Fuld may indeed be masters of a universe, it’s an alternate universe far from our own.
In that alternate universe, the bankruptcy trustee’s report detailing his company’s accounting shenanigans actually absolves Fuld of responsibility for his company’s demise. He told the New York Post the report showed he did nothing illegal.
After all, Fuld was CEO, way too busy to be bothered with details like how his company was hiding $50 billion worth of bad debt. In Fuld’s alternative universe, the Sarbanes-Oxley requirement that CEO’s sign off on the accuracy of their company’s financial statements didn’t apply to him.
In that alternate universe, when a court-appointed bankruptcy states that Fuld “was at least grossly negligent,” that amounts to getting a seal of approval.
Though Fuld’s company declared bankruptcy, his own fortunes did not suffer in any sense that someone forced to live in this universe, rather than that alternative one, would recognize as suffering. Between 2000 and 2008, he took home $484 million. He left with a $22 million retirement package. In fairness to Fuld, that’s a paltry sum by Wall Street standards for the head of a failed firm. By comparison, Merrill Lynch’s Richard Prince was paid $166 million before he left.
Also in fairness to Fuld, he was not the only one whose conduct was criticized in the Lehman report. But in Fuld’s alternate universe, when the trustee found that Lehman’s accounting firm, Ernst & Young, failed to show professional standards of care, that amounts to an award for public service.
In that alternate universe, the little people are just incapable of understanding why it’s better for Lehman to have concealed its debt to make the firm look healthier while it was in fact going down the toilet in 2008.
And taking a big chunk of our economy with it.
While I and most others who are not Richard Fuld find grounds for at least a thorough criminal investigation rather than vindication in the Lehman trustee’s temperate prose, Fuld does have one point.
Everything that Lehman did to cook its books was done under the noses of federal regulators. So, Fuld insists that everything Lehman did was hunky-dory.
One would hope that the president and the Democrats would recognize that back here in the universe the rest of us live in, millions are suffering because of the deceit, arrogance and cluelessness of the bankers who seem to have escaped the meltdown with their wealth and power intact.
One would hope that if President Obama and the Democrats were serious about real reform, they would be making the Lehman report Exhibit One in an effort to discredit the financial lobbyists and their pals in Congress who are foiling efforts at sensible, robust regulation.
One would hope that the president and the Democrats would be determined to correct the mistakes of the past and not repeat them. One would hope the Lehman report would cure, once and for all, the president and the Democrats’ stunning lack of curiosity about how the financial industry blew up the universe we all live in. One would hope that the president and the Democrats wouldn’t find it acceptable to live in a universe where its masters aren’t accountable for their actions, but the rest of us are.