Articles Posted in Securities and Exchange Commission

  

 

United States v. Standard &
Poor’s

By R Tamara de Silva

January 5, 2013

 

       The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against one of the of big three credit ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s (“S&P”) and its parent company, McGraw-Hill, Inc.[1]  The suit alleges that S&P deliberately gave its coveted triple-A ratings to sub-prime debt in order to win fees.  The suit does not address the structural conflicts of interest within the three credit ratings agencies that are Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (“NSRO”), nor will it address or cure any of the underlying causes of the credit crisis.  While there are problems with the credit rating agency business model, it will be difficult to prove that S&P knew any more than even the audit committees of the investment firms on whom it relied, or the issuers of debt instruments themselves.  The suit will of course result in the levy of a fine.
But while S&P’s hands may not be entirely unsullied- far more importantly to the untrained public eye, they are as good a scapegoat as any other.

       S&P is a credit rating agency whose business is to provide credit ratings represented by letters from triple-A to D, in exchange for fees.  Federal laws require that certain institutions only hold investments that have a credit rating of “investment grade,” but most of the financial world relies on credit ratings agencies to weigh and measure risk, risk defined in terms of the credit worthiness of investments and institutions.    S&P is the largest of three credit ratings agencies that is recognized by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”)
as an NSRO.   From 2004 towards the end of 2008, S&P assigned credit ratings on nearly $4 trillion of debt instruments.  In terms of sheer size and credibility, despite this suit and skepticism of the NSROs particularly in Europe, the world has no credible alternative to credit ratings agencies and specifically nothing to replace, Standard & Poors.

       Keep in mind that almost five years after the worst financial crisis in United States history, the Department of Justice has yet to criminally charge a single culpable senior executive or firm.  If history is any guide, the Justice Department will reach a civil settlement with S&P wherein the firm will agree, without admitting any wrongdoing, to pay a fine that in relative terms, will have as large a fiscal impact on S&P as the cost of one month’s dry kibble would have to the owners of the Grumpy Cat.  The suit asks for a fine in excess of $1 billion but these will typically be negotiated down and the government has not latterly demonstrated a willingness to go to trial with these suits.
Like so many Wall Street settlements reached over the past ten years,
the cost of the settlement fine imposed will ultimately be a pittance relative to the quarterly earnings of the offending firm-S&P is not likely to become the first exception to this rule.
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A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

By R Tamara de Silva

January 28, 2013

 

“swaying power such as has never in the world’s history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,…after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption-will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.  Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance.” 

Henry Adams writing about the corruption of the Erie Railroad for the Westminster Review in 1870, he described corporate influence growing to the point of being uncheckable with political parties that would sacrifice principle for accommodation.

 

       Last week, the Head of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, announced his resignation.  His resignation is remarkable only in so far that it draws attention to the enormity of what he would not do.  Under Breuer’s watch, leaving aside some high profile and related insider trading prosecutions, not one senior Wall Street executive was prosecuted or even charged (by some accounts- not even investigated) with anything having to do with the worst financial crisis in American history-a crisis that resulted in a bailout of Wall Street banks and the financial sector at a cost to American taxpayers of between $43.32-$59.75 billion.[1]  A day before Lanny Breuer’s resignation, PBS’ Frontline aired an investigation about the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute a single senior banker involved in the mortgage crisis called, “The Untouchables.”  During this same time that the Department of Justice refused to go after a single head of a Wall Street firm,
they took a particularly hard line on a torture whistleblower (not the torturers), and many financial criminals responsible for not the billions caused by elite Wall Street firms but between thousands to hundreds of thousands like elderly couples for possible pension fraud, an appraiser in Florida, individuals who committed bank fraud by lying on mortgage applications and other criminals like pot smokers and Aaron Swartz.  It is not that I condone wrong-doing,
only a record of selective prosecution on steroids.  Lanny Breuer’s Justice Department exposed its full fury to the chubs of the criminal justice systems while systematically saving the titans and whales.

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Prosecutorial Discretion,
Cambyses and Aaron Swartz

By R Tamara de Silva

January 15, 2013

 

The Optimist thinks this is the best of all worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true

J. Robert Oppenheimer

 

       The prosecutor of the late Aaron Swartz and Sisamnes have something to tell us about the purpose of those who have the awesome task of administering justice. The power of the prosecutor in modern times is absolute and as such unlike in the case of King Cambyses and judge Sisamnes, unchecked when it is abused.   All the more reason to ask at these times, what is the purpose of prosecution?  Is prosecution in all instances moral?
And is prosecution the same as justice?  In answer to the latter, in the case of Aaron Swartz, the answer is resoundingly in the negative.
The prosecution of Aaron Swartz may have followed the letter of the law and fit an omnibus catchall federal charge like wire-fraud, but it makes mincemeat out of Justice.  Aaron Swartz’s prosecution also highlights some of the many problems with our criminal justice system.

       One of the more memorable stories in the fifth book of Herodotus’ Histories takes place in the sixth century BC and it tells the fate of judge Sisamnes.  The Persian King Cambyses discovered that Sisamnes had diverted justice and rendered a verdict in a case based upon his acceptance of a bribe.  King Cambyses understood the majesty and power of justice and his retribution for Sisamnes’ abuse of it is unforgettable in its brutality.  King Cambyses had Sisamnes stripped of his flesh, while alive and used the strips of flesh to upholster the court’s judge’s chair.  But Cambyses’
retribution for the abuse of justice did not end there for he made Sisamnes’
son Otanes sit on the grisly judge’s chair as he was made the replacement justice with the lesson that he must always remember his father’s fate when administering justice.

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J.P. Morgan’s Loss as a Red Herring By R Tamara de Silva May 14, 2012

Much ado is being made about J. P. Morgan’s disclosure of over $2 billion in trading losses and one hopes the media and regulators do not use this as yet another opportunity to completely miss the point. Wall street must not rely exclusively on its present risk models that are based exclusively on VaR and variations of VaR-it must learn to think outside its own box and anticipate worse case scenarios. We cannot afford to have many more systemic crises that threaten to bring down the financial system simply because yet again, the unexpected and un-modeled occurs.

Chief Executive Jamie Dimon’s public self-flagellation aside, this loss compromises merely 20% percent of J. P. Morgan’s pretax profit for the first quarter of this year. Put another way, J. P. Morgan has a market capitalization of $137.4 billion of which $2 billion comprises a bit more than 1 percent–hardly fodder for anyone’s angst against quasi-public Wall Street juggernauts that seem to privatize profit and publicize loss being ‘too big to fail.” Mr. Dimon is wrong to assert that the trading losses were the result of hedges. It would be more wrong for lawmakers on either side of the aisle to call for hasty regulations on an industry they have never really understood and from whose pockets they are lobbied and receive the heftiest campaign contributions. A cursory look at what has happened to the Volcker Rule illustrates this point. The real lesson of J. P. Morgan’s $2.3 billion loss is that Wall Street must once and for all adjust the way it manages and understands risk.

Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited

By R. Tamara de Silva January 17, 2011

Yesterday, Standard & Poor’s relieved the Eurozone’s bail-out fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (“EFSF”) of its AAA credit rating, possibly hampering the fund’s ability to contain the European debt crisis. This comes on the heel’s of the S&P stripping both France and Austria of their triple-A rating in favor of a rating of AA+.[1] The effect of the S&P downgrade may be negative. Ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries in information and evaluate risk but one of their inherent oddities is that they seek to compare things whose differences in scale make them incomparable. Ratings agencies also have conflicts of interests, they often evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand, they seem to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and they are at times, catastrophically wrong.

Why MF Global’s Last Days May Have Been CriminalBy R. Tamara de Silva December 19, 2011

Last Thursday December 15, 2011 was MF Global Holdings Ltd.’s and MF Global Inc.’s Chief Executive Jon Corzine’s third time to testify before Congress. He may not have faired all that well in light of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group Chairman Terrance Duffy’s testimony on December 13, 2011, which seemed to contradict Corzine’s previous testimony. Corzine adjusted his testimony on December 15, 2011 to account for the seeming contradiction. However, how well Corzine may have done to avoid perjury or any role in a possible fraud remains to be seen. A closer examination of Corzine’s testimony and the events leading up to MF Global’s bankruptcy on October 31, 2011 suggests problems. If there is any purpose to be achieved in having Corzine testify again, lawmakers should focus their questions towards the failed purchase of MF Global by Interactive Brokers and all customer agreements, including emails between MF Global and account holders leading up to the purported transfers of $175 million and $700 million in as yet missing customer segregated funds and the firm’s use of a type of repurchase agreement.

Were the Transfers Legal?