Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Followon to the Followup

Once I had screwed up a proper screw up (if it makes sense!), similarly posting a follow-on to the follow up. On of my favorite authors Michael Lewis has this to say about whom to blame

1) Christopher Cox. He's the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and so has the job of regulating these companies that helped make it possible for every poor American to get a mortgage and are now, as a result, falling apart.

That, in itself, is no reason to blame him. He inherited a broken operation: the SEC has been morally bankrupt for some time now. The people who work for the place -- especially the ones who call the shots -- have for years had a disconcerting habit of leaving their low-paying government jobs regulating Wall Street firms for high-paying ones at those same Wall Street firms.

Systemic Corruption

They are meant to guard against systemic corruption when they are themselves systematically corrupt. It's hard for people who are paid $85,000 a year to police people who are paid $15 million.

Happily, you can still blame Cox for something. He went as far out of his way as he could to enable the brokerage firms by harassing the small group of informed financial people who have been trying to tell the truth to the markets: the short sellers. They bet against the stock price of a company and so have always had a bad reputation with the public. But in this case, they are the closest thing we have to heroes.

A man named David Einhorn is a case study. He runs a hedge fund called Greenlight Capital, which sells short some stocks and buys others. That is, he doesn't just bet against companies but for them, too.

Blaming Shorts

Still, for some time now, he's been standing up in front of large audiences, announcing that he was short Lehman Brothers stock, and then explaining in great detail its dubious accounting practices. The SEC responded by demanding to see his firm's e- mail, hinting darkly that he was part of some conspiracy to drive Lehman Brothers out of business, and generally making him feel that he'd pay a price for telling the truth.

Christopher Cox is probably a nice man who has no real idea what just happened. But for the way he treated people with the nerve to speak the truth to power you should feel free to blame him anyway.

2) The Wall Street CEO.

Stan O'Neal was the chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch, Dick Fuld was the CEO of Lehman Brothers, James Cayne was the CEO of Bear Stearns Cos. Each took home tens of millions of dollars in pay for making the decisions that destroyed his firm.

Stan the Man

Of the lot, O'Neal deserves perhaps the greatest scorn as he took a business that wasn't well designed to take huge trading risks and wagered it all on a single bet.

He screwed up the lives of more innocent people than the others. But interestingly, if any of these men had behaved well and resisted the pressures and temptations of the moment, his firm would have, for several years, dramatically underperformed the competition. Probably he would have lost his job.

Even O'Neal can probably look back on his performance and say to himself, ``There's nothing I'd do different, given what I knew at the time.''

That's what they all say -- right before they're shot.

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