(Almost) All-Ivy Audit Notes: The Corporation, Repo 105, Complexity Trap

Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review has the most interesting read of the day, an interview with historian Brian Murphy, who’s studied early American corporations, and says the Founders would be appalled by how corporate power and status has grown:

Chief Justice Roberts lays out an ideologically pure view of corporations as associations of citizens — leveling differences between companies, schools and other groups. So in his view Boeing is no different from Harvard, which is no different from the NAACP, or Citizens United, or my local neighborhood civic association. It’s lovely prose, but as a matter of history the majority is simply wrong.

Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston’s Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn’t literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context…

When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn’t blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he’s worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.

So even as this generation of Americans became comfortable with the idea of using the corporate form as a way to set priorities and mobilize capital, they did their best to make sure that those institutions were subordinate to elected officials and representative government. They saw corporations as corrupting influences on both the economy at large and on government — that’s why they described the East India Company as imperium in imperio, a sort of “state within a state.” This wasn’t an outcome they were looking to replicate.

Read the whole thing. And I’d love to read more on the evolution of the corporation in America.

— The Wharton School’s business journal Knowledge@Wharton has a very good piece explaining why Lehman’s Repo 105 was pure fraud.

“It was clearly a dodge…. to circumvent the rules, to try to move things off the balance sheet,” says Wharton accounting professor professor Brian J. Bushee, referring to Lehman’s Repo 105 transactions. “Usually, in these kinds of situations I try to find some silver lining for the company, to say that there are some legitimate reasons to do this…. But it clearly was to get assets off the balance sheet”…

Bushee notes, however, that Lehman’s maneuvers were more extreme than any he has seen since the Enron collapse…

By agreeing to buy the assets back for 105% of their sales price, the firm could book them as a sale and remove them from the books. But the move was misleading, as Lehman also entered into a forward contract giving it the right to buy the assets back, Bushee says. The forward contract would be on Lehman’s books, but at a value near zero. “It’s very similar to what Enron did with their transactions. It’s called ‘round-tripping.’” Enron, the huge Houston energy company, went bankrupt in 2001 in one of the best-known examples of accounting deception.

(h/t Francine McKenna)

— NYU’s Clay Shirky has a fascinating post (okay, let’s say it ties for most-interesting of the day) on complexity and what it means for the institutional media, pointing to a book implicating complexity in the collapse of civilizations from Rome to the Mayans.

How much does this sound like the financial system? (emphasis mine)

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

Can’t do anything about securitization, they say. It’s too critical to lending. So reinflate the bubble and hope for the best!


— A reader is underwhelmed by The Wall Street Journal’s new iPad app, saying “doesn’t it look like a desktop-publishing newsletter circa 1998?” Actually, yeah it does:

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.