Audit Notes: Fukayama on the Crisis, WSJ on Exec Pay, Nonprofit News

The Browser has a great interview with Francis Fukayama on his five favorite financial-crisis books.

Here he is on whether companies like Goldman Sachs were really capable of committing systematic fraud:

It depends what you mean by systematic. Lloyd Blankfein doesn’t get up in the morning and say, “OK. How are we going to defraud people today?” but I do think the relationship of these banks to social rules is fairly dodgy. Rules are viewed as potential obstacles that you try to get around if that maximises your profit. This is a deeper social issue that I think has to do with the economisation of a lot of thinking. Economists have this model of rational utility maximisation - that social benefit comes out of everybody pursuing their private rational self-interest. This has shaded over - imperceptibly over the past couple of generations - to a downplaying of social norms as constraints on behaviour. You see this in a number of places. In business schools, for example. Back in the 1960s and 70s, business schools regarded themselves as professional schools along the lines of law schools or architecture schools. They were meant to inculcate a certain sense of professional responsibility, that you have obligations to society at large. But as a result of the economisation of a lot of what was taught in these schools, individual profit maximisation began to displace this normative sense, and this spilled over into the behaviour of the people who went on from these programmes into the financial sector. In their minds, they weren’t deliberately trying to defraud people, but if they saw an opportunity to take advantage of less sophisticated buyers of subprime mortgages, they would go ahead and do it.

Here’s Fukayama riffing on Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s excellent book 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown:

I’ve got this very simple view, which is that I don’t think regulation of the Dodd-Frank sort is going to work. The investment banks have got way too much talent, are way too creative and way too nimble for regulators ever to keep up. Therefore the real solution all along should have been to break these big banks up into smaller pieces, which is essentially what Glass-Steagall and the interstate banking regulations of the 1930s did. Once the banks are no longer too big to fail, then you can just let the market work the way it’s supposed to. If people take outsized risks and they get into trouble, then they just go bankrupt, and that is essentially what happened to MF Global. It hurts people, but it’s not a systemic crisis.

That option was never seriously considered. We briefly toyed with the idea of nationalising the banks in the depths of the crisis. In the debate leading up to Dodd-Frank, there was actually one really interesting roll call vote. There was an amendment proposed that would have limited the size of financial institutions. It was defeated something like 60 to 30, and if you look at the list of the people who voted against it, it includes Chuck Schumer and all of these liberal Democrats. They’re the ones who should have been leading the charge against this kind of concentrated power, but given where they get their money, they weren’t willing even to consider it. That’s why we still haven’t solved this problem. In that one specific respect, Johnson is completely correct. It’s not just a matter of corrupt money bribing people; it’s also a case of intellectual capture. People just can’t think outside the parameters that are set by this community and just don’t entertain certain kinds of potential solutions to it.

The Wall Street Journal investigates what bankrupt companies pay their executives, looking at how firms skate around a 2005 law that says they can’t pay retention bonuses to executives.

The paper analyzed twenty-one of the biggest 100 bankruptcies from 2007 to mid-last year and found those companies paid their CEOs a combined $350 million, a median pay that nearly matches median pay for CEOs of nonbankrupt S&P 500:

In 2006, the company attempted during bankruptcy proceedings to get approval for millions in future bonuses to be paid to six executives. The payments would be made if the executives remained with Dana until it exited bankruptcy and the company achieved certain valuation milestones.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Burton Lifland initially rejected the plan. “Using a familiar fowl analogy, this compensation scheme walks, talks and is a retention bonus,” he wrote.

But then Dana returned to court with a different plan—one calling for the company to meet specific earnings targets. In that round, the judge ruled Dana’s proposal was an “incentive plan” not governed by the new law limiting retention bonuses.

The Dana decision, lawyers say, helped provide a legal road map for other companies, which soon started crafting “incentive” plans and arguing in court that payments were part of their ordinary course of business and a sound exercise of their business judgment.

— Some good news from the nonprofit-news and future-of-news front: MinnPost took in more money than it spent last year, reports Nieman Journalism Lab’s Andrew Phelps.

Just 21 percent of its $1.5 million in revenue came from foundation support. Half came from advertising, sponsors, and memberships.

Traffic to grew, too. Pageviews rose 20 percent over the year before. The number Kramer prefers, though, is visits from Minnesotans: 3.7 million in 2011, versus 2.8 million the year before.

Unfortunately, Voice of San Diego has had to lay some staff off after falling short last year, Phelps reports.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,