Audit Notes: Hiltzik on Lehman, Regulator Bonuses, iPad Ads

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik pulls a non-Repo 105 angle out of the Valukas Report on Lehman Brothers’ collapse: Its move into high-risk lending and the trampling of its own internal controls in the High Bubble years (emphasis mine):

Lehman was not alone on Wall Street in deciding in 2006 to shift out of its old business model of making loans for sale to other investors and into making investments for its own books — a change Valukas describes as going from the “moving” to the “storage” business. But it was acquiring exactly the sort of assets that would be hard to unload in a downturn, such as low-quality mortgages, commercial real estate investments and loans to overleveraged companies….

Just as business was shrinking, Lehman’s net assets soared to about $400 billion, an increase of nearly 50% from the beginning of 2006 through the first quarter of 2008. This gives the lie to the argument that Lehman’s officers and directors are being blamed unfairly for overlooking problems visible only in hindsight: They saw the train coming but chose not to get out of the way.

And yow! Hiltzik goes off on Ernst & Young, the credit raters, and Lehman’s board members:

The credit-rating firms were utterly useless in appraising Lehman’s true condition. Ernst & Young’s dereliction seems so extreme that it deserves harsh punishment, maybe even extinction.

And I’d love to hear an argument for allowing any of Lehman’s independent directors, who seem seldom to have asked a penetrating question, ever to serve on a corporate board again.

As I write, those 10 directors, who pulled down better than $100,000 cash a year to sit jointly in the driver’s seat for Lehman’s race to disaster, still boast at least 15 company directorships among them.

— The Associated Press scoured data it obtained with a FOIA request to find that the government’s financial-industry regulators handed out bonuses during the boom years, too.

During the 2003-06 boom, the three agencies that supervise most U.S. banks — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — gave out at least $19 million in bonuses, records show.

To put that in perspective, $19 million is about one-third of the 2006 bonus of Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein’s 2006 bonus alone.

Advertising Age’s Nat Ives has some good thoughts on what tablet computers (okay, the iPad) will mean for publishers’ Web sites:

If selling tablet editions is going to work, companion sites probably have to diverge from their print forerunners more sharply than ever. “You can’t put free content into a paid app and expect a good outcome,” said Monica Ray, leader of digital paid-content strategy at Time Inc., where she is senior VP for strategic planning and corporate development…

Tablet editions will have to occupy a sweet spot between traditional print issues and all the interactivity and the internet, neither duplicating print and underwhelming tablet owners nor becoming websites and losing their magazine identity.

It’s a real opportunity, perhaps the last one, for traditional publishers to get it right this time. As it does with the print edition, putting all your stuff up on the Web site for free incentivizes people not to pay for your product. Maybe ads on the iPad will prove so valuable that publishers with high labor costs can make it (and they ought to be worth more since they should be able to replicate and improve on print ads). But don’t bet on it.

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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.