Audit Roundup: Crime and Punishment

WSJ's Berman asks how likely crisis convictions are; A pall in the mall; etc.

The Journal’s Dennis Berman looks at how difficult it may be to prosecute executives for the financial collapse, despite what was said about the post-Enron laws that supposedly made wrongdoing more difficult.

Those looking for retribution against the executives of failed companies will quickly see that prosecutions won’t come easy. The law gives executives wide latitude to run their business, no matter how terrible their decisions. And even convictions would seem an incomplete conclusion given that a system — political and regulatory — also failed the public.

Berman also raises an interesting factoid I hadn’t seen before:

The House Financial Services Committee held 56 hearings in 2006, on everything from flood insurance to transparency in financial reporting. None touched directly on the issues that have brought the U.S. and world economies to their knees.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox came before that committee in September 2006, just as the credit bubble was reaching its peak. In a session celebrating signature legislation of the post-Enron era, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Mr. Cox mused, “We have come a long way since 2002. Investor confidence has recovered. There is greater corporate accountability. Financial reporting is more reliable and transparent.”

Breakingviews is good in calling out the terribly bad merger ideas that have arisen with banks and investment banks in this crisis. He points out the Wachovia/Morgan Stanley (something I pointed out at the time) talks as particularly alarming.

Hey—there’s actually some good news! The WSJ says cheap houses are bringing buyers back into the market.

A quarterly Wall Street Journal survey of housing data in 28 major metro areas shows that the glut of unsold homes listed for sale is shrinking in most of them. In many cases, sales have been stimulated by investors who are grabbing what they see as bargains on homes that can be turned into rentals. Metro areas with the biggest drops in for-sale signs include Sacramento and Orange County in California and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Of course, there’s bad news accompanying it: Prices are likely to decline (or at least be under “downward pressure”) for another year.

The Journal is good in explaining what happened to General Growth Properties—one of the biggest real estate investment trusts and, not too long ago, one of the best-performing mall owners. Its stock is down 97 percent and it just replaced its CEO, the scion of the family that founded the company. It got in over its head with, you guessed it, leverage. Too much debt (something I wrote about three and half years ago, by the way).

The FT reports that the world has less than a week to prevent a full-scale financial meltdown in Pakistan, which we might oughta do, since it’s not, like, the most stable of countries already. I don’t see this story in the Journal or the NYT.

Bloomberg has an interesting angle on the financial crisis, which is sending immigrant populations, especially Poles, in Ireland back home.

The number of people leaving Ireland next year will outstrip those moving to the country for the first time in 14 years, according to Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. The biggest exodus will be among the 170,000 workers who arrived the past four years from Poland and other east European states.

Here’s a nice personal-finance story in the Journal on how the presidential candidates’ tax plans would affect us. While the story makes the obvious point that McCain’s plan would be better for the wealthy, I think it frames this wrong:

Sen. McCain wants to permanently extend all 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, raise the personal exemption for each dependent from $3,500 gradually over several years to $7,000 and keep the top tax rate at 35%, leaving “upper-income taxpayers” with “the most to gain under McCain’s plan,” according to a report by Deloitte Tax. The nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimates that the top 1% would see a tax cut of more than $125,000.

Is it a tax “cut” if the rate is kept the same? I realize the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, meaning the top rate is set to go up without an extension, but it seems there might be a fairer way to frame that.

Finally, got a kick out of this NYT story on a guy who’s sweeping the make-your-own-ads world. It reminds me of the great Journal “aheds.”

He was working as a comedy-club usher in Indianapolis in spring 2007 when he read that Planet Smoothie, a franchise based in Atlanta, was looking for someone to be its Cupman mascot.

“When I read the description, it was like, ‘Actors, comics, musicians,’ — whatever,” Mr. Levinson said, “‘Would you be interested in traveling the country? Would you be interested in dressing like a giant smoothie?’ Well, on all of those fronts, kind of, yes.”

For his entry, he stared into the camera, writhing and singing lyrics like, “I wanna found a new country in Asia and call it Cupistan.” There were 95 entries, but his won easily.

“Everyone just kind of fell in love with Joel,” said Chris Morocco, a Planet Smoothie executive. “We had people coming in singing the jingle.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.