Another Example of the Value of Risk Management

It seems that some financial institutions have not fully learned the lessons from past rogue trading incidents such as the ones that occurred at Societe Generale and Barings. Officials at UBS announced today that they are facing massive losses at the hands of a lone trader. Here’s what BBC reported this morning.

Police in London have arrested a 31-year-old man in connection with allegations of unauthorised trading which has cost Swiss banking group UBS an estimated $2bn (£1.3bn). Kweku Adoboli, believed to work in the European equities division, was detained in the early hours of Thursday and remains in custody. UBS shares fell 8% after it announced it was investigating rogue trades. ZKB trading analyst Claude Zehnder said the news would damage confidence in UBS. “They obviously have a problem with risk management.”

This is yet another example of the value of having a strong risk and control program. While it is difficult to control external events, companies can certainly implement proper internal controls to protect from massive losses such as this one.

Sarbanes-Oxley Executive Compensation Clawbacks Continue

Yesterday, the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced another successful “clawback” of executive compensation under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. James O’Leary, former Chief Financial Officer of Atlanta-based Beazer Homes USA, was forced to return over $1.4 million in bonus payments and stock sale profits that he made as a result of fraudulent financial reporting in 2006. What is somewhat unique about the case is the fact that the CFO was not implicated in any wrongdoing other than certifying that the financial statements were accurate. The individual who is being criminally prosecuted for the fraud is the Chief Accounting Officer who reported to the CFO during the time period in question.

“Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act encourages senior management to take affirmative steps to prevent fraudulent accounting schemes from occurring on their watch,” said Rhea Kemble Dignam, Director of the SEC’s Atlanta Regional Office. “O’Leary received substantial incentive compensation and stock sale profits while Beazer was misleading investors and fraudulently overstating its income.”

This announcement comes on the heels of a related clawback from the CEO of Beazer Homes that totaled more than $6.4 million. Again, in this case, the CEO was not implicated in any criminal wrongdoing. The SEC’s enforcement approach regarding both the CEO and the CFO in this case serve as a reminder to senior executives to ensure their annual certifications are accurate. The only way to know is to have a strong risk and control program in place. Wheelhouse Advisors can help. Visit www.WheelhouseAdvisors.com to learn more.

Lessons Learned from the Foreclosure Crisis

The recent foreclosure crisis is just another chapter in the financial meltdown that began in 2007.  As a result of the frenzy to securitize mortgage loans back in the middle of the decade, the required paperwork to foreclose on a property is difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve. Now, financial institutions are finding that the outsourced foreclosure work is faulty at best and fraudulent in many cases. Here’s what the Wall Street Journal reported today.

In recent days, some lenders named in the foreclosure inquiries have said they would no longer use the services of some of these law firms for new foreclosures. Ally Financial Inc.’s GMAC Mortgage has pulled business and dispatched executives and a new team of lawyers to Florida to ensure foreclosure cases are being handled correctly, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The law firms and a Lender Processing unit, Docx LLC, which did work at a suburban Atlanta office, handled the nitty-gritty paperwork necessary to verify key document batches, including ownership transfer of a loan, known as an assignment, and the amount owed by a borrower losing his home. That paperwork processing at the law firms and lenders allegedly didn’t review all information needed, such as who owned the loan or borrower financial information, the Florida attorney general claims. The Florida attorney general’s office is looking at possible use of “fabricated documents” used in foreclosure actions in court, according to the attorney general.

This situation provides a few lessons in risk management. First, it demonstrates the lingering effects of poor controls when dealing with massive amounts of transactions complicated by a highly complex securitization process. Second, it also shows that the operational risks to a given company extend well beyond its walls to its outsourcing partners’ ability to properly control its business.  Finally, with the crisis today clearly rooted in the actions of the past, it demonstrates the need for more forward-looking risk management programs.

Who Is Really to Blame?

Yesterday, the infamous Jerome Kerviel was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to repay the estimated €4.9 billion that the French financial institution Société Générale lost as a result of his failed derivative trades. What is surprising to many who have weighed-in on the verdict is the fact that the sole blame for the massive losses has been placed on the young trader.  Here’s one common view as reported in the New York Times.

“It’s a whitewash,” Bradley D. Simon, a white-collar criminal defense attorney at Simon & Partners in New York who specializes in securities and bank fraud, said of the verdict. “The evidence does not support absolving the bank completely,” he said. “This was a lot larger than Kerviel.”

Société Générale had admitted to management failures and weaknesses in its risk control systems. An internal audit published in May 2008 described Mr. Kerviel’s immediate supervisors as “deficient” and acknowledged that the bank had failed to follow through on at least 74 internal alerts about Mr. Kerviel’s trading activities dating to mid-2006.

While an appeal of the verdict is virtually guaranteed, the larger question remains. How can a situation like this unfortunate one be prevented in the future?  The answer certainly begins with stronger risk and control programs as demonstrated by the numerous weaknesses found at Société Générale.

Reputation Is Everything

In last month’s issue of Operational Risk & Regulation magazine, Goldman Sachs’ operational risk management program and its focus on reputational risk was profiled.  The article focused on Goldman Sachs’ use of scenario analysis in anticipating the magnitude of reputational risk events.  Scenario analysis exercises such as these are very useful tools to increase the risk awareness within an organization.  Here is a summary of Goldman Sachs’ approach.

Goldman Sachs is using scenario analysis to study reputational risk, employing operational risk expertise within its broader risk management framework, according to its global co-heads of operational risk management, Spyro Karetsos and Mark D’Arcy.  The bank says it embraces events, even those creating more reputational risk exposure than financial risk exposure, into its framework.  “Franchise value is highly important within the organisation and managing reputational risk is a by-product of that,” says Karetsos, who is based in New York. “While it is not our responsibility to quantify reputational risk, there is an internal process that measures our exposure to those risks that are difficult to quantify, one of which is reputational risk.”

The timeliness of this story is ironic given the potential massive impact to the bank’s reputation as a result of the fraud charges levied by the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday.  Once the announcement was made, the bank lost close to $12.5 billion in shareholder value by the end of the trading day.  Whether that loss can be overcome remains to be seen.  However, it does prove that in business, reputation is everything.

Out of Control

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations conducted hearings to examine the largest bank failure in U.S. history and its role in the 2008 financial crisis.  The failure of Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) was largely the result of years of increasing involvement in the mortgage-backed securities market.  Over a four year period, WaMu increased their securitizations of subprime mortgages from about $4.5 billion in 2003 to $29 billion in 2006.  Altogether, from 2000 to 2007, they securitized at least $77 billion in subprime loans.  At the same time, WaMu allowed its lending practices and controls to erode in the pursuit of greater loan production and short-term profits.  Here is a summary of the investigators’ findings.

(1)   High Risk Lending Strategy. Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) executives embarked upon a high risk lending strategy and increased sales of high risk home loans to Wall Street, because they projected that high risk home loans, which generally charged higher rates of interest, would be more profitable for the bank than low risk home loans.

(2)   Shoddy Lending Practices. WaMu and its affiliate, Long Beach Mortgage Company (“Long Beach”), used shoddy lending practices riddled with credit, compliance, and operational deficiencies to make tens of thousands of high risk home loans that too often contained excessive risk, fraudulent information, or errors.

(3)   Steering Borrowers to High Risk Loans. WaMu and Long Beach too often steered borrowers into home loans they could not afford, allowing and encouraging them to make low initial payments that would be followed by much higher payments, and presumed that rising home prices would enable those borrowers to refinance their loans or sell their homes before the payments shot up.

(4)   Polluting the Financial System. WaMu and Long Beach securitized over $77 billion in subprime home loans and billions more in other high risk home loans, used Wall Street firms to sell the securities to investors worldwide, and polluted the financial system with mortgage backed securities which later incurred high rates of delinquency and loss.

(5)   Securitizing Delinquency-Prone and Fraudulent Loans. At times, WaMu selected and securitized loans that it had identified as likely to go delinquent, without disclosing its analysis to investors who bought the securities, and also securitized loans tainted by fraudulent information, without notifying purchasers of the fraud that was discovered.

(6)   Destructive Compensation. WaMu’s compensation system rewarded loan officers and loan processors for originating large volumes of high risk loans, paid extra to loan officers who overcharged borrowers or added stiff prepayment penalties, and gave executives millions of dollars even when its high risk lending strategy placed the bank in financial jeopardy.

These findings are not surprising in the aftermath of the financial disaster.  However, without significant oversight and change in the operations of financial institutions, a similar scenario will likely occur in the not too distant future.

New Task Force Established to Combat Financial Fraud

Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced the creation of a new task force dedicated to rooting out individuals who participated in fraudulent activities that led to the great financial meltdown of 2008.  The new organization is aptly named the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force and is composed of members from over 24 federal agencies.  It will be chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder.  Here is more on the task force from a Securities & Exchange Commission press release.

The task force, which replaces the Corporate Fraud Task Force established in 2002, will build upon efforts already underway to combat mortgage, securities and corporate fraud by increasing coordination and fully utilizing the resources and expertise of the government’s law enforcement and regulatory apparatus. The attorney general will convene the first meeting of the Task Force in the next 30 days.

“This task force’s mission is not just to hold accountable those who helped bring about the last financial meltdown, but to prevent another meltdown from happening,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “We will be relentless in our investigation of corporate and financial wrongdoing, and will not hesitate to bring charges, where appropriate, for criminal misconduct on the part of businesses and business executives.”

While noble in its intent, this new task force faces several challenges.  First, its membership is quite large and politically unwieldy.  Second, it is made up of agencies that were charged with enforcing laws and regulations that were intended to prevent fraudulent activity from occurring in the first place.  Third, its creation falls on the heels of an unsuccessful prosecution of hedge fund managers that brought Bear Stearns to its knees.  Only time will tell if the task force can successfully achieve its mission.