By James Kwak
(I’ve gotten several great articles forwarded to me via email by readers. It may take a few days to do them justice. Here’s one.)
In the great consensus of the past twenty years, government regulation was unnecessary because the free market provided better tools for constraining private companies. One force was the market, idealized by Alan Greenspan, who believed that counterparties could even police effectively against fraud. The other force was shareholders, who would punish managers for acting contrary to their interests. The market would prevent companies from abusing their customers, while corporate governance would prevent them from abusing their shareholders.
For those who still believe in the latter, McClatchy has a good (though infuriating) article on what went wrong on Moody’s, the bond rating agency that, we previously learned, responded to warnings about the toxic assets it was rating by . . . firing the people making the warnings. In the words of an executive on a Moody’s risk committee:
“My question the whole time has been, ‘Where the hell has the board been?’ I would have expected, sitting where I was, that I would have got a lot more calls from the board. I got none of that.”
Another Moody’s executive added, “There was no (corporate) governance at the firm whatsoever. I met the board, I presented to them, and it was just baffling that these guys were there. They were just so out of touch.”
The story that Kevin Hall tells about Moody’s has been told many times before. Board members often serve at the pleasure of the CEO, who controls who receives the perks of board membership. The result is often, but not always, boards that rubber-stamp the decisions of the CEO and his or her inner circle. Court precedents make it difficult to hold board members personally liable for anything, and companies buy liability insurance for their board members just in case. As Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the SEC, said to McClatchy, “I personally think until law enforcement agencies start holding these boards accountable, . . . you’re probably not going to get a lot of change.”
This is why I am skeptical of proposals to, for example, increase the number of independent board members. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think it betrays a certain amount of naivete over what independent board members actually do.