China Executes Wall Street Solution
China is taking an innovative approach to white collar crime…execution. Yang Yanming, a rogue securities trader, completed his death sentence this week for embezzling $9.52 million (a daily rounding error for Goldman Sachs, I might add). Not exactly a cheery topic for the holiday season, but nonetheless, apparently an effective technique for cracking down on illegal behavior. Last I heard, there has been no mention of a $65 billion Chinese version of the Madoff Ponzi scheme? I wonder what kind of risks the financial division of AIG would have undertaken, if involuntary death sentences were considered as viable options in the back of their minds? China in fact carries out more annual executions (via lethal injection and gun) than any other country in the world.
Part of the recent financial crisis can be attributed to the culture of Wall Street and the investment industry, which centers on exploiting “OPM,” an acronym I use to describe “other people’s money.” Often, industry professionals (I use the term loosely) assume undue amounts of risk in hopes of securing additional income, no matter the potential impact on the client. The thought process generally follows: “Why should I risk my own capital to make a mega-bonus, when I can swing for the fences using someone else’s?” And if OPM cannot be secured from individuals, perhaps the capital can be borrowed from the banks – at least before the bailouts occurred.
OPM does come with some caveats, however. Say for example the OPM comes from the government. When TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds got crammed down the throats of the banking industry, the auspice of reduced bonuses didn’t sit very well with many of the fat-cat Wall Street executives. Financial institutions prefer their OPM with few strings and little to no accountability. Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM), and Morgan Stanley (MS) weren’t big fans of the government’s pay scale, so these banks paid back the TARP funds at mid-year. Citigroup (C) is still negotiating with the U.S. Treasury and regulators to remove the scarlet phrase of “exceptional assistance” from their chests.
This subject of accountability brings up additional doses of blame to distribute. Not only are the gun-slinging bankers and advisers the ones to blame, but in many cases the clients themselves shoulder some of the responsibility. Either the clients’ start drinking the speculative “Kool-Aid” of their advisor or they neglect to ask a few basic questions for accountability. Just as Ronald Reagan stressed in his conversations with the Soviets, it is also imperative for clients to “trust but verify” the relationship with their advisor (read how to get your financial house in order).
One thing we learned from the crisis of 2008-2009 is that trust is a scarce resource. Investors can “luck” into a trustworthy relationship, but more often than not, just like anything else, it takes time and effort to build a worthy partnership.
The suppliers of OPM have gotten smarter and more skeptical after the crisis, however the managers of OPM haven’t discarded risk from their toolboxes. In addition to the general rebound in domestic equities, we have seen emerging markets, commodities, high-yield bonds, and foreign currencies (to name a few areas), also vault higher.
Regulatory reform for the financial industry is a hot topic for discussion, although virtually nothing substantive has been implemented yet. Incentives, accountability, and adequate capital requirements need to be put in place, so excessive risk-taking (like we saw at the AIG division handling Credit Default Swaps) doesn’t compromise the safety of our financial system. Also, traders need to be incentivized for making responsible decisions and punished adequately for participating in illegal activities. I know the President has a lot on his plate right now, but perhaps the Obama administration could set up a brief meeting with the capital punishment committee in Beijing. I’m confident the Chinese could assist us in “executing” a financial regulatory system solution.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (VFH) and BAC, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in GS, AIG, JPM, MS and C. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.