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>No Jail Time For Melt-Down Culprits

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Dear Money Morning Reader:

By far, the No. 1 question I’ve received this week has been: Why aren’t the guys who caused the credit-crisis meltdown headed for jail?

Personally, I believe these savings-sapping, market-mashing miscreants ought to be rotting at the bottom of a deep dark hole. At the very least, they should be impoverished and prevented from capitalizing any further on the chaos they caused, meaning no book deals or fruitful forms of tell-alls.

The fact that most, if not all, of these golden-parachuting bailout bandits are apparently going to hit the silk with billions of dollars in taxpayer funds stuffed in their monogrammed briefcases – while the rest of us struggle to meet our bills and watch our retirement accounts get vaporized – is as outrageous as it is galling.

The bottom line: Few will ever see the inside of the gray-bar hotel.

According to several lawyers I spoke with this past week, the problem is that these execs probably didn’t “technically” violate any of the laws that were actually in effect at the time – even though, from an ethical standpoint, these guys sold themselves down the river a long time ago.

Where this mess gets especially complicated is that in order to obtain convictions in a court of law (as opposed to the court of opinion), prosecutors would have to establish that the parties involved knew at the time that their actions were “more probably than not” going to cause harm. That’s a very high standard. And it’s made even tougher by the fact that not a single executive in the whole bunch apparently has the chutzpa to stand up and admit what they did was wrong – even if it wasn’t technically illegal.

It might be a completely different story in the civil courts, where different legal standards apply (which is probably why a blizzard of class-action lawsuits are reportedly in the works).

In the meantime, these members of the ousted executive All-Star team are busy defending their actions and patently denying that they “knew” anything – even as they argue that the actions that they did take did not mislead the public.

Come on fellas: How do you run a billion-dollar company and not “know” what’s transpiring? While I may have been born during the night, it wasn’t last night.

Wall Street and the banks bet the farm by closing their eyes and placing big bets they didn’t truly understand. By my way of thinking, there’s no doubt the executives in charge knew all about the bets – or at least the strategies they were based on. What they didn’t understand – or didn’t care about – was the actual risk they were taking on.

And here’s the most galling fact of all: In most cases, these were bets these companies didn’t have to make, and risks they didn’t have to take.

Absent some actual “smoking guns,” and definitive legal action, Congress and the appropriate regulators could work together (try not to laugh too hard, here) to pass legislation containing “look-back” clauses. This is more typical of civil torts as opposed to criminal violations and there is a huge body of law dealing with them. What it boils down to is that all the appropriate parties would have to agree that what happened was not only bad, but illegal both going forward and retroactively. Then, they’d have to make the decision that they’re going after the culprits.

Which is absolutely possible, just not very likely.

Most members of Congress are so far out of touch with how the rest of us actually live that they weren’t even aware there was a problem, let alone what the problem actually was until very late in the game. Even now, I’d venture that most of our federal elected officials still just don’t “get it.” Judging from the media reports I’ve seen, it strikes me that the vast majority of them still don’t understand how financial markets actually work, let alone how to fix them.

And that’s still another reason the executives who directed us into this financial mess will probably skate….

In closing, I believe that leadership has to come from the top, especially now. If he wanted to make a serious statement, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. could take one step to prove that he means business. Paulson, who made hundreds of millions of dollars as the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), could voluntarily give a sizeable chunk of it to the American people from whom he is asking so much at the moment. Then, having done so, he could turn the pressure up on his financial cronies to do the same – just as U.S. auto sector icon and self-styled pitchman Lee (“If you can find a better car, buy it!”) Iacocca did in the late 1970s, when he personally took over as the CEO of Chrysler Corp. in exchange for the salary of $1 a year.

In closing, let me just say that it’s fair to assume that things will get worse before they get better.

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