Continuing our Sherlock Holmes homage, today we draw inspiration from the character of Inspector Lestrade as the theme of this blog post. In the original Doyle works, he appears in 13 of the stories and we are only introduced to him as Inspector G. Lestrade. In the current PBS series, we are informed his given name is Greg. Lestrade is not exactly the sharpest tack in the shed, as evidenced by Holmes comments that he is “an absolute imbecile” from the The Red-Headed League and the “best of a bad lot” from The Boscombe Valley Mystery.
I thought about Inspector Lestrade when I read some of the comments of UBS Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Sergio Ermotti, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article entitled “UBS Chief’s Plea: Stop ‘Lecturing’ to Bankers” by David Enrich and Francesco Guerrera. UBS has not exactly been a law abiding corporate citizen over the past few years. As you might recall this is from the company, which had a $2.3 billion trading loss from one individual. It is also from the company that assisted approximately 17,000 Americans clients with illegally hiding $20bn of assets to avoid paying taxes on this money. UBS paid a fine of $780MM for these actions. But there is much more, as UBS also agreed to pay another $1.5 billion fine for its criminal actions in manipulating the LIBOR. What would you say the ‘tone’ is at UBS about complying with the law?
With all of these fines, penalties and criminal pleas behind him, Ermotti does not seem to think there is any room for criticism of his company. Rather unbelievably, Ermotti was quoted as saying, “Life is hard enough, and I think this constant lecturing on ethics and on integrity by many stakeholders is probably the most frustrating part of the equation. Because I don’t think there are many people who are perfect.” For those of you who might want that translated to Texan, the equivalent phrase is a very nasal twang of “Glass houses dear”. For the more spiritual out there you could fall back on “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Perhaps the most relevant question would simply be ‘How many angels dance on the head of a pin?’
Late last year, I engaged in a dialogue with other Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) commentators about whether motives matter in anti-corruption enforcement actions. I opined, in a post, entitled “Does Motive Matter in Anti-Bribery and Anti-Corruption Enforcement?”, that it really does not matter what the motives are for the Chinese government officials in prosecuting western companies, which violate Chinese national anti-bribery laws, if a company breaks the law, it can be subject to prosecution. The FCPA Professor, in a post, entitled “Should Motivations Matter”, said that impure motives do matter in anti-corruption enforcement actions, whether in China or the US. Others have suggested that the FCPA enforcement itself is hypocritical because the US allows gifts, entertainment, charitable donations and a wide variety of other acts to be given as a quid pro quo to US government officials, usually without criminal prosecution.
But Ermotti takes this debate to an entire new level. Now you cannot even criticize his bank unless you are ‘perfect’. Further, showcasing the obvious knowledge of his 60,000 plus employee base, Ermotti “said in the interview that most of the bad behavior that has landed UBS and others in hot water was caused by small groups of rogue employees and doesn’t reflect broader cultural problems in the industry. “It’s not because you’re a banker that you’re a criminal”.” This was in the face of criticism at the World Economic Forum in Davos (where Ermotti was interviewed and made his remarks) that “In a private meeting held between bank CEOs and central bankers and regulators Friday, several participants pointed to banks’ “conduct” issues as undermining efforts to rebuild public and investor confidence in the industry, according to executives and central bankers who were there.” This can be contrasted with Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who said at the same conference, “Whether or not [the industry] thrives will rest on the efforts of individuals and organizations to re-establish the system’s reputation for integrity”.
Yet again Ermotti doubled down when he claimed that the group, which cannot criticize, includes regulators and enforcement officials. This statement is almost the equivalent of another equally enlightened (former) CEO, Bob Diamond, who once ran Barclays and “told British lawmakers in 2011 that “there was a period of remorse and apology for banks. That period needs to be over.” The next year, Mr. Diamond was forced to resign after Barclays admitted trying to rig interest rates.” Ooops.
What does all of this say about the top of this once august organization? First and foremost, how you would like to be the person who has to ‘speak truth to power’ if your CEO says that only the ‘perfect’ can bring forward criticism? Do the words ‘career suicide’ ring any bells here? But more importantly you have a company which entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) regarding its tax evasion violations and then pled guilt to criminal conduct that as reported in another WSJ article “Regulators described the alleged illegality as “epic in scale,” with dozens of traders and managers in a UBS-led ring of banks and brokers conspiring to skew interest rates to make money on trades.” What would you say about its ‘tone-at-the-top’? Are they committed to following the law? How about complying with the terms of their multiple settlement agreements with US regulators? How about changing the culture in their organization, not simply to make compliance a goal but actually obey the law? What about instituting and then following a best practices program for compliance with anti-corruption laws such as the FCPA or Bribery Act; anti-tax evasion laws such as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA); relevant anti-money laundering (AML) laws; or indeed others.
Without a hint of irony, the WSJ piece on Ermotti’s remarks ends with the following quote from him, “The banking industry is an easy target.” I wonder if Ermotti has the self-awareness of Inspector Lestrade to understand the wisdom of his words?
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014