On this day 30 years ago, history was made when Spud Webb won the 3rd NBA Slam Dunk contest. Webb joined future Hall-of-Famers Michael Jordan, who won the inaugural contest in 1984, and Dominic Wilkins, who won the second event in 1985, as the Slam Dunk champ. What made Webb’s win so noteworthy? It was his size. He was 5 feet, 9 inches tall and the shortest player in the league at that time. Webb played for 12 seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Atlanta Hawks, but for anyone who tuned in that day, we will never forget when Spud Webb stood the tallest of the all the players.
I thought about Webb, his biggest moment of personal glory and individual responsibility when I read Sunday’s Fair Game column in the New York Times (NYT) by Gretchen Morgenson, entitled “Fixing Banks by Fining the Bankers”. Morgenson has written several pieces about the banking scandals coming out of the 2008 financial crisis and beyond, coupled with the lack of personal accountability in all of the settlements with US regulators.
She began her piece with the certain truism, “Ho-hum, another week, another multimillion-dollar settlement between regulators and a behemoth bank acting badly.” The settlement she referenced referred to two financial institutions, Barclay’s and Credit Suisse, who agreed to pay $154.3MM, regarding their misrepresentations to investors around high-frequency trading. But what concerned Morgenson was the following, “As has become all too common in these cases, not one individual was identified as being responsible for the activities. Once again, shareholders are shouldering the costs of unethical behavior they had nothing to do with.”
Morgenson identified the reason behind the continued failings of banks “could not be clearer: Years of tighter rules from legislators and bank regulators have done nothing to fix the toxic, me-first cultures that afflict big financial firms.” She believes it is a failure of banks to change their culture. In her piece she quoted the Chairman of FINRA, Richard Ketchum, who said firms that continue to have violations are because of “poor cultures of compliance”. He finds the opposite to be true stating, “Firms with a strong ethical culture and senior leaders who set the right tone, lead by example and impose consequences on anyone who violates the firm’s cultural norms are essential to restoring investor confidence and trust in the securities industry.”
The rules and regulations of compliance can set down the written standards for employees to follow. Yet for a compliance program to be effective, it is much more than the paper part of the program. Morgenson believes that banks must change their culture to help stop these systemic breakdowns. Yet she did not end her piece there as she explored what regulators can do, more than simply talk, to facilitate this change in culture.
She considered two separate approaches regulators might consider. The first was suggested by Andreas Dombret, a member of the executive board of Deutsche Bundesbank, who noted, “Most companies have codes of ethics, but they often exist only on paper.” To help make the message of doing business ethically and in compliance, he also suggested banking regulators could help encourage a more ethical approach by routinely monitoring how a bank cooperates with the regulatory authorities particularly in an oversight rule. Finally he asked, “How often is the bank the whistle-blower?” He felt this question was important because “Not only to get a lesser penalty but also to show that it won’t accept that kind of behavior. We are seeing more of that.”
These suggestions would seem to be more aligned with an industry with significant oversight, such as banking. So I found the second area she explored more directly applicable to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA. It met her criticisms that it was either the shareholders or perhaps the company D&O insurance carrier who foot the bill for any FCPA violation.
She explored an idea posited by Claire A. Hill and Richard W. Painter, professors at the University of Minnesota Law School, in a new book they published, entitled “Better Bankers, Better Banks”. In this book the law professors urged “making financial executives personally liable for a portion of any fines and fraud-based judgments a bank enters into, including legal settlements. The professors called this “covenant banking.”
This covenant banking plan had some very interesting elements that spoke to the issue of individual v. corporate liability, similar to the discussion compliance professionals have engaged in since the release of the Yates Memo. Morgenson said the covenant banking plan “contains a crucial element, requiring the best-paid bankers in the company to be liable for a fine whether or not they were directly involved in the activities that generated it. Such a no-fault program, the professors argued, would motivate bankers not only to curb their own problematic tendencies but to be on the alert for colleagues’ misbehavior as well.” She quoted the book’s authors stating that this plan would help to change corporate culture as it “discourages bad behavior and its underlying ethos, the competitive pursuit of narrow material gain.”
Moreover, the professors believe, “If bankers aren’t willing to institute a system involving personal liability, regulators and judges could require it as part of their settlements or rulings. Something like covenant banking could be included in nonprosecution agreements. Or a judge overseeing a case in which a company is paying $50 million could require individuals to pay $10 million of that personally.” Finally, “A regulator could give a company the choice of a far lower fine if it were to be paid by managers, not shareholders. A company choosing to pay the higher fine and billing it to the shareholders would have some explaining to do”.
While most banks or non-financial institutions subject to the FCPA might well be reluctant to put such corporate strictures in place, it certainly could be a part of a civil penalty which comes before a court for review and consideration, such as when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) goes to court when filing a Cease and Desist order in a FCPA enforcement action.
The Yates Memo recognized that individual accountability will help to drive compliance with the FCPA. The problem in going after individuals is that it is often difficult to pinpoint any single or series of actions by a senior manager that may have lead to the violation. It can be as nefarious as the General Motors (GM) nod or simply the diffusion of liability was the basis for the original creation of the corporate structure long ago.
Yet, by focusing on corporate culture Morgenson, the banking industry and banking regulators are hitting on a key theme. Paper programs are only that if there is not the culture of compliance set by senior management that the company will follow the rules. I was also intrigued that both FINRA Chairman Ketchum and banker Dombret recognized the business problem which poor cultures of compliance led to, lack of faith in capital markets and the securities industry. If companies will work to enhance culture, they move to addressing this most serious and long-term business issue.
Spud Webb was the first ‘Little Big Man’ in the modern era of the NBA. His 12-year run of success led to players such as the five-foot, five-inch Earl Boykins and five-foot, three-inch Muggsy Bogues. In 2006, 5’9” Nate Robinson of the New York Knicks became the second-shortest player to emerge victorious in the NBA slam-dunk contest. Webb changed NBA culture just as corporate culture can be changed as well.
For a YouTube video clip of Spud Webb at the 1986 Slam Dunk contest, click here.
Once again, shareholders are shouldering the costs of unethical behavior they had nothing to do withClick to tweet
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016