Trust is part of the foundation of public markets. Scandals at firms such as Enron and HealthSouth fractured this foundation and motivated market participants to ask why executives and other employees at these firms misled investors. Some regulators and experts conjecture that the roots of these scandals can be traced to the actions and attitudes of those at the very top of corporate leadership. In the words of Linda Chatman Thomsen (Director, Division of Enforcement, Securities and Exchange Commission) “Corporate character matters—and employees take their cues from the top. In our experience, the character of the CEO and other top officers is generally reflected in the character of the entire company.” In our paper, Suspect CEOs, Unethical Culture, and Corporate Misbehavior, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we provide evidence consistent with this perspective by demonstrating an empirical link between CEOs’ revealed character and the misbehaviors of the firms they manage.
Posts Tagged ‘Corporate fraud’
As we noted last year in our memorandum focused on 2013 developments, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White has called for the SEC to be more aggressive in its enforcement program. By all accounts, the Enforcement Division has responded to that call. The past year saw the SEC continue the trend, started under Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami in 2009, of transforming the SEC’s civil enforcement arm into an aggressive law enforcement agency modeled on a federal prosecutor’s office. This should not come as a surprise since both Andrew Ceresney, the current Director, and George Cannellos, Ceresney’s Co-Director for a brief period of time, like Khuzami, spent many years as federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. And the Commission itself is now led for the first time by a former federal prosecutor, Mary Jo White, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. Given the events of the past decade involving the Madoff fraud and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, we believe both the aggressive tone and positions the SEC has taken in recent years will continue.
Prior studies of corporate and securities law litigation have focused almost entirely on cases filed by shareholder plaintiffs. Bondholders are thought to play little role in holding corporations accountable for poor governance that leads to fraud. My article, Bondholders and Securities Class Actions, challenges that conventional view in light of new evidence that bond investors are increasingly recovering losses through securities class actions.
Drawing upon a data set of 1660 securities class actions filed from 1996 through 2005, I find that bondholder involvement in securities class actions is increasing. Bondholder recoveries were rare for the first five years covered by the data set, averaging about 3% of settlements from 1996 through 2000. The rate of bondholder recoveries increased to an average of 8% of settlements from 2001 through 2005. Bondholder recoveries have not only become more frequent, they are disproportionately represented in the largest settlements of securities class actions. For the period covered by the data set, bondholders recovered in 4 of the 5 largest settlements and 19 of the 30 largest settlements.
It has been reported that approximately two-thirds of companies in the U.S. are affected by fraud, losing an estimated 1.2% of revenue each year to such activity.  Indirect costs associated with fraud, such as reputational damage and costs associated with investigation and remediation of the fraudulent acts, may also be substantial. When and where implemented, an internal whistleblower hotline is a critical component of a company’s anti-fraud program, as tips are consistently the most common method of detecting fraud.  Consequently, it is essential that companies consider implementing, if they have not already done so, effective whistleblower hotlines.  To the extent hotlines are currently in place, companies need to evaluate them to ensure that the hotlines are operating as intended and are effective in preventing and identifying unethical or potentially unlawful activity, including corporate fraud, securities violations and employment discrimination or harassment. This evaluation should be a key element of every company’s assessment of its compliance and ethics program.
Two recent Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards suggest that the program is becoming the kind of “game changer” for law enforcement that many had predicted. The program, which took effect in August 2011, mandates the payment of bounties to persons who voluntarily provide information leading to a successful securities enforcement action in which more than $1 million is recovered. Informants are entitled to receive between 10 and 30 percent of the amounts recovered, with the precise amount to be determined by the SEC.
In our paper, Executive Gatekeepers: Useful and Divertible Governance?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we study the role of executive gatekeepers in preventing governance failures, and the counter-incentive effects created by equity compensation. Specifically, we examine the following two questions. First, do executive gatekeepers actually improve governance in the average firm? Second, does the effectiveness of gatekeepers in ensuring compliance and/or reducing corporate misconduct depend on their incentive contracts?
Traditional models of crime frame the choice to engage in misbehavior like any other economic decision involving cost and benefit tradeoffs. Though somewhat successful when taken to the data, perhaps the theory’s largest embarrassment is its failure to account for the enormous variation in crime rates observed across both time and space. Indeed, as Glaeser, Sacerdote, and Scheinkman (1996) argue, regional variation in demographics, enforcement, and other observables are simply not large enough to explain why, for example, two seemingly identical neighborhoods in the same city have such drastically different crime rates. The answer they propose is simple: social interactions induce positive correlations in the tendency to break rules.
Our mid-year report one year ago presented an exciting opportunity to discuss a time of great change at the SEC. A new Chair and a new Director of Enforcement had recently assumed the reins and begun making bold policy pronouncements. One year later, things have stabilized somewhat. The hot-button issues identified early in the new SEC administration—admissions for settling parties, a growing number of trials (and, for the agency, trial losses), and a renewed focus on public company accounting—remain the leading issues a year later, albeit with some interesting developments.
As the debate continues over whether and how to punish companies for unlawful conduct, U.S. federal prosecutors continue to rely significantly on Non-Prosecution Agreements (“NPAs”) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (“DPAs”) (collectively, “agreements”). Such agreements have emerged as a flexible alternative to prosecutorial declination, on the one hand, and trials or guilty pleas, on the other. Companies and prosecutors alike rely on NPAs and DPAs to resolve allegations of corporate misconduct while mitigating the collateral consequences that guilty pleas or verdicts can inflict on companies, employees, communities, or the economy. NPAs and DPAs allow prosecutors, without obtaining a criminal conviction, to ensure that corporate wrongdoers receive punishment, including often eye-popping financial penalties, deep reforms to corporate culture through compliance requirements, and independent monitoring or self-reporting arrangements. Although the trend has been robust for more than a decade, Attorney General Eric Holder’s statements in connection with recent prosecutions of financial institutions underscore the dynamic environment in which NPAs and DPAs have evolved.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Sarbanes-Oxley”) was enacted following the accounting scandals of the early 2000s involving Enron, WorldCom and other public companies. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) in 2010 following the global credit crisis that began a few years earlier. Both statutes offer protections for employees who face retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on corporate misconduct, and Dodd-Frank also provides enhanced monetary incentives to the employees who do so. Given the SEC’s recent and often-stated commitment to strict enforcement of the securities laws, coupled with the fact that the SEC has received over 6,000 whistleblower complaints in the past two years (and has made six awards since inception of its whistleblower reward program in 2011), whistleblowing activity now is a fact of corporate life that is likely to become even more prevalent as awareness spreads of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower reward program.