A Ship of Fools

Our Chapter’s January-February 2018 lecture for CPE credit is concerned with the broader ethical implications of the types of fraud, many interlocking and coordinated, that made up the 2007-2008 Great Recession.  At the center of the scandal were ethically challenged actions by bank managements and their boards, but also by the investment companies and ratings agencies, who not only initiated much of the fraud and deception but, in many cases, actively expanded and perpetuated it.

Little more than a glance at the historical record confirms that deception by bank executives of regulators and of their own investors about illegal activity or about the institution’s true financial condition to conceal poor performance, poor management, or questionable transactions is not new to the world of U.S. finance. In fact, it was a key practice during the meltdown of the financial markets in 2007. In addition, the period saw heated debate about alleged deception by the rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, of major institutional investors, who depended on the agencies’ valuations of subprime-backed securities in the making of investment decisions. Thus, not only deceptive borrowers and unscrupulous mortgage brokers and appraisers contributed to the meltdown. The maelstrom of lies and deception that drove the entire U.S. financial system in mid to late 2005 accelerated to the point of no return, and the crisis that ensued proved unavoidable.

There were ample instances of bank deception in the years leading up to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The facts came out with considerable drama and fanfare through the work of the era’s Pecora Commission. However, the breadth and scope of executive deception that came under the legal and regulatory microscope following the financial market collapse of 2007 to 2009 represent some of history’s most brazen cases of concealment of irresponsible lending practices, fraudulent underwriting, shady financial transactions, and intentionally false statements to investors, federal regulators, and investigators.

According to the ACFE and other analysts, the lion’s share of direct blame for the meltdown lies with top executives of the major banks, investment firms, and rating agencies. They charge the commercial bank bosses with perpetuating a boom in reckless mortgage lending and the investment bankers with essentially tricking institutional investors into buying the exotic derivative securities backed by the millions and millions of toxic mortgages sold off by the mortgage lenders. The commercial bank bosses and investment bankers were, according to these observers, aided and abetted by the rating agencies, which lowered their rating standards on high-risk mortgage-backed securities that should never have received investment-grade ratings but did so because the rating agencies were paid by the very investment banks which issued the bonds. The agencies reportedly feared losing business if they gave poor ratings to the securities.

As many CFEs know, fraud is always the principal credit risk of any nonprime mortgage lending operation. It’s impossible in practice to detect fraud without reviewing a sample of the loan files. Paper loan files are bulky, so they are photographed, and the images are stored on computer tapes. Unfortunately, most investors (the large commercial and investment banks that purchased non-prime loans and pooled them to create financial derivatives) didn’t review the loan files before purchasing them and did not even require the original lenders to provide them with the loan tapes requisite for subsequent review and audit.

The rating agencies also never reviewed samples of loan files before giving AAA ratings to nonprime mortgage financial derivatives. The “AAA’ rating is supposed to indicate that there is virtually no credit risk, the risk being thought equivalent to U.S. government bonds, which the finance industry refers to as “risk-free.”  The rating agencies attained their lucrative profits because they gave AAA ratings to nonprime financial derivatives exposed to staggering default risk. A graph of their profits in this era rises like a stairway to the stars. Turning a blind eye to the mortgage fraud epidemic was the only way the rating agencies could hope to attain, and sustain, those profit levels. If they had engaged forensic accountants to review even small samples of nonprime loans, they would have been confronted with only two real choices: (1) rating them as toxic waste, which would have made it impossible to sell the associated nonprime financial derivatives or (2) documenting that they themselves were committing, aiding and abetting, a blatant accounting fraud.

A statement made during the 2008 House of Representatives hearings on the topic of the rating agencies’ role in the crisis represents an apt summary of how the financial and government communities viewed the actions and attitudes of the three rating agencies in the years leading up to the subprime crisis. An S&P employee, testified that “the rating agencies continue to create an even bigger monster, the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market. Let’s hope we all are wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”

With respect to bank executives, the examples of proved and alleged deception during the period are so numerous as to almost defy belief. Among the most noteworthy are:

–The SEC investigated Citigroup as to whether it misled investors by failing to disclose critical details about the troubled mortgage assets it was holding as the financial markets began to collapse in 2007. The investigation came only after some of the mortgage-related securities being held by Citigroup were downgraded by an independent rating agency. Shortly thereafter, Citigroup announced quarterly losses of around $10 billion on its subprime-mortgage holdings, an astounding amount that directly contributed to the resignation of then CEO, Charles Prince;

–The SEC conducted similar investigations into Bank of America, now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch (now a part of Bank of America);

–The SEC filed civil fraud charges against Angelo Mozilo, cofounder and former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp. In the highest-profile government legal action against a chief executive related to the financial crisis, the SEC charged Mozilo with insider trading and alleged failure to disclose material information to shareholders, according to people familiar with the matter. Mozilo sold $130 million of Countrywide stock in the first half of 2007 under an executive sales plan, according to government filings.

As the ACFE points out, every financial services company has its own unique internal structure and management policies. Some are more effective than others in reducing the risk of management-level fraud. The best anti-fraud controls are those designed to reduce the risk of a specific type of fraud threatening the organization.  Designing effective anti-fraud controls depends directly on accurate assessment of those risks. How, after all, can management or the board be expected to design and implement effective controls if it is unclear about which frauds are most threatening? That’s why a fraud risk assessment (FRA) is essential to any anti-fraud  Program; an essential exercise designed to determine the specific types of fraud to which your client organization is most vulnerable within the context of its existing anti-fraud controls. This enables management to design, customize, and implement the best controls to minimize fraud risk throughout the organization.  Again, according to the ACFE (joined by the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants), an organization’s contracted CFEs backed by its own internal audit team can play a direct role in this all-important effort.

Your client’s internal auditors should consider the organization’s assessment of fraud risk when developing their annual audit plan and review management’s fraud management capabilities periodically. They should interview and communicate regularly with those conducting the organization’s risk assessments, as well as with others in key positions throughout the organization, to help them ensure that all fraud risks have been considered appropriately. When performing proactive fraud risk assessment engagements, CFEs should direct adequate time and attention to evaluating the design and operation of internal controls specifically related to fraud risk management. We should exercise professional skepticism when reviewing activities and be on guard for the tell-tale signs of fraud. Suspected frauds uncovered during an engagement should be treated in accordance with a well-designed response plan consistent with professional and legal standards.

As this month’s lecture recommends, CFEs and forensic accountants can also contribute value by proactively taking a proactive role in support of the organization’s underlying ethical culture.

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