Trust but Check

The community support for a business, and business in general, depends on the credibility that stakeholders place in corporate commitments, the company’s reputation, and the strength of its competitive advantage. All of these depend on the trust that stakeholders place in a company’s activities. Trust, in turn, depends on the values underlying corporate activities. Off-shore accounts, manipulation of shell corporations to evade taxes, loan fraud and management self-dealing are just a few instances of the moral cancer that, drop by drop, erodes trust until the point where the free enterprise systems of democratic nations are replaced by naked oligarchy, kleptocracy and cultures of corruption.

If the interests of all stakeholders are systematically not respected, then action that continues to be often painful to shareholders, officers, and directors usually occurs. In fact, it is unlikely that businesses or professions can achieve their long-run strategic objectives without the support of key stakeholders, such as shareholders, employees, customers, creditors, suppliers, governments, and host communities.

A constant theme and trend (as echoed in the trade press) has become increasingly more evident since the turn of the century. The judgment and moral character of executives, owners, boards of directors, and auditors has been often insufficient, on their own, to prevent increasingly severe corporate, ethical, and governance scandals. Governments and regulators world-wide have been required to constantly tighten guidelines and governance regulations to assure the protection of the public. The self-interested lure of greed has proven to be too strong for many to resist, and they have succumbed to conflicts of interest when left too much on their own. Corporations that were once able to shift jurisdictions to avoid new regulations regarding tax and other matters now are facing global measures designed to expose and control questionable ethics and governance practices. Assurance professionals themselves, of all types, are also facing international standards of behavior.

These changes have come about because of the pressures brought to bear on corporations and management by the reporting of scandals and abuses by a still potent free press and by suits by activist investors and other involved stakeholders. But changes in laws, regulations, and standards are only part of what stakeholders have contributed. The expectations for good ethical behavior and good governance practices have changed. Failure to comply with these expectations now impacts reputations, profits, and careers even if the behavior is strictly within legal boundaries.

As ACFE training tells us, it’s become increasingly evident to most executives, owners, and auditors that their individual success is directly related to their ability to develop and maintain a corporate culture of integrity. They cannot afford the loss of reputation, revenue, reliability, and credibility as a result of a loss of integrity. It is no longer an effective, sustainable, or medium or long-term strategy to project or practice questionable ethics. ACFE training goes on to indicate a number of causes, or signs, of ethical problems within any given corporation:

— Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
–A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
–A CEO who is surrounded by people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is ‘beyond criticism’;
–Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
–An organization that promotes people on the basis of nepotism and favoritism;
–Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
–A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

The LIBOR rate scandal of 2012 is an almost perfect example of ethical collapse and manifests a majority of the red flags enumerated above. The scandal featured the systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed. After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally undertaken resulting in prosecutions and huge penalties for the banks and the individual traders involved.

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average, and its publication, and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation.

Insiders to the banking system knew about the manipulation of LIBOR rate submissions for decades, but changes were not made until the public became aware of the problem, and until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) forced the U.K. government to act. The president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (Fed), at that time emailed the governor of the Bank of England in June 2008, suggesting ways to “enhance” LIBOR. Although ensuing emails report agreement on the suggestions, and articles appeared in the trade press from 2008 to 2011, serious changes were not applied until October 2012 when the U.K. government accepted the recommendations of the Wheatley Review of Libor. This Review by Martin Wheatley, managing director of British Financial Services Authority, was commissioned in June 2012 in view of investigations, charges and settlements that were raising public awareness of LIBOR deficiencies.

One of the motivations for creating the Wheatley Review involved the prosecution of a former UBS and later Citigroup Inc. trader, on criminal fraud charges for manipulating the LIBOR rates. The trader, known to insiders as the “Rain Man” for his abilities and demeanor, allegedly sought his superiors approval before attempting to influence the LIBOR rates, an act that some observers thought at the time would provide a strong defense against conviction.

Insiders who knew of LIBOR manipulations were generally reluctant to take a public stand for earlier change. However, on July 27, 2012, a former trader for Morgan Stanley in London, published an article that told of his earlier attempts to bring LIBOR rate manipulations to the attention of authorities, but without success. In his article, he indicated how he learned as a new trader in 1991 that the banks manipulated their rate submissions to make profit on specific contracts, and to mask liquidity problems such as during the subprime lending crisis of 2008. For example, if the LIBOR rate submissions were misstated to be low, the discounted valuation of related assets would be raised, thus providing misleadingly higher levels of short-term, near-cash assets than should have been reported.

Numerous studies since the scandal have detailed the effects of unethical LIBOR manipulation. Just two examples of such manipulation. At the time of the scandal many home owners borrowed their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers received a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for the period 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. As a consequence, one observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank may be liable for as much as $2.3 billion.

Municipalities raise funds through the issue of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were eventually launched to recover these losses, which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year.

At the end of the day, trust in each other and in our counter-parties is all we really have as economic actors; CFE’s and forensic accountants thus have a vital role to play in investigating, documenting and assisting in the identification and possible prosecution of those who, like the LIBOR manipulators, knowingly collude in making the choice to violate that trust.

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