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Brett Scott: The Safe Deposit Box – Creating a Financial Wikileaks

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By Brett Scott, who operates as a consultant bridging the gap between finance and those involved in socio-environmental justice and international development. He has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist, New Internationalist and Open Democracy. Brett blogs at www.suitpossum.blogspot.com and tweets as @Suitpossum. He is a fellow of the WWF/ICAEW Finance Innovation Lab.

The greatest barriers to financial whistleblowing are social and economic, not legal. Fear of being shunned by colleagues, passed over for promotion, bullied and harrassed, summarily dismissed and even shut out of Wall Street or the City for life plays a big part in dissuading executives who become aware of crimes and misdemeanours inside their organisations from blowing the whistle.

Occasionally, as we saw with Greg Smith and his remarkable New York Times op-ed Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs, an employee’s conscience gets the better of them. But fear of being ostracised for “spoiling the party”, coupled with an attachment to the high pay that a financial career can bring (you might call it ‘moral cowardice’) is sufficient to persuade the vast majority of putative whistleblowers to keep schtoom.

That’s why I believe we need a financial version of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. It would protect employees from management retribution and eliminate the social barriers to speaking out. There are already several leak sites available (check out the Leak site directory).

WikiLeaks has previously been used for financial leaks relating to the banks Julius Baer and Barclays, and in 2011 there was speculation that it was sitting on a treasure trove of incriminating information that might bring down Bank of America (In the end the emails, published at bankofamericasuck.com and here, turned out to be something of a damp squib. Dating from November 2010, the emails suggest that employees of Balboa Insurance Group, a subsidiary of Bank of America, removed documents from loan files relating to a group of insured properties).

WikiLeaks though, has mostly made a name for itself in exposing political controversies. People don’t predominantly think of it as the place to go to find out about corporate wrongdoing, and corporate disclosures on the site run the risk of being drowned out by the drone of government abuse.

One organization that does specialize in corporate disclosure is Anonymous Analytics, whose focus is on “acquiring information through unconventional means” (a.k.a. hacking and subterfuge) and presenting it in the form of investment analysis reports. The group, whose stated aim is to “provide the public with investigative reports exposing corrupt companies” and whose team includes “analysts, forensic accountants, statisticians, computer experts, and lawyers from various jurisdictions and backgrounds” caused a stir last September when it exposed alleged large-scale fraud at Chaoda Modern Agriculture, a Hong Kong-listed company. Anonymous Analytics claimed that Chaoda was:-

“overstating its cash balance, exaggerating its revenue, and falsifying its financial statements.”

Last week Anonymous Analytics initiated coverage of another Hong Kong-listed company Huaboa International. In a 44-page report entitled “Smoke and Mirrors”, it alleged Huabao overpaid for several companies acquired from its chairwoman, Chu Lam Yiu. The research note also questioned the veracity of Huabao’s financial statement and performance data. The report stated that:-

“We believe management is materially overstating Huabao’s earning power … [Huaboa International] is a pump and dump scheme with the primary objective of enriching its chairwoman.”

While Anonymous Analystics specializes in ‘primary research’, it also briefly offered a dropbox facility for would-be whistleblowers. This was recently closed down. The offshoot of the hacker group claimed this was because it had been unable to handle the volume of tips, comments and emails it had received.

Organisations such Anonymous Analytics are firmly focused on overt cases of corporate fraud and headline-grabbing controversies. Nevertheless, while having channels to expose criminality is important, there are many other equally valid reasons to create a financial leaks site.

WikiLeaks’s release of the US Embassy Cables, which commenced in November 2010, didn’t provide much sensational news, but it did provide a rare window into the normally opaque worlds of diplomacy and espionage and the conflict between the State department and more nefarious arms of the US state. It will be an invaluable resource for academic researchers and journalists for years to come. But there are few, if any, such open windows into the financial sector.

The Safe Deposit Box: A Tool for Transparency

This, coupled with the inadequacy of most financial regulators around the world, is why a specialised financial leak site is so badly needed.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope sketch for the Safe Deposit Box, a site that would improve transparency in financial institutions (including banks, insurers, funds, brokers) and commodity trading outfits, by providing a channel that would encourage internal leaks. It could be curated by individuals with financial expertise, such that information leaked could be vetted for accuracy and presented correctly (something that non-specialist leak sites would be unable to do). The site could be split into two main divisions with different purposes:

  • A whistleblowing section to allow employees of banks and other financial institutions to expose dubious behaviour, including instances of financial crime, market manipulation, insider trading, ‘creative’ accounting and rogue trading.
  • A transparency initiative focused on shedding light on the inner workings of financial institutions. This section would encourage employees to contribute information such as organisational structures, divisional strategies, risk exposures, compensation, and other information that helps to break the near impenetrable wall of secrecy (omertà) large financial institutions frequently enjoy.

Many people intuitively understand the value of division one, but division two is perhaps harder to justify. What’s the point of transparency for transparency’s sake, some might ask? I would argue that banks and other financial institutions still enjoy huge political clout (and indeed some are owned by the public), yet citizens have virtually no insight into their inner workings and strategies, including who they are lending to, how they treat distressed assets, or their level of speculation on energy and food prices. (see “Barclays shame award“)

For example, I suspect that the residents of Chicago do not have the faintest idea of how a Morgan Stanley consortium came to own the city’s parking meters. I also suspect the residents of Edinburgh have no idea how a RBS consortium came to own the city’s main hospital, the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

At a systemic level, the very opacity of financial transactions increases systemic risk, which in turn has a massive impact broader society. Providing a channel for financial employees to shed light on their organisations would have: (1) a democratic empowerment benefit and (2) A research and regulation benefit, providing more material for citizens, academics and regulators to understand and monitor the financial sector.

The transparency initiative could be split into specific research domains that are of particular concern (or ought to be) to journalists, researchers, campaigners, regulators, and even some politicians. For example, domains could include:

  • A high-pay transparency programme to gather leaked payrolls, compensation reports and other material to help in monitoring financial incentive systems.
  • A tax haven programme to gather lists of subsidiaries, offshore transactions and other material to help shed light on tax avoidance systems.
  • A loan transparency programme to gather information on loan portfolios of the banks’ corporate banking divisions, thereby helping keep tabs on socially and environmentally irresponsible lending
  • A programme gathering information on banks’ dealings with Polically Exposed Persons (including deposed dictators and their families), authoritarian regimes, and dodgy individuals
  • A systemic risk programme gathering info on prop trading levels, interbank risk exposures, and shadow banking systems
  • A programme collecting information on ‘mis-selling’ and poor customer service (aka. treating clients as muppets)

I don’t want to be flippant. I also accept that actively encouraging breaches of confidentiality might border on being illegal. Yet confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements are often used by banks to bury frauds and other issues of concern, whose victims are often outside the institution that perpetrates them.

For example, in my research into the potentially damaging effects of commodity speculation, I hit a brick wall when seeking to establish how much banks earn from their agricultural commodity trading desks. They simply don’t report it, and stonewall all requests for information.

I recognise that that leak sites are far from perfect mechanisms and that innumerable issues would have to be overcome before a site along the lines I describe could be launched.

These would include how it would be structured and who would be permitted to access the information. Would it be better to use a centralised WikiLeaks structure, or something more decentralised along the lines OpenLeaks (set up by Wikileaks defectors, but yet to launch)? Might it be better to consider something more conciliatory and collaborative, more like Wikipedia, a financial commons that would allow people with financial expertise to freely and anonymously contribute?

What I do know though, is that financial secrecy benefits a very small section of society, but harms a very large section of society, and I’m also sure that there are a great many financial workers who would love the opportunity to spread the love by spreading the knowledge. There again, there’s always the risk that such a site might also attract the attention of the financial blockade.

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7 comments

  1. Warren Celli

    Great idea I applaud you for it!

    Let me suggest another that maybe can be done in tandem with creating the “Safe Deposit Box”, or at least with an eye to it. And I don’t mean this to be a thread de-railer but it dovetails with what you are suggesting in terms of getting your effort exposure.

    Another of the greatest barriers to social and economic change, I believe, is lack of organization on the internet. There are thousands of great blogs with amazingly insightful content, much of it whistle blowing in nature, but other than local site linking to similar blogs there is no real organization of the content and no popular centralized place to access it. TPTB outgun us all in power — volume — of voice with control of all other media and an ever increasing presence on the net. It is volume of voice, or impressions per individual (repetition that is remembered), that ultimately determines perception. We allow ourselves to be drowned out through lack of organization. Consolidation, by having all sights carry a centralized page link, would give us greater audience and therefore more volume or a more powerful voice.

    What you suggest, whistle blowing, should be a section of that overall content formal centralized page organization. A “Bing” or “Google News” type of centralized page that would get millions of hits per day should be the goal. I am not talking little rich girl, Vanilla Greed for Profit, Ariana Huffington Post here (co-option from the get go in my opinion), but rather a bottom up created effort that would reflect more honest thinking and more aggressive ideas for remedial change. Co-opting will be, and always is a problem, but if done properly and democratically in comments sections we should be able to shun the corporate Noble Lie spitting media and arrive at a fair consensus representation of the better alternative sites. One big sectional cut that should be made is separating those blogs and remedial measures that favor working within the system and those that feel that is no longer viable. Artists and designers should be solicited to make it visually appealing and interesting and to present complex ideas to a mass audience. When the sections are agreed upon suggestions should be submitted. For example one of my faves that should be listed under the heading of “Police State” would be;

    http://antifascist-calling.blogspot.com/

    And of course the “Safe Deposit Box” under “Whistle Blowing”

    Again, hope this is not too off topic and apologies if it is.

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  2. Susan the other

    This is great idea but it will require a lot of expert man-hours. To replace the derelict government “regulators” is a very big job. But speaking of the derelict, it would be nice to have a corner of the safe deposit box reserved for exposing the most compromised and incompetent of them. Including Congress. And the entire SEC.

  3. Matthew G. Saroff

    You could probably use the Wikileaks source code.

    But understand that the domain and servers have to be somewhere that the US cannot seize.

    Also note that, much like Wikileaks, the credit cards and PayPal will NOT allow donations to be made to the service.

    You might want to talk with the PirateBay boys, or tie it to the various pirate parties out there.

  4. Robert Johnson

    This is a fine, brave idea, as long as all involved realize that it might also be a fast track to Gitmo. “Terrorism” is broadly construed these days: any activity that inconveniences the Powers and Principalities that now rule this world is apt to count as such. So you will need some very paranoid, very knowledgeable information-security people (sadly, I’m not one).

  5. Pragmatist

    Your idea of a financial WikiLeaks is a good one in principal.

    A key challenge here is the risk that the SEC, FSA etc treat even genuine whistleblowing as a form of insider trading. The problem is made worse by frustration with the enforcement lag, which keeps the news of illicit conduct out of the market, often for several years, while the regulators fumble their way through investigations etc. So I’ve facetiously argued that regulators shoud be short-sellers themselves, or at least publicise short positions as a means of ensuring the market is appropriately informed of price sensitive facts in a more timely fashion (http://sdj-pragmatist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/should-regulators-be-short.html).

    Similarly, since politics relies heavily on leaking material for political gain I’ve mused that if WikiLeaks didn’t exist, politicians would have eventually created it in the form of a not-for-profit: http://sdj-pragmatist.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/wikileaks-hard-case-expect-bad-law.html.

    Perhaps a publicly-condoned, not-for-profit Financial WikiLeaks could finance itself by short-selling the shares of dubious corporations ;-)

  6. Winston

    I think that a problem with a financial Wikileaks would be that too many of the frauds, criminal behaviors or just exploitation of loopholes that might be reported probably involve many players, so exposing one would ruin “the game” for all. So, there’d still be a personal financial disincentive unless one was planning to leave the sector in which case there would be little impediment to revealing secrets even without a financial Wikileaks.

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