By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
In yet another confirmation that blogging is not dead just because Andrew Sullivan got tired of doing it, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik picks up the Andrew Bowden story that Yves broke. Quoting Hiltziks’ regular Business section column, “The Economy Hub”:
In a March 3 speech in New York, [Fed chair Janet Yellen] mentioned the risks of regulatory capture as including “tangible conflicts of interest — for example, the expectation government officials might have of future rewards from the industry they oversee,” as well as conflicts that arise “when close contact and familiarity between individuals leads those enforcing the rules to sympathize with those they oversee.”
As for “close contact and familiarity” between individuals and their regulated businesses, one need look no further than a March 5 appearance at a Stanford conference by Andrew Bowden, the SEC’s director of examinations. Financial blogger Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, a former investment banker and management consultant, writes that Bowden “reveals himself to be captured to an embarrassing degree. His remarks about the industry aren’t merely fawning…. Bowden comes uncomfortably close to the line of offering to play the revolving door game at an unheard-of level of crassness, putting his son, and by implication himself, into the job market at an industry conference.”
. Bowden called the asset management business — which falls within the SEC’s jurisdiction — “the greatest business you could possibly be in. You’re helping your clients.” He continued on the subject of the private equity business, “where we have seen some misconduct and things like that, ’cause I always think like, to my simple mind, that the people in private equity, they’re the greatest, they’re actually adding value to their clients, they’re getting paid really really well, you know, if I was in that position, the one thing I would think to myself as I skipped to work was like just ‘Let’s not mess it up. You know, this is the greatest thing there, I’m helping people, I’m doing OK myself.'”
[“Paragraph!” –lambert] Then he said: “I tell my son, I have a teenaged son, I tell him, ‘Cole, you want to be in private equity. That’s where to go, that’s a great business, that’s a really good business. That’ll be good for you.”
[“Paragraph!”]At that point a questioner interrupted to say: “I’d love to hire your son, by the way. That’s a deal.”
See Smith’s post here for a video of the remarks. At the minimum, they’re “cringe-making coming from a regulator,” Smith says.
Former regulator William K. Black, who brought many wrongdoers in the savings-and-loan scandal to account, wrote that he “would have asked for the resignation of any of my staff who made remarks even remotely like Bowden’s remarks. As financial regulators, particularly if we have the disadvantage of coming from the industry, we maintain at all times a professional distance from those we regulate. The remarks about his son are so beyond the pale that they demonstrate he is incapable of even pretending to maintain such a professional distance.”
Reports of the Death of Blogging Greatly Exaggerated
Several reactions to Hiltzik’s piece.
First, it’s great to see Naked Capitalism‘s reporting not merely mentioned but linked to and extensively quoted from by a mainstream columnist in a top-rank newspaper outside the New York area. (Yves’s post was reprinted by Truthout and Bill Moyers, and amplified by International Business Times, but the Los Angeles Times is of a different scale in both circulation and clout.) So, on those grounds alone, happy dance, victory lap, Garçon! More champagne!
It’s also great to see Hiltzik give Bill Black’s follow-up at New Economic Perspectives a link and a quote as well; both NC and NEP in essence put the “political” back into “political economy,” but by taking a systemic, rather than a partisan, perspective, and yet still (as with the Andrew Bowden) using story hooks. It may be too much to call these blogs — as well as many of the blogs on NC’s and NEP’s blogrolls — a school of thought, but certainly their general approach is different from “pure” economics blogs, but with no loss in rigor. So one can only hope that Hiltzik continues to keep this — dare I say — ecosystem of blogs on his reading list.
Third, Hiltzik frames the Bowden affair in terms of Janet Yellen’s remarks on regulatory capture, as we saw above. Yellen’s picture is in the header of the article, after all, and:
Yellen said the Fed is constantly on its guard against regulatory capture. She also attributed the financial crisis to breakdowns in regulation, some of which plainly fell into the category of “capture,” including “the expansion of a largely unregulated ‘shadow banking system’ rivaling the traditional banking sector in size and the failure of “checks and balances that were widely expected to prevent excessive risk-taking by large financial firms — regulatory oversight and market discipline.”
So it will be interesting to find out if the SEC’s Mary Jo White agrees, or disagrees, with Janet Yellen on regulatory capture in the financial industry. One obvious way for White to signal her agreement would be for her to ask for Bowden’s resignation, as Black suggests.
Fourth and finally, there’s an aspect to the Bowden scandal that Hiltzik does not address, and that I would like to reinforce. Yves wrote:
Moreover, Bowden’s belief in the industry’s “adding value” and “helping people” is based on having taken a very big swill of industry Kool-Aid. He twice parrots the position that private equity firms are a boon to their clients and the economy overall. He might want to make more study of the industry, or even reread his speech from last May, before acting as a PR agent.
The most extensive, careful study of the private equity industry, Eileen Appelbaum’s and Rosemary Batt’s Private Equity at Work, based on a bending-over-backwards-to-be-fair reading of academic research and numerous case studies, finds pervasive problems with the private equity model, the biggest being that it extracts from creditors, taxpayers, pension funds and employees. Their book also, contrary to Bowden, cites considerable academic evidence that private equity does not deliver returns adequate to cover for its risks. That’s before you get to the fact that it uses a valuation method, IRR, which is widely criticized as unduly flattering.
Appelbaum’s and Batt’s reservations were confirmed by the CalPERS’s panelist Sarah Corr earlier in the Q&A, who pointed out that CalPERS has cut its allocation to private equity. That is apparently the result of private equity failing to meet CalPERS’ benchmarks over the last one, three, five, and ten year periods. If CalPERS, which can negotiate the best terms and has better deal access to funds than anyone, can’t get great results out of private equity, how can other investors expect to do better?
The form of capture we’re looking at here goes far beyond — and dangerously beyond — the Third World-ish story hook of a guy trying to get his son on the payroll (“That’s a deal”). What Yves colorfully calls “Kool-Aid,” Willem Buiter, in the classic paper (PDF) he delivered to the [lemon sucking-faced] Fed conference at Jackson Hole in 2008, called “cognitive regulatory capture”
This socialisation into a partial and often highly distorted perception of reality is unhealthy and dangerous. It can be called cognitive regulatory capture (or cognitive state capture), because it is not achieved by special interests buying, blackmailing or bribing their way towards control of the legislature, the executive, the legislature or some important regulator or agency, like the Fed, but instead through those in charge of the relevant state entity internalising, as if by osmosis, the objectives, interests and perception of reality of the vested interest they are meant to regulate and supervise in the public interest.
(“Public interest.” How quaint.) If Bowden had not allowed his internalized boyish enthusiasm for private equity to carry him away to say “I tell my son…”, and he had stopped with his highly distorted perception that “they’re the greatest, they’re actually adding value to their clients,” would he not be just as or even more dangerous to the public interest in effective, forceful regulation? I think so; Bowden’s cognitive capture would be as complete and “cringe-making” in either case. Perhaps Hiltzik will follow up on this additional perspective.
Things You Can Do
Readers, here are a few things you can do, right now, to keep this story in the public eye.
First, you can write Representative Maxine Waters in her capacity as Ranking Member of the Committee on Financial Services, especially if you live in her district (and be sure to say so if you do). As the Representative of the 35th congressional district in Los Angeles, Waters probably reads the Times, so it’s likely she or a staffer has seen Hiltzik’s story.
You might ask Waters to find out, from the SEC, whether Bowden’s seeming request for a job for his son is at odds with the SEC’s Standards of Conduct, including but not limited to “Subpart E – Impartiality in Performing Official Duties,” and “Subpart G – Misuse of Position.” From Subpart G:
A prohibition against employees using public office for their own private gain for the private gain of friends, , or persons with whom they are affiliated in a non-Government capacity, or for the or any product, service, or enterprise
The job-for-his-son matter aside, Bowden’s remarks certainly look like an “endorsement” to me (“[Y]ou want to be in private equity. That’s where to go, that’s a great business”).
You might also ask Waters to look into whether Bowden’s claim that private equity delivers returns adequate to cover for its risks is true; experts say no. If he’s wrong, what does that say about the SEC’s capacity to regulate the industry?
Here is how to get in touch with Representative Waters. Physical mail is better than calling.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters
2221 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-2201
Fax: (202) 225-7854
Calling is better than email, and Waters does not expose an email address, but here is her contact form.
Second, you can write to the Dean of Stanford Law School, expressing your concern over events related to the conference that Stanford hosted on March 5, “Emerging Regulatory Issues in Private Equity, Venture Capital, & Capital Formation in Silicon Valley,” which you read about in the Los Angeles Times.
You might mention that the video recording of the “Regulatory Issues” conference shows that the moderator, Joseph Grundfest, did not disclose his industry ties, and ask — and I’m genuinely asking here — whether his failure to disclose conforms to Stanford’s “Staff Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest.” (See especially 2(f) on “business relationships”; Grundfest is on private equity giant KKR’s board, and KKR has “a business relationship with the University,” having invested in Highwire Press, an “auxiliary unit of Stanford University libraries.”)
You might also mention that the YouTube documenting the conference, and Bowden’s gaffe, has been taken down — although, fortunately, it has been preserved by an alert viewer — and ask when it’s going to go back up, what condition it will be in when it does, and whether it will continue to be in the public domain.
Stanford Law School
Neukom Building, Room 305
559 Nathan Abbott Way
tel: 650 723.4455
fax: 650 723.4669
As before, physical letters have more impact than phone calls, and phone calls more than email.
Third, for those of you who are on the twitter, you can tweet Representative Maxine Waters @MaxineWaters (13). Twitter is useful not only because it’s fun and hip, but because journalists use it and track stories with it.
You’ll have to write your own miserably inadequate 140 characters — “Should an SEC regulator ask private equity to give his son a job?” (66) — but for your convenience here are shortened URLs of both Hiltzik’s piece and Yves’s original story:
- Hiltzik: http://lat.ms/1B1b3ZT (21)
- Yves: http://bit.ly/1EAysSZ (21)
If you have space, you might add @hiltzikm (9) to your tweet, just so he knows his article rattled some cages. Hmm, 13 + 21 + 21 + 66 + 9 + 4 for spaces = 134 of 140. Heck, here’s a template:
@MaxineWaters @hiltzikm [Make up your own pithy Andrew Bowden-related question so we don’t look like we’re trolling!] http://lat.ms/1B1b3ZT http://bit.ly/1EAysSZ
Fourth, you might write a Letter to the Editor, especially if you live in the Los Angeles area. Letters to the Editor may seem old-fashioned, but Congressional staffers do pay attention to them, because they’re vetted by the newspaper’s editors and read by influencers. Consider mentioning the nepotism and cognitive regulatory capture aspects of Bowden’s talk, as above, but if you have a private pension or any investments, you might mention a concern that lax financial regulators could vaporize your retirement money again, as in the great financial crash of 2008.
Finally, readers, if you follow up this story through any of the above channels, do feel free to say so in comments, and post any responses you get. Thank you!
Pop the cork on the champers, thank Yves, and then think what you can do to keep this story spreading!
NOTE I’m not recommending contacting the SEC because Yves would be the one to make that call. My object is to spread the story. Let the SEC hear about the story indirectly from several angles, say I. Nor do I have any knowledge of the SEC or its workings, so I can’t begin to make a recommendation about who to contact or what to say.