Category Archives: Op-Eds & Opinions

A Smarter Way to Tax Big Banks

Mark Roe is the David Berg Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches bankruptcy and corporate law. This post is based on an op-ed by Professor Roe and Michael Tröge that was published today in The Wall Street Journal, which can be found here.

In conjunction with his State of the Union address, President Obama reanimated the idea of taxing big banks’ debts to help stabilize the banking industry and prevent future financial crises. The administration argues that the new tax would discourage banks from taking on too much risk by making it “more costly for the biggest financial firms to finance their activities with excessive borrowing.”

The president’s bank-tax proposal is unlikely to gain traction in the new Congress, just as similar proposals from the administration in 2010 and, last year from the now retired Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.), did not move forward. But even if it became law, it wouldn’t put a sizable dent in bank debt. The reason is simple: The existing tax system strongly encourages debt finance and the proposed new tax will not fundamentally change this.

READ MORE »

The New York Fed: A “Captured” Regulator

The following post comes to us from Luigi Zingales, Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, and is based on an op-ed by Mr. Zingales that was published today in Il Sole 24 Ore, which can be found here.

The world of American finance has been invested by a new scandal. At its core, there is New York’s Federal Reserve; in other words, the institution that supervises America’s main banks. The scandal exploded because of the revelations emerged in a legal lawsuit about a layoff.

Carmen Segarra, a supervision lawyer, sued after being fired only seven months into her job. The New York Fed says it fired her due to poor performance. Segarra instead maintains that she was given the pink slip because she did not adapt to ‘Fed culture’—so permissive towards banks it regulates, almost to the point of collusion.

READ MORE »

Alibaba’s Governance Risks

Lucian Bebchuk is William J. Friedman and Alicia Townsend Friedman Professor of Law, Economics, and Finance and Director of the Program on Corporate Governance, Harvard Law School.

Wall Street is eagerly watching what is expected to be one of the largest initial public offerings (IPOs) in history: the offering of the Chinese Internet retailer Alibaba at the end of this week. Investors have been described by the media as “salivating” and “flooding underwriters with orders.” It is important for investors, however, to keep their eyes open to the serious governance risks of investing in Alibaba.

In a New York Times DealBook column, posted today, I analyze these governance risks. I show that Alibaba’s ownership structure does not provide adequate protections to public investors. In particular, such investors should worry that, over time, a significant amount of the value created by Alibaba would not be shared with them. Investors participating in the IPO, I conclude, should recognize the significant governance risks they will be taking.

The column, Alibaba’s Governance Leaves Investors at a Disadvantage, is available here.

Who’s Responsible for the Walmart Mexico Scandal?

Ben W. Heineman, Jr. is a former GE senior vice president for law and public affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s schools of law and government. This post is based on an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review online, which is available here.

The Walmart bribery scandal is one of the most closely-watched cases of alleged malfeasance by a global company. It broke into the open in April, 2012, when the New York Times published a lengthy investigative piece alleging Walmart bribery in a Mexican subsidiary and a cover-up in its Bentonville, Arkansas, global headquarters. The piece, which won a Pulitzer Prize for reporter David Barstow, raised a host of personal accountability and corporate governance issues for the company.

Late last month, on the second anniversary of the story nearly to the day, Walmart released its first Global Compliance Report (GCR). The report describes the company’s governance response and changed compliance framework—from holding 20 audit committee meetings in 2014, to substantial organizational restructuring, to enhanced education and training. On paper, Walmart appears to have adopted many best practices and to have set out a sound plan for moving forward. However, questions of accountability remain unanswered, when it comes to determining what actually happened in the past, what systems failed, and who was responsible for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribery of foreign officials. A lengthy internal inquiry continues, as well as investigations by the Justice Department and the SEC, with the scope broadened to include possible Walmart improprieties in Brazil, China and India.

READ MORE »

How to Use a Bank Tax to Make the Financial System Safer

Mark Roe is the David Berg Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches bankruptcy and corporate law. This post is based on an op-ed by Professor Roe and Michael Tröge that was published today in The Financial Times, which can be found here.

A tax on the balance sheets of big banks—first proposed by US President Barack Obama in 2010 but later shelved—is back on the political agenda. Last month Dave Camp, Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, put forward a proposal for tax reform that included a 0.035 per cent levy on bank assets more than $500bn. This would hit large institutions such as Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.

The aim of the Republican plan is to find tax revenue that could be used to offset cuts in income taxes on individuals. Mr. Obama pitched his proposal as a way of raising money from US banks to help repay taxpayers who had to bail them out at the height of the crisis. Neither plan aims to make the financial system safer, and neither would. But with a few alterations, a balance-sheet tax could help strengthen the banks.

READ MORE »

Crisis Management Lesson from Toyota and GM: “It’s Our Problem the Moment We Hear About It”

Ben W. Heineman, Jr. is a former GE senior vice president for law and public affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s schools of law and government. This post is based on an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review online, which is available here.

Delay in confronting crises is deadly. Corporate leaders must have processes for learning of important safety issues. Then they must seize control immediately and lead a systematic response. Crisis management is the ultimate stress test for the CEO and other top leaders of companies. The mantra for all leaders in crisis management must be: “It is our problem the moment we hear about it. We will be judged from that instant forward for everything we do—and don’t do.”

These are key lessons for leaders in all types of businesses from the front page stories about Toyota’s and GM’s separate, lengthy delays in responding promptly and fully to reports of deadly accidents possibly linked to product defects.

The news focus has been on regulatory investigations and enforcement relating to each company, but the ultimate question is why the company leaders didn’t forcefully address the possible defect issues when deaths started to occur.

READ MORE »

Jamie Dimon’s Pay Raise Sends Mixed Signals on Culture and Accountability

Ben W. Heineman, Jr. is a former GE senior vice president for law and public affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s schools of law and government. This post is based on an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review online, which is available here.

The JP Morgan Chase board of directors has vexed the world with its terse announcement in a recent 8-K filing that CEO Jamie Dimon would receive a big pay raise—$20 million in total pay for 2013, up from $11.5 million for 2012, a 74 percent increase.

Not surprisingly, the news sparked strong reactions, from indignant critique to justification and support. Dimon’s raise obviously has special resonance because JP Morgan’s legal woes were one of the top business stories last year as it agreed to $20 billion in payments to settle a variety of cases involving the bank’s conduct since 2005 when Dimon became JPM CEO. But the ultimate question that gets fuzzed-over in the filing and response is one of culture and accountability—whether a long-serving CEO is accountable for a corporate culture that has spawned major regulatory inquiries and settlements across a broad range of legal issues, even though the firm has otherwise performed well commercially.

READ MORE »

The (Advisory) Ties That Bind Executive Pay

Editor’s Note: Robert Pozen is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This post is based on an article by Mr. Pozen and Theresa Hamacher that originally appeared in the Financial Times.

While shareholders of public companies in the UK and US have been voting on advisory (non-binding) resolutions about executive compensation, those in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have been voting on binding resolutions.

This might change. The UK government has proposed moving from advisory to compulsory resolutions on executive pay and, recently, the Swiss approved a referendum directing its parliament to require public companies to hold binding shareholder resolutions over pay.

Based on the available data, however, we do not support a general requirement for all public companies to hold a binding shareholder vote on executive compensation. But if less than a majority of the shares voted at one annual meeting favour a company’s executive compensation plan, then at the next annual meeting, the shareholder vote on that company’s executive compensation plan should be binding.

Let us begin by reviewing the data on advisory resolutions in the US and UK. In the first half of 2012, only 53 US public companies received less than a majority vote on their executive compensation plan. Of these 53, however, 45 gained majority support for their say on pay resolutions in 2013, according to Institutional Shareholder Services.

READ MORE »

No, GCs Should Not Be on the Board

Editor’s Note: Ben W. Heineman, Jr. is a former GE senior vice president for law and public affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s schools of law and government. This post is based on an article that appeared in Corporate Counsel.

A provocative headline recently topped a CorpCounsel.com story: “Should GCs Be on the Board? GCs Say Yes.”

This former GC says “no.”

In fact, the story presented a much more modest and qualified account of that issue in describing “The General Counsel Excellence Report 2013,” prepared by the news site Global Legal Post, in association with legal referral network TerraLex and based on a survey of 270 chief legal officers globally.

Only 9 percent of the GCs surveyed were on their companies’ boards, and only 20 percent thought that GCs should be on the board. Those 20 percent, in my view, are wrong—and it is a mistake for a trend to develop among general counsel to aspire to membership on their company’s board.

As this site’s readers know well, the GC represents the company, not the CEO. The representative of the owners of the company—who protect both shareholder and stakeholder interests—is, of course, the board of directors. So, the directors are the day-to-day representatives of the company, not management, and thus the ultimate client of the GC.

READ MORE »

Harpooning the London Whale is no Substitute for Reform

Editor’s Note: Mark Roe is the David Berg Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches bankruptcy and corporate law. This post is based on an op-ed by Professor Roe that was published today in The Financial Times, which can be found here.

And so the drama moves on to a courtroom. Two prime traders in JPMorgan Chase’s “London whale” misadventure have been indicted. Side plots may unfold, perhaps via extradition proceedings. But here is the big question: will the indictments lead to better, stronger financial markets? Well, yes and no.

Recall the problem: JPMorgan’s London trading desk made trades that would be profitable if the post-crisis American economy remained weak. As the economy improved, the traders sought to reverse the investments, but could not, ultimately losing the bank and its shareholders $6bn.

The indictments are not for the loss, but for deliberately misstating the size of the loss to higher-ups at the bank. That, in turn, led to misstated financial statements to the public and the bank’s regulators. Whether higher-ups pushed for lower reported losses remains to be seen.

Misleading the regulators is serious: if the losses threatened the bank itself, the regulators would have needed to know early so they could act. True, JPMorgan is well capitalised so a $6bn loss was painful but not life threatening; and, the indictment says, the deception was sized in hundreds of millions of dollars. But regulators still want to be alerted, to see if other big institutions were making similar bets. The financial crisis hit in 2008 because too many made similar (bad) bets on the American housing market’s ability to support its massive levels of poor-quality mortgage securities. An early warning system will not work if financiers hide problems.

READ MORE »

  • Subscribe

  • Cosponsored By:

  • Supported By:

  • Programs Faculty & Senior Fellows

    Lucian Bebchuk
    Alon Brav
    Robert Charles Clark
    John Coates
    Alma Cohen
    Stephen M. Davis
    Allen Ferrell
    Jesse Fried
    Oliver Hart
    Ben W. Heineman, Jr.
    Scott Hirst
    Howell Jackson
    Robert J. Jackson, Jr.
    Wei Jiang
    Reinier Kraakman
    Robert Pozen
    Mark Ramseyer
    Mark Roe
    Robert Sitkoff
    Holger Spamann
    Guhan Subramanian

  • Program on Corporate Governance Advisory Board

    William Ackman
    Peter Atkins
    Joseph Bachelder
    John Bader
    Allison Bennington
    Richard Breeden
    Daniel Burch
    Richard Climan
    Jesse Cohn
    Isaac Corré
    Scott Davis
    John Finley
    Daniel Fischel
    Stephen Fraidin
    Byron Georgiou
    Larry Hamdan
    Carl Icahn
    David Millstone
    Theodore Mirvis
    James Morphy
    Toby Myerson
    Barry Rosenstein
    Paul Rowe
    Rodman Ward