By William K. Black
The Wall Street Journal ran a story today (12/27/11) entitled “SEC Ups Its Game to Identify Rogue Firms.”
“Rogue” is an interesting word with a range of definitions. When it is used as an adjective its meaning is: “a playfully mischievous person; scamp.” The trivialization of the most destructive elite frauds is one of the most common forms of what criminologists call “neutralization” of the moral content of wrong doing. Neutralization increases crime.
The actual story makes it clear that the criminals that the SEC was identifying were not “rogues.” They were the CEOs of seemingly legitimate firms. The SEC is identifying “accounting control frauds” – the frauds that cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined. The SEC is not identifying a few rotten apples, but roughly 100 hedge funds likely to have engaged in accounting fraud. The WSJ describes the SEC’s identification system:
“The list is the low-tech product of a high-tech effort by the SEC to crack down on fraud at hedge funds and other investment firms. After the agency failed to detect the $17.3 billion Ponzi scheme by Bernard L. Madoff, who wowed investors with steady returns over several decades, SEC officials decided they needed a way to trawl through performance data and look for red flags that might signal a possible fraud.
In 2009, the SEC began developing a computer-powered system that now analyzes monthly returns from thousands of hedge funds. Officials won’t say exactly how it works or how much it cost to build, but the agency has announced four civil-fraud lawsuits filed as a result of what it calls the “aberrational performance initiative.””The SEC should be applauded for finally understanding that “if it’s too good to be true; it probably isn’t true.” Our agency put a similar system in place in 1984 to identify the S&L accounting control frauds that were driving that crisis. A quarter-century later, the SEC began to follow our well-trodden trail – but only with regard to felons inhabiting the middle of the fraud food chain (hedge funds).
The SEC has, inevitably, discovered that accounting fraud is common among hedge funds. It is unlikely that the SEC system is really “high-tech” in information science terms. Low-tech information systems have been capable of identifying “aberrational performance” for at least thirty years. We did not have to create any pioneering software in 1984 in order to identify aberrational performance. The cost and time to create our “red flags” was trivial (a few hours of programming time by an agency staffer). (We were collecting the data and computing the necessary ratios anyway. One simply decides the level of a few key variables worthy of being flagged. There’s nothing magic about a “flag.” All it means is that suspicious levels are highlighted on the computer screen and on physical copies of the periodic reports so that they capture the reader’s attention.)
The SEC took two years to create its “aberrational performance” system and is embarrassed enough about the cost that it wants to keep it secret. The two year development process allowed the SEC to make a major advance relative to our system – they invented a title consisting of two words and eight syllables. Devising a title that recondite doubtless accounts for six months of the time it took the SEC to develop its flags.
The most interesting aspects of the WSJ story, however, are two unexamined topics that should have been central to the story. First, there is not a word in the article about criminal prosecutions for the frauds the SEC has identified. The frauds, as described in the article, are so blatant that they would make relatively simple to prosecute. There is no indication that the SEC wanted the WSJ to know that they had made well over a hundred criminal referrals against hedge fund CEOs and senior officers. There is no indication that the WSJ reporters were interested in whether the SEC had made criminal referrals against these moderately elite felons. As a result, we have no information on whether the SEC has in fact made hundreds of criminal referrals against the senior officers at the hedge funds that they have identified as having engaged in likely fraud. Indeed, we have no evidence that they have made any criminal referrals. Neither the SEC nor the WSJ reporters indicated that any prosecutions, or even Department of Justice investigations, resulted from the SEC hedge fund investigations.
Second, why isn’t the SEC’s top priority the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs)? The SDIs are the financial institutions that are so large that the administration fears that their failure will cause a new global crisis. The SDIs pose by far the greatest risk to the economy and investors of any entity. Their frauds reached “epidemic” proportions and drove our ongoing crisis and the Great Recession. The SEC, however, applied its “aberrational performance” system to its smallest entities and is now expanding it to mutual funds. There is no indication that the SEC intends to use the system to spot fraudulent SDIs. There is no indication that the SEC has even contemplated using the system to spot fraudulent SDIs. There is no indication that the WSJ reporters asked why the SEC was failing to use its system where it was most needed.
Applying the SEC system to the SDIs would have led the SEC to develop a more sophisticated analytical approach to identifying fraud. There is no indication that the SEC has any familiarity with the criminology, economics, and regulatory literature about how to identify accounting fraud. Admittedly, the SEC (finally) has taken seriously the warning that generations of parents have impressed upon their children – “if it’s too good to be true; it probably isn’t true.” The Achilles’ heel of the SEC analytics is that it assumes fraud must be aberrational and its flags are (at least as described in the story) all tied to identifying aberrations premised on the implicit assumption that fraud cannot be endemic. The SEC official told the WSJ reporter that they looked for “outliers.” Accounting control fraud, however, can become endemic, particularly in a product line, because it produces a “Gresham’s dynamic” in which bad ethics drives good ethics out of the market. Accounting control frauds report results that are too good to be true, but they all report extraordinary results because accounting fraud is a “sure thing” (George Akerlof and Paul Romer, “Looting: the Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit, 1993). Accounting control fraud was far more common among the SDIs than the SEC system has identified among hedge funds.