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(Solved) Article summary. Proper reflection of the article should be done


Article summary.

Proper reflection of the article should be done on this article. 2 to 3 pages  



THE GREED CYCLE: How the financial system encouraged corporations to go crazy.

 

BY: John Cassidy

 

The New Yorker

 

September 23, 2002

 

There are many ways to take the measure of what has happened to corporate America in recent

 

years. As good a way as any is to flip through some back copies of the Financial Times, which

 

recently published a remarkable series of articles on what it termed the ?barons of bankruptcy - a

 

privileged group of top business people who made extraordinary personal fortunes even as their

 

companies were heading for disaster.? The FT examined the twenty five biggest business

 

collapses since the start of last year. From the beginning of 1999 to the end of 2001, senior

 

executives and directors of these doomed compa-nies walked away with some $33 billion in

 

salary, bonuses, and the proceeds from sales of stock and stock options. Some of the names on

 

the list were fa-miliar to anybody who reads the pa-pers: Global Crossing?s Gary Winnick

 

($512.4 million); Enron?s Kenneth Lay ($246.7 million); and WorldCom?s Scott Sullivan ($49.4

 

million). How-ever, there were also many names that haven?t received much public attention,

 

such as Clark McLeod and Richard Lumpkin, the former chairman and the former vice chairman,

 

respectively, of McLeod USA, a telecommunica-tions company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

 

These two corporate philan-thropists cashed in stock worth ninety nine million dollars and a

 

hundred and sixteen million dollars, respectively, before the rest of the stockholders were wiped

 

out.Even veteran observers have been taken aback by recent events. ?It became a competitive

 

game to see how much money you could get,? Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal

 

Reserve Board, told me when I visited him at his office in Rockefeller Center a couple of weeks

 

ago. Earlier this year, Volcker tried and failed to rescue Arthur Ander-sen, Enron?s accounting

 

firm, which ended up going out of business. ?Corporate greed exploded beyond anything that

 

could have been imagined in 1990,? Volcker went on: ?Traditional norms didn?t exist. You had

 

this whole culture where the only sign of worth was how much money you made.?

 

Economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman have seen greed as an inevitable and, in some

 

ways, desirable feature of capitalism. In a well regulated and well balanced economy, greed

 

helps to keep the system expanding. But it is also kept in check, lest it undermine public faith in

 

the entire enterprise. The extraordinary thing about the last few years is not the mere presence of

 

greed but the way it was systematically en-couraged and then allowed to career out of control.

 

Kenneth Lay, in quietly sell-ing stock and exercising stock options worth more than two hundred

 

million dollars shortly before Enron collapsed, wasn?t just being a selfish, unscrupulous

 

individual: he was defying the social contract that underpins a system, which, despite its faults

 

has lasted almost two hundred years.

 

In 1814, Francis Cabot Lowell, a Bos-ton merchant, founded the first pub-lic company, when he

 

built a textile fac-tory on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, and called it

 

the Boston Manufacturing Company. Lowell had smuggled a plan of a power loom out of

 

England, and he intended to compete with the Lancashire mills. But he couldn?t afford to pay for

 

the construction and installation of expen-sive machinery by himself, so he sold stock in his

 

company to ten associates. Within seven years, these stockholders had received a cumulative

 

return of more than a hundred per cent, and Lowell had established a new business model Under

 


 

its auspices, mankind has invented cures for deadly diseases, ex-tracted minerals from ocean

 

floors, ex-tended commerce to all corners of the earth, and generated unprecedented rates of

 

economic expansion.

 

Initially, most economists were skep-tical of Lowell?s innovation. At the heart of any public

 

company there is an implicit bargain: the managers promise to run the company in the owners

 

interest, and the stockholders agree to hand over day-to-day control of the business to the

 

managers. Unfortu-nately, there is no easy way to make sure that the managers don?t slack off, or

 

divert some of the stockholders? money into their own pockets. Adam Smith was among the first

 

to identify this problem. ?The directors of such com-panies.? being the managers rather of other

 

people?s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected that they should watch over it with

 

the same anx-ious vigilance with which the partners in a private [company] frequently watch

 

over their own,? Smith wrote in ?The Wealth of Nations.? And he went on, ?Negligence and

 

profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such

 

a company.?

 

Smith thought that private com-panies would remain the normal way of doing business, but

 

technological change and financial necessity proved him wrong. With the development of the

 

railroads, for example, companies like the New York Central and the Union Pacific needed to

 

raise tens of millions of dollars from outside in-vestors to lay track and buy rolling stock. And

 

because the administrative com-plexity of the railroads was too much for a single entrepreneur to

 

handle, a new class of full time executives, men like Collis P. Huntington and Ed-ward C.

 

Harriman, emerged to run them. Though the emerging industry attracted dubious financiers like

 

Jay Gould, most of the professional managers were content to collect generous salaries and

 

pensions rather than habitually attempt to rob the stockholders and bondholders. ?It is a strong

 

proof of the marvelous growth in recent times of a spirit of honesty and uprightness in

 

commercial matters, that the leading officers of great public companies yield as little as they do

 

to the vast tempta-tions to fraud which lie in their way,? the British economist Alfred Marshall

 

said in 1890.

 

Alas, by the late nineteen twenties it was clear that corporate perfidy was prospering in an

 

impressive variety of forms, most of them involving insiders exploiting their position to fleece

 

out-siders. After the stock market crash of 1929, congressional investigators un-covered

 

widespread insider trading, stock price manipulation, and diver-sion of corporate funds to

 

personal use. Then, as now, the revelations of corpo-rate wrongdoing prompted the federal

 

government to respond. The Securi-ties Act of 1933 imposed extensive disclosure requirements

 

on any com-pany wanting to issue stock, and out-lawed insider dealing and other at-tempts to

 

manipulate the market. In 1934, the Securities and Exchange Com-mission was set up to enforce

 

the new regulations.

 

Public confidence in business even-tually recovered, but the potential conflict of interest at the

 

heart of public companies was never fully resolved. Dur-ing the nineteen sixties and early

 

seven-ties, corporate managers were often cav-alier about the interests of stockholders. Back

 

then, the chief executive?s com-pensation was usually linked to the size of the firm he ran - the

 

bigger the com-pany, the bigger the paycheck. This encouraged business leaders to build

 

sprawling empires rather than focus on their firms? profitability and stock price. Many of them

 


 

spent heavily on per-quisites of office, such as lavish head-quarters and corporate retreats, and

 

they kept on spending even when their com-panies ran into trouble.

 

In theory, the stockholders could have joined together to force out managers, but organizing such

 

a collective effort was costly and time consuming, and it rarely happened. Nor was managerial

 

waste constrained by competition from rival firms that didn?t splurge on pink marble for the

 

office bathrooms. Com-panies like General Motors saw their businesses decimated by foreign

 

com-petition, but CEOs, such as G.M.?s Roger Smith, rarely suffered. From a stockholder?s

 

perspective, something more potent was required to get those who ran the companies to serve the

 

in-terests of those who owned the compa-nies. When the solution materialized, it would turn out

 

to be more potent than anybody had imagined.

 

Thirty years ago, two obscure young financial economists provided the spark for reform.

 

Michael Jensen and William Meckling had graduate de-grees from the University of Chicago,

 

where Milton Friedman and his disciples taught that there was little wrong with the American

 

economy that more competition wouldn?t resolve. During the early seventies, Jensen and

 

Meck-ling, who were then both at the Univer-sity of Rochester, tried to apply this idea to the

 

internal workings of the public company. They began with the supposi-tion that senior managers,

 

faced with competition from other firms, would do the best they could for their stockhold-ers, by

 

cutting costs and trying to make as big a profit as possible. ?But the more we thought about it the

 

more we real-ized that what we had been taught in Chicago and believed most of our lives

 

wasn?t true,? Jensen recalled recently. ?It wasn?t automatically true that corpora-tions would

 

maximize value.?

 

Jensen and Meckling couched their arguments in the mathematical jargon favored by assistant

 

professors seek-ing tenure, but the model they came up with had an enormous practical impact. It

 

planted the idea that the most im-portant people in any company are not the employees or the

 

managers but the owners - the stockholders and bond-holders. This model provided an

 

intel-lectual rationale, of sorts, for the con-troversial explosion in CEO pay that began in the

 

nineteen eighties; and it justified the widespread adoption of executive stock options.

 

Jensen and Meckling analyzed the relationship between stockholders and managers as a

 

?principal - agent prob-lem? - a dilemma that arises whenever one party (the principal) employs

 

an-other (the agent) to do a job for him. It might be a family hiring a contractor to renovate its

 

house, a company hiring a brokerage firm to manage its retire-ment fund, or even an electorate

 

choos-ing a government. In all these cases, the same issue arises: How can the prin-cipal insure

 

that the agent acts in his or her interest? As anybody who has dealt with a contractor knows,

 

there is no simple solution. One option is to de-sign a contract that rewards the con-tractor for

 

doing the job well. Municipal construction projects, for example, have a chronic tendency to

 

overrun, snarling traffic and infuriating the public. So when the City of New York, say, puts out

 

tenders for roadwork, its contracts often include financial incentives for finishing the work early

 

and penalties for being late.

 

Jensen and Meckling were the first economists to apply this idea to corpo-rations. They argued

 

that there was no perfect way to align the interests of the owners and the managers. In any firm

 

that relied on outsiders for financing, the senior executives would make some damaging

 

decisions. If the firm issued stock, they would waste some of the proceeds on perks like

 


 

corporate jets. If the firm issued debt, the managers, knowing that the bondholders would be the

 

main losers if anything went wrong, would make too many risky investments. The ?agency

 

costs? that the business incurred as a result of these ac-tions were unavoidable. It didn?t matter

 

whether the firm was a cosseted mo-nopoly or a company facing extensive competition:

 

managers would destroy value.

 

Jensen and Meckling had a hard time getting their ideas accepted. ?I gave a seminar at the

 

University of Chicago, and it was just a disaster,? Jensen recalled. ?People were shouting at me,

 

?How can you say competition doesn?t solve all problems??? Eventually, though, most

 

economists accepted Jensen and Meck-ling?s logic, and they began to ask more questions: How

 

should the performances of senior executives be measured? Was it better to give them money in

 

the form of salaries or bonuses, or company stock? If some managerial inefficiency was

 

inevitable, how could it be minimized? Principal - agent theory provided a clear answer to these

 

questions: treat chief ex-ecutives just like plumbers, contractors, or any other truculent agent, and

 

reward them for acting in the best interest of the principal - i.e., the stockholders.

 

At the time, many chief executives saw their main task as overseeing the welfare of their

 

employees and custom-ers. As long as the firm made a decent profit every year and raised the

 

dividend it paid its stockholders, this was considered good enough. But, once CEOs were viewed

 

as merely the agents of the firm?s owners, they were urged to live by a new, simpler credo:

 

shareholder value. Henceforth, economists and manage-ment gurus agreed, their overriding aim

 

should be to maximize the value of the firm, as it was determined in the stock market.

 

The shareholder value movement soon attracted rich and aggressive investors who used the

 

economists? argu-ments to justify attacks on corporate America. During the hostile takeover

 

wave of the nineteen eighties, contro-versial figures like T. Boone Pickens and Carl Icahn bought

 

stakes in public companies they considered undervalued and, claiming to represent the ordinary

 

stockholder, often tried to seize control. Since the corporate raiders financed their attacks with

 

borrowed money, their takeovers became known as ?lever-aged buyouts,? or LBOs. In a typical

 

LBO, the acquirer would buy out the public stockholders and run the com-pany as a private

 

concern, slashing costs and slimming it down. The ultimate aim was to refloat the company on

 

the stock market at a higher valuation. Individual raiders weren?t the only force behind LBOs.

 

Wall Street firms like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Hicks, Muse also got in on the game. Nearly

 

half of all major public corporations received a takeover offer in the eight-ies. Many companies

 

were forced to lay off workers and sell off under performing divisions in order to boost their

 

stock price and fend off potential bidders. Raiders were popularly de-nounced as speculators and

 

predators, which, of course, most of them were. Thomas Eagleton, a Democratic sena-tor from

 

Missouri, called Carl Icahn ?a fourteen karat pirate motivated by one instinct - greed.?

 

Still, many economists defended LBOs as an effective way to overcome the agency problems

 

that Jensen and Meckling had identified. The stock-holders who sold out often made

 

con-siderable profits, and the managers of bought out companies were usually given large

 

chunks of equity. Senior executives would be forced to run the firms more efficiently, it was

 

argued, because of all the debt that had been taken on, and, if they boosted the value of the firm,

 

they should make a lot of money themselves. Michael Jensen became one of the strongest

 

supporters of LBOs. In 1989, he published an article in the Harvard Business Review in which

 

he claimed that the traditional public company had ?outlived its usefulness in many sectors of the

 

economy.?

 


 

This declaration proved premature. When the economy went into a reces-sion during the early

 

nineteen nineties, many of the firms that had gone private, such as Macy?s and Revco, couldn?t

 

keep up their interest payments, and the re-sulting wave of bankruptcies discred-ited the LBO as

 

a business model. Far from creating value, many LBOs had ended up wiping out the investors

 

and bondholders who financed them. The only people who consistently made money were the

 

stockholders and se-nior managers who sold out early on. The enduring economic lesson of the

 

LBO era was that unleashing greed wasn?t enough to raise efficiency. But the message that

 

corporate America took from its ordeal was quite different: senior executives who converted to

 

the new religion of shareholder value tended to get very rich, while those who argued that

 

corporations ought to consider their employees and customers as well as their stockholders often

 

ended up with-out a job.

 

At the same time, corporations came to realize that leveraged buyouts weren?t the only way to

 

align the interests of managers and shareholders. There was a much simpler tool available, which

 

didn?t involve going to all the trouble of a multibillion dollar takeover: the exec-utive stock

 

option. Once endowed with a generous grant of these magical in-struments, a senior executive

 

would no longer think of himself as a mere hired hand but as a proprietor who had the long term

 

health of the firm at heart. That was the theory, anyway.

 

An executive stock option is a legal contract that grants its owner the right to buy a stock in his

 

or her com-pany at a certain price (the ?strike price?) on a certain date in the future. Take a

 

company with a stock price of fifty dol-lars that grants its chief executive the right to buy a

 

million shares three years hence at the current market price. As-sume the stock price rises by ten

 

per cent each year, so that after three years it is trading at about sixty six dollars and fifty cents.

 

At that point, the chief exec-utive can ?exercise? his option and make the company sell him a

 

million shares at fifty dollars. Then he can sell the shares in the open market, and clear a profit of

 

sixteen and a half million dollars.

 

The first stock option incentive plan was introduced in 1950, the year in which Congress decided

 

that recipients of stock options could defer paying tax until they exercised them and sold the

 

shares. Soon thereafter, the Accounting Principles Board, the accounting industry body that laid

 

down guidelines for how com-panies calculate their earnings, decided that stock options, unlike

 

salaries and bonuses, would not be counted as a cor-porate expense. This decision had

 

mo-mentous consequences, since it meant that, from a firm?s perspective, execu-tive stock

 

options were free. Companies could issue as many options as they wished, and they wouldn?t

 

have to deduct a cent from the earnings they reported to shareholders.

 

Eventually, this accounting ruling transformed the way corporations paid their senior managers,

 

but at the time it provoked little comment. Back then, executive stock options were still rare.

 

Most senior executives thought that they were too risky and insisted on being paid in cash. This

 

remained true throughout the nineteen sixties and seventies, ex-cept in the technology sector,

 

where firms developing untested products often didn?t have enough money to pay high salaries.

 

For young firms, stock options provided a convenient way to maintain the loyalty of valuable

 

em-ployees while conserving cash. If things went well for the company, options could be

 


 

extremely lucrative: in 1982, after the Dow finally broke out of its de-cline, Frederick W. Smith,

 

the chief ex-ecutive of Federal Express, cashed in options worth more than fifty million dollars.

 

In 1980, fewer than a third of chief executives of public companies were granted stock options.

 

Most firms still depended on bonuses and profit shar-ing to motivate and reward their senior

 

managers. As the nineteen eighties pro-gressed, and the Dow tripled, stock op-tions began to

 

look much less risky. Thanks to the startling growth of firms that used them heavily, such as

 

Micro-soft and Intel, they also became fash-ionable. For blue chip companies, issu-ing generous

 

packages of stock options to their managers became a way to mimic the technological dynamism

 

and entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley.

 

Yet the real benefit of granting stock options - or so economists insisted - was that they solved

 

the problem of providing incentives to senior execu-tives. Once again, Michael Jensen was an

 

influential figure. In 1990, Jensen and Kevin Murphy, an economist who is now at the University

 

of Southern Cal-ifornia, published an article in the Har-vard Business Review which argued that

 

even after the events of the eighties the compensation that most senior execu-tives received was

 

barely connected to the performance of their firms. In par-ticular, changes in a firm?s stock price

 

had little impact on the take home pay of its chief executive. ?On average, corporate America

 

pays its most im-portant leaders like bureaucrats,? Jen-sen and Murphy concluded. ?Is it any

 

wonder then that so many CEOs act like bureaucrats rather than the value maximizing

 

entrepreneurs companies need to enhance their standing in world markets??

 

By 1994, seven in ten chief execu-tives received option grants, and stock options made up about

 

half of their average take home pay. In the second half of the nineties, so called ?mega options? options grants worth at least ten million dollars - became the norm. In 1997, according to the

 

executive compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer & Partners, ninety two of Amer-ica?s top

 

two hundred chief executives received mega options, with an average value of thirty one million

 

dollars. A year later, two Harvard economists, Brian J. Hall and Jeffrey Liebman, took another

 

look at managerial pay and con-firmed what anybody who followed the financial pages already

 

knew: CEOs weren?t paid anything like bureaucrats. They were paid more like rock stars.

 

Wittingly and unwittingly, Wash-ington encouraged the great giveaway. During the 1992

 

election campaign, Bill Clinton and Al Gore made a polit-ical issue out of lavish CEO pay. A

 

year later, the new Administration lim-ited to a million dollars the tax deduc-tions that

 

corporations could take for executive salaries. The reform turned out to be counterproductive.

 

Since ex-ecutive stock options weren?t counted as regular compensation, corporations had yet

 

another reason to pay their senior managers less in salary and more in op-tions. In 1994, the

 

Financial Account-ing Standards Board (FASB), the de-scendant of the Accounting Principles

 

Board, set out to force companies to deduct the value of the stock options they granted from their

 

earnings. Fol-lowing an intense lobbying campaign by Silicon Valley companies, several leading

 

members of Congress, includ-ing Joseph Lieberman and Dianne Fein-stein, threatened to put the

 

FASB out of business if it went ahead with the change. The board backed down, and the latest

 

official attempt to control cor-porate avarice came to an end.

 

The rise of the stock option revolutionized the culture of corporate America. The chief

 

executives of blue chip companies, who in the nineteen eighties had portrayed Icahn, Pickens,

 

and their ilk as corporate vandals, now embraced the values of the raiders as their own. For

 

decades, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group that represents the CEOs of dozens of major

 


 

companies, had stressed the social role that corporations played in their communities, as well as

 

the financial obligations they owed their stockholders. In 1997, the Business Roundtable changed

 

its position to read, ?The paramount duty of management and board is to the shareholder.?

 

In many cases, the CEOs turned into corporate raiders themselves, albeit internal raiders.

 

Companies like IBM, Xerox, and Proctor & Gamble, acting on their own volition, fired tens of

 

thousands of workers. Their chief executive insisted that the ?downsizing? was necessary to

 

compete effectively, and that was sometimes true. But once the CEOs were in possession of

 

mega options, they had another motivating factor: an enormous vested interest in boosting their

 

firms? stock price. For the first time, they had an opportunity to create fortunes on a scale

 

hitherto reserved for industrial pioneers like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Gates. In 1997, Michael

 

Eisner, the chairman and chief executive of Walt Disney, earned five hundred and seventy

 

million dollars. A year later, Mel Karmazin, the chief executive of CBS, exercised options worth

 

almost two hundred million dollars.

 

The scattered protests at these startling payouts notwithstanding, many economists credited the

 

doctrine of shareholder value for reinvigorating American business. In spite of fears that

 

downsizing would devastate communities, the economy thrived, and the total number of jobs in

 

the country increased. Far form being pilloried, ruthless businessmen ended up being lauded. In

 

1996, one of the most cutthroat, Albert (Chainsaw Al) Dunlap, wrote a best selling book, ?Mean

 

Business,? in which he defended the cost cutting tactics he perfected at companies like American

 

Can and Scott Paper. ?The most important person in any company is the shareholder,? Dunlap

 

declared. ?I?m not talking here about Wall Street fat cats. Working people and retired men and

 

women entrusted us with their 401Ks and pension plans for their children?s college tuition and

 

their own long term security. If we?re not concerned about them every step of the way, we?re

 

screwed.?

 

As long as the economy kept expanding and the stock market kept going up, most Americans

 

were content to avert their eyes from the lopsided manner in which the rewards of the long boom

 

were being distributed. For those who looked closely, though, there was already evidence that

 

execu-tive stock options were sometimes being abused. In 1997, David Yermack, an econo-mist

 

at NYU?s Stern School of Busi-ness, published an article in the Jour...

 


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