Monday, June 19, 2006

Freddie vs. Fannie

I was asked the other day (by a rather nice person) what the difference was between Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I didn't know. Hence this post (after some googling, of course).

This article from the Real Estate department at Texas A&M says:
At first, the two agencies took somewhat distinctive positions within the secondary mortgage market, buying different types of loans and issuing different types of securities. Today, however, there is little difference in the way the two operate or raise funds. Fannie Mae is perceived as more governmental than Freddie Mac, possibly because it is a more vocal advocate of its public mission.

I actually interviewed for an economist position with Freddie Mac before I took up my current position. They have a good research team (and excellent benefits!), but the job profile with its concentration in economics (not finance and certainly not corporate finance) wasn't such a fit with my research interests.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fannie Mae and the Wiki: Or, Am I being picky?

Check out Fannie Mae's Wikipedia entry. After describing what Fannie Mae does (a good description if you're not quite sure) it goes on to say:
Fannie Mae is a consistently profitable corporation. While it receives no direct government funding or backing, it has certain looser restrictions placed on its activities than normal financial institutions. For example, it is allowed to sell mortgage backed securities with half the capital backing them up than is required by other financial institutions. Critics, including Alan Greenspan, say that this is only allowed because investors seem to think that there is a hidden, or implied, guarantee to the bonds that Fannie Mae sells ([2]). Although the company describes them as having no guarantee, nevertheless the vast majority of investors believe that the Government would prevent them from defaulting on their debt, and so buy bonds at very low interest rates as compared to others having like risk.

I dont like to pick on Fannie Mae, but it probably this very notion of Fannie Mae being 'consistently profitable' that the company managers were reluctant to give up. And that probably explains (but does not excuse) why Fannie Mae, which experienced major losses as mortgage rates dropped, avoided recording the losses as such. Instead, they were hidden in the balance sheet under AOCI, or "accumulated other comprehensive income" and slowly amortized.

Wikipedia goes on to report the latest events (and I quote) :
In May 2006, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight released a detailed report on the scandal, alleging Fannie Mae management fraudulently altered the company's accounting to overstate earnings to boost their personal bonuses. The report also alleges the company hired lobbyists to attempt to get Congress to investigate OFHEO and cut its budget, to hide the misdeeds. Fannie Mae agreed to pay $400 million in penalties. The company's market capitalization droped by $9 billion as a result of the scandal. As of May 2006, no criminal charges have been filed, but the investigation is ongoing.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Changes at Fannie Mae and looking back in time

MarketWatch has an interesting article about changes at Fannie Mae following "the company's foundation-shaking $10 billion accounting scandal."

" (CEO) Mudd has explained repeatedly to investors and lawmakers that he's trying to clean up Fannie, which is chartered by the government, but publicly traded.
On Thursday, Mudd told senators the company replaced its onsite auditors and has more than 300 auditors overseeing the firm's books. He said he and his management team are reorganizing Fannie's internal audit department. There's a new chief audit executive, with a direct line to the board's audit committee, he said.
The company will complete the massive restatement of earnings by year-end, Mudd said Thursday.

(But) James Lockhart, head of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, told lawmakers that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a "very, very long way to go" to correct internal accounting control problems. Neither of the agencies, said Lockhart, is "even close to complying with Sarbanes-Oxley," referring to the corporate governance law passed in 2002. "

Fannie Mae's accounting scandal that recently came to light involves allegations of manipulation to hide massive losses in 2002 and 2003.
Take a look, then, at this article written in early 2003 that mentions Fannie Mae's high corporate governance score awarded by S&P at the time! Here's an excerpt:

Fannie Mae (ticker: FNM), the government-mandated mortgage broker, earned an overall CGS of 9.0 on a 10-point scale, reflecting "strong or very strong" corporate governance practices in all four of the areas analyzed.
..S&P Governance Services applauded the structure of Fannie Mae's board of directors, which meets the rules recently proposed by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). S&P also praised the board's independence.
"Our standard is to be a model 'glass box' company," said Mr. Raines (Fannie Mae CEO/Chair Franklin Raines). "And as the record shows, we are always willing to do more to keep our disclosures and corporate governance at the cutting-edge of best practices."

Oh, the irony !

Microsoft forward dated option awards... even to directors!

..and yet they didnt think to question the practice?!

Well, I suppose we should give them a break. Somebody must have raised some objections, because they abandoned the system in the late 1990s.

For those still confused about backdating vs. forward dating, here's the deal:

Say on June 1st, company X decides to give an employee stock options. Ideally, they should award the options with an exercise price thats equal to the stock price on June 1st.
The companies involved in the backdating scandal however, picked a date which had the lowest stock price in the previous quarter (or year, or month) and awarded it retrospectively on that date - say, May 4th.

Microsoft, however, after deciding to award the stock options to the employee on June 1st, goes on to wait and see for the next 30 days. Then it awarded the option with an exercise price equal to the lowest stock price in the next 30 days - say, on June 13th. Hence "forward" dating.

Whats the difference? A Microsoft spokesperson in an article today claimed that there was nothing wrong with what they did. However, lets examine the incentives at work here.
The employee at Company X was happy to receive a stock option which locked in an instant gain on the day he received it. This did not motivate him to work hard enough in the next year or so, because the locked-in gains were substantial as it is and unlikely to get much larger.

The employee at Microsoft, however, from June 1st onwards, was probably constantly looking for the stock price to DROP in the next 30 days (though of course he would look for the price to rise again subsequent to the 30 days). One may say that this in fact gives the employee a conflict of interest with the company!
Instead of simply being not motivated to work hard for the company (like employee X), the Microsoft guy's incentives were aligned to profit him if the company does poorly in the first 30 days !

So contrary to Microsoft's claim that they 'did nothing wrong' I would say that their actions were far more harmful to the company than the actions of all the (45 plus?) companies involved in the backdating probe.The only redeeming factor about MS being that the practice was stopped soon after it was begun in the 1990s.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Backdating companies count

I feel like I should have a counter constantly updating the number of companies that have been caught in the backdating scandal. The current hit counter is 40.

Wow. Even with this many companies (and more) that were doing it, nobody spoke up? Where are all the whistle blowers gone?

Brief hiatus

I will be out of town for the next 5 days or so with little access to the web. But I will be back and posting regularly from next week. Sorry for the interruption!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Recouping executive bonuses

GM shareholders were not the first ones to think about recouping executive performance bonuses based on falsely inflated financials (see previous post). When financials are restated, bonuses based on the wrong figures should be revised downwards and the company should recoup the excess amounts paid.

* Shareholders at another company, Kodak, tried (and failed) to make this change at their meeting last month. The Amalgamated Bank LongView Collective Investment Fund, a shareholder, wanted Kodak's board to commit to reviewing and recouping executive bonuses and other rewards in the event of an earnings restatement. However this resolution failed to pass.

* Shareholders at HP, also in May 2006, submitted (but failed to pass) a resolution seeking to allow the company to recoup bonuses after earnings restatements.

* When the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight released a report of their investigation into Fannie Mae's (suspiciously) growing earnings from 1998 until 2004, it prompted some talk about trying to recoup some of the performance-based bonuses from executives, such as former Chairman Franklin Raines. Of $90 million Raines received from the company between 1998 and 2003, $52 million was tied to earnings targets that the company hit, at least in part, by "deliberately and intentionally" manipulating its accounting, investigators concluded (story here).
But no steps have been taken as yet.

And since this blog is all about connecting academic research with real-world issues, I looked to see if there is any academic work about recovering executive pay or bonuses after restatements.
Zip. Zilch. Nothing.
Ideas, anyone?

GM shareholders initiate some changes; and an important issue comes to light

Today was the GM shareholder meeting in which shareholders voted on various resolutions.

Three of the four resolutions strongly backed by ISS(Institutional Shareholder Services, one of the big proponents of good governance)were passed. These proposals are:
- A proposal asking the company to separate the chairman and chief executive positions;
- a proposal requiring a majority vote for election of directors; and
- a proposal asking the company to provide for cumulative voting.

A fourth proposal strongly backed by ISS was not passed. This was a proposal to recoup executive compensation that may not have been correctly earned in the light of financial restatements. The proposal argues that due to financial restatements in the 2000 through 2004 period, executive compensation based on financial performance was flawed and overpaid.

This is an important issue that has been largely ignored, and also crops up in other contexts. When companies overstate their financials, and this is subsequently corrected, the company often has to pay a penalty for their poor reporting. But rarely are executive bonuses paid on the basis of the misreported high financials reimbursed.
This issue may also arise in two other situations, both when the SEC investigates improper reporting and imposes fines upon the company; and when civil litigation penalizes a company for improper litigation. In both cases, the company/shareholders pay the penalty, but executives get to keep their undue gains.

More on this issue in the next post.

Monday, June 05, 2006

What is 'Corporate Governance law' ?

From the website of law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges, awarded the title of 'Global Corporate Governance law firm of the year' both in 2005 and 2006 by Who's Who Legal:

Weil Gotshal's Securities/Corporate Governance Litigation practice addresses the increasingly complex web of federal and state statutes, rules, common law and regulatory oversight of public and private organizations, from both the litigation and counseling perspectives.
This practice includes not only class action, "mass action," bankruptcy and other private litigation, but also civil regulatory and criminal proceedings under federal and state securities laws; shareholder derivative and other corporate/partnership governance and fiduciary duty disputes; and litigation involving complex corporate transactions.
Equally important, the other focus of this practice involves counseling issuers, boards of directors, audit committees, and other standing or special board committees and significant shareholder or securities industry constituencies, on issues involving disclosure and other securities law compliance and on issues of corporate governance (including internal investigations) and fiduciary duties under state and federal law.

Governance guidelines, anyone?

I came across the National Association of Corporate Directors website that contains a good summary of some generally accepted governance guidelines (GAGG?) put out by several different organizations.
Jokes aside, this is a good go-to site for looking up relevant rules and guidelines. Here's a list:

Corporate Governance Codes and Practices in the New Era of Corporate Accountability

Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (PDF, 130 pages, 680Kb)
Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 Imposes New Rules for Corporate Governance and Reporting (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. - September 2002)

New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) -- Filing of Proposed Rule Change and Amendment --

NASDAQ - Summary of proposed corporate governance reforms --

AMEX - Enhanced Corporate Governance and proposed rule changes --

National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) - Recommendations for Reform post-Enron

Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) - OECD Principles of Corporate Governance (PDF, 42 pages)

The Business Roundtable (BRT) - Principles of Corporate Governance (PDF, 37 pages)

Council of Institutional Investors (CII) - Corporate Governance Policies

TIAA-CREF Policy Statement on Corporate Governance -

CalPERS Governance Principles --

The World Bank - Corporate Governance Principles of Best Practices --

Comparison of Corporate Governance Guidelines and Codes of Best Practice: United States - Source: Weil Gotshal and Manges, 2003

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Stolt-Nielsen also backdated options

From the WSJ:
In an annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Stolt described the granting of options in two prior years as a "material weakness" in its accounting practices. The company says it corrected the problem last year after it was flagged during an internal review of financial controls.