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Honest Talk about Fiduciaries

Next week, January 21, 2011, the SEC is due to deliver its report to Congress, as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, on the standards of conduct applicable to registered advisors and broker/dealers.  There is little doubt that this report will recommend a uniform standard — ostensibly, a fiduciary duty.  My greatest concern is that they will in fact adopt a unified standard and that they will trumpet fiduciary principles, but in reality it will amount to nothing more than a diluted version of fiduciary principles.

The lobbying by Wall Street has been intense.  Once the recommendations are made, the lobbying will get even more intense.  Wall Street’s business model is at stake.  This guarantees a watered down result.

In fact, the directives given by Congress to the SEC effectively preordained a diluted notion of fiduciary duty.  On the one hand Congress raises the prospect of a unified fiduciary standard, but on the other, also makes provisions for brokers to continue to sell propriety products provided there is sufficient disclosure of compesantion arrangements and conflicts of interest.   This is disappointing.

Simply put: commissions and disclosure are not consistent with fiduciary principles.

Fiduciaries are subject to a duty of loyalty.  This duty requires that a fiduciary put  client interests first, not engage in acts of self-dealing nor involving conflicts of interest.  Earning commission income from the sale of proprietary products clearly raises the potential of acts of self-dealing and conflicts of interest.  A fiduciary’s actions should never be clouded by acts of self-dealing.

Congress believes that disclosure will serve as the bulwark against acts of self-dealing.  In other words, if a broker discloses potential commissions, as well as how the commissions might impact his compensation, then the broker is “off the hook” from a fiduciary perspective.

Here, Congress is simply mistaken.  While disclosure is the corner stone of the securities laws, it does not hold the same weight as far as traditional fiduciary principles.   Under the securities laws, whether it is corporations or mutual funds, the underlying theory is that material facts need to be disclosed and investors can then exercise their own judgment based upon the facts.

For a fiduciary, however, the prohibition is fairly straight forward.  No acts of self-dealing.  A fiduciary cannot use its fiduciary discretion to engage in acts of self-dealing.   And, a fiduciary cannot disclose the potential self-dealing and obtain the client’s consent.

I focus on commissions and disclosure because it serves as a perfect example of how fiduciary principles will be watered down.  For those of us who believe that fiduciaries have a critical role to play in our financial system, this is a disappointment.  The marketing machine of Wall Street has the potential to dilute our commitment to longstanding principles.

At Harrison Fiduciary Group, we categorically reject efforts to masquerade self-dealing and conflicts of interest.  Our business model is structured on a fee for service basis.  Our fiduciary judgment will not be clouded by the potential to earn additional compensation.

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Securities Lending Was Much Misunderstood

On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, Louise Story unravels the complicated and profitable securities lending product offered by many banks.  Notwithstanding the slightly biased or misleading headline, Banks Shared Clients’ Profits, But Not Losses, Ms. Story does an excellent job of explaining the complex and somewhat arcane details of securities lending.

However, she misses a critical point  —  no one forced pension plans to engage in these transactions.  While she tends to focus on the missteps or questionable activities by the banks, there seems to be little attention paid to the investors — many of whom simply didn’t understand the basics of securities lending.

Without outlining the intricacies of a securities lending transaction in this space (see the above story and diagram), suffice it to say that securities lending entails leverage and a sophisticated investment management strategy.  Unfortunately, Jerry D. Davis, Chairman of the municipal employee pension fund of New Orleans,  explained that “fund officials did not consider securities lending to be risky.”  Furthermore, “It was, he said, ‘almost like free money'”.

Let’s run through this one again.  Mr. Davis and his colleagues, in their capacity as fiduciaries, agreed to implement a leveraged investment strategy by the pension plan because it was “almost like free money”.  While Ms. Story highlights various allegations against the Banks, she doesn’t point out that Mr. Davis didn’t have a clue as to what he was approving.  No doubt, in light of all of the litigation, there are scores of fiduciaries throughout the pension system who were equally ignorant of the risks posed by Securities Lending.

To truly appreciate this financial narrative, a little history, or context is needed. We’ve seen this movie before. The recent financial crisis was not the first time the Securities Lending industry hit a proverbial bump in the road.

Way back in the spring of 1994 when interest rates reversed a long decline, the uptick in rates generated havoc in the Securities Lending Collateral pools.  The culprits were not sub-prime mortgages, but instruments known as “reverse floaters”.  As the name implies, these products of financial wizardly fluctuated in the reverse direction of interest rates.  Not surprisingly, in a long-term falling interest rate environment, Securities Lending collateral pools were chock full of reverse floaters.

Surprise, surprise.  Interest rates tick up and reverse floaters plummeted.  Securities Lending collateral pools collapsed in values.  In fact, the Boston Company supported it’s collateral pools so that they did not “break a buck”.

Investors were outraged and claimed the investment risk of loss on the collateral pools lay with the banks.  Claims were made, negotiations ensued and various settlements were reached.

In light of some of the ambiguities which surfaced in the 1994 Securities Lending crisis, banks systematically clarified in their documentation that the risk of loss with respect to the investment performance of the collateral resided with the pension fund/client.

The specific allocation of investment risk to the pension fund/client is a key element of the securities lending process.  In fact, many banks offer investment pools with varying degrees of investment risk, and require the pension plan to select a collateral pool which reflects the pension plan’s risk tolerance.

The principle is very simple :  the securities belong to the plan.  If the plan chooses to lend out the securities, then the plan needs to invest the collateral in order to earn a return.  At all times, the securities remain assets of the plans and the plans retain the investment risk.  This risk is never transferred to the Banks.

Finally, the Banks are paid a fee usually a percentage of the investment return generated by the collateral pool.

Now, as Story’s article points out, the Banks run their own risks — they can breach investment guidelines or they can engage in activities which might give rise to conflicts of interest.   But these are risks separate and apart from the investment risk on the collateral.

Far from “free money”, anyone familiar with Securities Lending understands that it is a levered investment strategy with various inter-connecting components.  The documentation reflecting these transactions is dense and very technical.  However, for a fiduciary, complexity is not an excuse for ignorance.  Whether it is securities lending, investing in a hedge fund or commodity ETF’s, Fiduciaries have an obligation and a duty to understand the investments they authorize on behalf of plan participants.

In 1994 it was inverse floaters, in 2007/8 it was sub-prime mortgages, in 2013, who knows what?   But, it is safe to say that Wall Street will invent new products.  Fiduciaries must stay on top of these developments.

(Next Post will be on the relationship between Custody Services and Securities Lending)

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Banks fight to maintain $22.6 Billion in Derivatives Trading Revenues

The New York Times reports today that bank lobbyists are fighting desperately to save the trading revenues from their derivatives desks.  http://nyti.ms/aaGgen.   Considering 5 banks (Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup) dominate the derivatives business, that’s $4.5 billion per bank.  I’d also fight like hell to save those revenues.

According to the Article, “the financial industry says that derivatives are a valuable product used by more than 95 percent of Fortune 1000 companies to hedge against risks, including price changes.”  However, the issue is not whether Fortune 1000 companies view derivatives as a valuable risk management tool, but whether banks which benefit from federal safeguards should provide these products.

Yes, derivatives are a core banking product.  And yes, they provide significant profits to banks.  The question is:  Should this continue?

As I wrote in a prior post, Goldman’s Clients — Caveat Emptor, the largest banks rely upon a significant conflict of interest within their basic business model.  No where is this more evident than with trading derivatives.  And as the above numbers reflect, huge bucks depend on this.

First, we must be mindful of the fact that derivatives come in all shapes and sizes, from the most simple to the most esoteric.  And, as always, when we speak in generalities we must be careful.  Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that derivatives are risk reducing tools.  These tools can be used to assist clients with managing their own risks, and they can be used among the banks themselves (and other financial institutions) to apportion risk.   I am more focused on the former than the later.

As my prior post outlined in greater detail, Goldman explains that its risk business (e.g. derivatives business) grows out of its investment banking relationships with clients.  In other words, once Goldman has secured a relationship as an advisor to a client, it then introduces the client to various derivatives strategies.

Upon entering into a derivatives contract with Goldman, the client has evolved from an advisory relationship to an adversarial one.  Counter-parties to a contract, by definition are adversaries.   If Goldman continues to cultivate the advisory relationship (which of course it will), while at the same time maintains and cultivates additional counter-party relationships with the same client, it has entered into significant conflicts with this client.

On the one hand, where the derivatives are plain vanilla interest rate swaps, there are fewer concerns.  That is, many Fortune 1000 companies have expertise within their own treasury departments to make informed decisions about entering into a derivatives contract.  However, quite frankly, the banks don’t make a lot of money of these transactions. Instead, it is in the highly “bespoke” arrangements where the banks both earn the most money and undoubtedly where the clients rely upon the bank’s advice the most.  This is precisely where the greatest conflicts lie.

Again, I don’t mean to pick on Goldman, this is rampant throughout the industry. Not only is it rampant, but these very conflicts help to turn on the lights every day.  For instance, JP Morgan Chase reported $3.3 billion in earnings for Q1 2010 on revenues of $8.3 Billion.  Therefore its $4.5 billion share of derivatives revenue, constitutes about 12% of its revenues (assuming Q1 revenue numbers are annualized).   We are not talking about insignificant numbers, here.  This is worth fighting for.

The other point is that in light of Goldman’s recent challenges concerning the ABACUS deal, many people think of complicated synthetic mortgage backed instruments when the topic of derivatives is raised.  However, the term derivatives encompasses many types of instruments which are sprinkled throughout corporate America.  They are not some isolated, esoteric, rarely used instrument.  They have become a bedrock of the financial industry.   That is why the battle is so heated.

Whether the banking lobbyists are successful in retaining the derivatives trading desks within the banks, or whether the desks get pushed out into affiliated entities, in my mind, the most insidious aspects of derivatives trading will continue — the fact that the bank serves both as advisor and counter-party.

Clients, commentators, policy makers, advisors and bankers themselves need to be aware of these conflicts.   As Justice Brandeis once said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

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I did a double-take.   I had not yet settled down with the paper, but merely glanced at the headline.  Thinking to myself, “no this can’t be true”.  I looked again, “Public Pension Funds Are Adding Risk to Raise Return”.  Ditching my usual morning ritual, I sat down immediately in disbelief and read the lead article of the New York Times on March 8, 2010.  The Article outlines that many state and other governmental pension funds are increasing their exposure to riskier asset classes with the expectation of earning higher investment returns and contrasts this approach with many corporate plans which are taking the opposite approach; that is, decreasing risk in their portfolios.

A former chairman of a state pension review board commented, “In effect, they are going to Las Vegas…..Double up to catch up.”  In other words, if the economy and financial markets aren’t experiencing enough challenges, we now have to deal with high-roller state pension officials gambling with pension assets.

While academics, policy-makers and pundits alike continue to offer explanations into the causes and effects of the financial meltdown of 2007 & 2008, one overriding take-away from this experience is the recognition that financial risk is real.  Yes, riskier assets can deliver higher returns, but they can also deliver bigger loses.  I am not an investment professional, but merely a fiduciary lawyer, but even I know that there are two sides to the risk equation.

As a fiduciary matter, one can only wonder about the processes in place which gave rise to these decisions.  Merely from reading the Article, however, one senses that there were no processes.  Instead, confronted with the reality of investment returns not meeting projections and the potential to have to make increased contributions to the plans, it was simply easier to increase the risk profile of the portfolio.  The fiduciary question is whether it is prudent to do so?

Possibly reasonable minds could come to opposite conclusions on the prudence of this strategy. But the real question is, on whose behalf are the fiduciaries making their decisions.  Or, put another way, to whom do the investment fiduciaries owe a duty of loyalty?  It appears that these decisions were made probably with the States and the taxpayer foremost in the fiduciaries minds; that is, if the over all goal is to decrease the contributions by the state, then dial-up the risk attributes of the portfolio.  But, who is looking out for the best interests of the plan participants and retirees?  I always thought that was the fiduciary’s obligation.

Here’s the nub of the issue:  in times of limited resources it can be easy to lose sight of whose interests a fiduciary represents.   Whether it is a state or a corporation which is funding pension obligations, it is always in the funder’s interest to increase the risk profile of the portfolio.   But is it in the interest of the participants?  There is a healthy tension in this equation.

Unfortunately, many times individuals who are plan fiduciaries are nonetheless beholden to the funder of the plan — whether this is a state employee or an employee of the plan sponsor.  In these contexts, its easy to see how risks get shift onto the plans.  Absent robust policies and transparent decision-making, serious conflicts of interest can arise.  Fiduciaries must be sensitive to these conflicts, and avoid them at all costs.

Next week, “Ruth Madoff launches New Investment Fund”. Stay tuned.

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