Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CNBC's Bartiromo: Banks Are Not Lending Because They Can't Lie

CNBC's star anchor Maria Bartiromo, the "Money Honey" was the featured speaker this morning at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Economic Outlook 2012 breakfast. Her delivery of a canned speech made it clear that the Money Honey did not want to be in Philadelphia this morning, but only came due to pressure from NBC's new owners, specifically Comcast's Executive Vice President David Cohen. (So much for Comcast's promise not to interfere with the news division.)

Being in Philadelphia, she warmed up the audience by mentioning that her family went to Penn. Interestingly, she stayed mum about having been appointed to the Wharton Business School Leadership Advisory Board by the former CEO of Citigroup's wealth management division, Todd Thomson, who was fired by Citigroup over their alleged affair.

Due to the tremendous amount of advertising dollars that the World Economic Forum drops on CNBC, she must have felt obligated to say the word Davos. However, she did not offer any fresh insights from the conference. As one breakfast attended said, "She did not have to go to Davos to give that speech."

According to Bartiromo, there is a reason that banks are not lending and it is not the bad economy. "One high level bank executive told me his bank is not lending money now because they can no longer lie on the loan documents," she said. "People have to have the financial wherewithal to buy."

She believes that the economy has started to turn around. "When I interviewed JP Morgan CEO Jamie Morgan, he said that housing has hit bottom, but will be bumping around the bottom for awhile."

Bartiromo is a big proponent of mobile technology. "There are 1 billion personal computers in the world today while there are 4 billion mobile devices. Only 400 million of those are smart phones," she said, "Many people do not yet know the potential of their phones. In Korea, they can pay for everything, board planes with their phones."

Internationally, she is concerned about the drop in China's growth rate from 11% to 8%. March 22 is the next potential default date for Greece. Although Greece is a small European country, a default would have a tremendous psychological impact on the market.

With the tremendous growth in the world's population, she is pushing commodities and mining stocks. "Demand for iron ore, gold, copper, and steel are very strong," she said.

She ended with her thoughts on education. "In America, children attend school five hours a day, five days a week when you exclude gym and lunch," said Bartiromo. "In the rest of the world, children go to school 10 hours a day, six days a week."

One of the panelists, the new president of Tasty Baking Company Paul Ridder, is also concerned about the small pool of educated workers. "With the unemployment rate over 8%, you would think that it would be easy for us to find skilled electricians and other workers. It is not," he said.

While many criticize the banks for not lending, Ridder defended the banks. "Banks are not venture capitalists. They must lend to solid businesses," he said.

Dan Calista, founder and CEO of health industry management consulting firm Vynamic, believes that for Philadelphia to grow as a business center "it can not be the murder capital of the world" and must improve conditions at Philadelphia International Airport.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Flyers and Their Beautiful Wives at Charity Fashion Show

The Flyers Wives held their inaugural fashion show on Wednesday night to benefit Comcast-Spectacor charities, which supports worthwhile local charities such as Stepping Stone Scholars and the animal rescue organization Paws. The owner of the local Nicole Miller boutiques, Mary Dougherty, organized the fashion show. Chris Pronger, Flyer's team captain, wasn't there because he is recovering from a concussion. His wife, Lauren Pronger, said, "I came up with the idea of a fashion show so that the wives could do something away from the game and be women."

Mrs. Pronger did a great job. A good time was had by all while substantial money was raised for charity. Player Braydon Coburn laughed at finding himself at a fashion show. "My wife picks out all my clothes. Without her, I would be naked," said Coburn.

Flyer's Cheerleaders

Lauren Pronger, wife of Flyer's Captain Chris Pronger
My favorite Flyer Matt Carle with his teammate 

Jeweler Steve Lagos, who donated jewelry to the event, and Comcast-Spectacor  executive  Fred  Shabel

Flyer's wives

Flyer's General Manager Paul Holmgren and wife Doreen

Flyer Braydon Coburn

A bearded Flyer Maxine Talbot modeling a cruiser that was up from auction

Flyer Danny Briere

Flyer Danny Briere

Flyer Jamomir Jagr

Flyer Andreas Lilja

Flyer's wives Nadine Coburn and Lauren Pronger

Mr.and Mrs. Braydon Coburn of the Flyers

Flyers seated in the first row waiting for the fashion show to begin

Flyer Scott Hartnell


Flyer Jaromir Jagr

Flyer Andreas Lilja

The team eagerly waiting the fashion show 

Laura Goldman and Lauren Pronger, wife of team captain  Chris Pronger

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Penn State Trustee Lubert: "It's A Disaster"

The shock of the Penn State pedophilia scandal has been bad enough, but almost equally distressing is the ineptitude of the response from all the parties involved. When Sandusky, Paterno, McQueary, and Erickson speak, the situation becomes more appalling. In recent weeks, the actions of Penn State trustee Ira Lubert have been second guessed by the New York Times, USA Today, and Yahoo.

When I ran into Lubert, wearing jeans and a sweat shirt, peacefully watching a football game at Schlessinger's Deli, I could not resist asking him some questions. I have known Lubert for over 20 years. I can say that during that time he has always been fair and decent to me. For a guy of his immense wealth, he has always been very approachable and low maintenance. 

 He said, "The whole Penn State situation is a disaster. I was on a conference yesterday morning from 9am to noon. I was on two conferences calls today, 9 in the morning and 5pm. I will be at Penn State starting Wednesday of this week for three days."

Since the replacement to football coach Joe Paterno had been chosen, I wondered why he was still working hard. "I am on the executive committee," he explained. He then joked, "I am making so much money for all this hard work." Lubert is, of course, a volunteer. "The job is alot harder than it looks from the outside," he continued. 

His friend, builder Jeffery Orleans chimed in, "Ira bleeds Penn State." Lubert was a star wrestler at Penn State and is now rumored to contribute substantially to the salaries of both the wrestling and football coaches.  There is no doubt that his incredible salesmanship helped the troubled football program land a coach. 

I have no reason to doubt his loyalty to the Nittany Lions. I also dispute the contention that his actions were a power play. He already has enough power. Lubert, who is an ardent Republican, is about to open a money printing casino in Valley Forge. He also has been very generous to Philadelphia institutions such as sponsoring the National Constitution Center's Liberty Medal, which has been awarded to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. However, Lubert-Adler is the target of several unhappy investor lawsuits. 

Naturally, I wondered why Penn State did not consult with public relations professionals before the media maelstrom. Lubert said, "I do not see any advantage in talking to the media." He apparently miscalculated that the media would want to talk to him. 

He stood by his decision of not using a staffing firm to find hire Bill O'Brien as replacement football coach. "The member of the committee had vast experience in hiring people." said Lubert. Maybe, he should have checked with his own employees before considering himself an expert on hiring. 

Former employees have complained that he is a tough boss.For the record, I have found no evidence that Lubert defrauded investors. Some of his recent real estate investments are underwater or bankrupt because they were made at the top of the market while Lubert earned substantial fees to make these bad investments. 

I was not able to get an answer to the most important question of all- Why didn't the Penn State trustees react quicker to the scandal and fire Paterno and complete bar access to Sandusky? 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Zoe Strauss At The Opening of Her Photo Exhibit at the Phila. Museum of Art

Zoe with her former intern, who flew in especially for the  opening
Zoe with Albert in front of her photo of Albert
It is no accident that the woman in the background is laughing. The opening was rip roaring fun.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art rocked last night during the opening of Zoe Strauss's gripping photo exhibit. More than 2000 people came to gape, gawk, and dance the night away. It was totally meta to take pictures of a photographer at her opening. My favorite pictures were "Alzheimer's," "Daddy Tattoo, a portrait of an Amy Winehouse lookalike, and "Tattooed Penises". Alfred said it was "touching" to see his picture in an art museum.

In another totally meta picture, this is the Honickmans of Pepsi Cola Bottling in the gallery named after them. They also were kind enough to provide free soda and water for the thirsty partiers.

The Fire Alarm That Ate ABC's Jim Gardner's Family Bat Mitzvah

Much to my surprise, long time Channel 6 anchor Jim Gardner was nervously pacing back and forth like an expectant father in the lobby of the Arts Condo on Saturday night. His daughter's bat mitzvah was being disrupted by a very annoying fire alarm endlessly repeating "There is a fire. Please evacuate." He was mostly definitely not in a good mood, but ever gracious he posed with the firemen. The good news is that the fire alarm was a false alarm so the party was able to continue.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hey, Obama, the SEC And CFTC Are Ripe for Consolidation

This week, Obama asked Congress for the power to consolidate several federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the Commerce Department because they were performing overlapping functions. Oddly, he did not mention the financial regulatory space, which is even riper for combination. Perhaps, he was mindful of the copious contributions to his campaign from Wall Street. 

Having two regulators, the SEC and the CFTC, did not prevent MF Global from failing. In fact, it might have hastened its decline. Professor Cornelius Hurley, director of Boston University’s Center for Finance, Law, & Policy, advocates combining the SEC and CFTC into one agency. He asserts that a merged agency would save money by eliminating the duplication of oversight and allow for a more efficient deployment of a staff and other resources.

“The collapse of MF Global suggests that we are paying a price for not combining the CFTC and SEC, which was suggested in a white paper about financial reform developed by the Treasury Department soon after Obama arrived in town,” he said. “Anyone can see that an organizational chart where two regulators are regulating the same space is absurd.”

He inveighs against the greed of members of Congress killed the unification efforts. “The House and Senate Financial Services Committees oversee the SEC while the Agriculture Committee administers the CFTC.  Members of the agricultural committee did not want to lose the tremendous contributions to their campaigns from the commodities firms,” explained Hurley.

Jonathan Katz, the former Secretary of the SEC, observed that SEC Chairmen from both political parties have supported merging the two regulatory agencies since 1980. “The United States is the only country in the world where the regulations of securities and derivatives is separated,” he said.

Mike Koehler, a professor of business law at Butler University, challenges the current practice of  the SEC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to announce concurrent settlements with the same violating entity. With limited enforcement budgets, Koehler doesn't understand why the SEC is still prosecuting cases once the DOJ became involved. He thinks “the SEC step down after a case is referred to the DOJ”.

 He asks, “What purpose does it serve to have two separate enforcement actions of the same course of conduct?  Basking in the klieg lights, while holding a press conference to take credit for the enforcement action, sadly appears to the only purpose of dual prosecutions.

Federal Judge Jed Rakoff’s rejection of the SEC’s punishment in the Citigroup cast has caused many to reassess the types of penalties that should be levied against serial violators of securities laws. Low fines and SEC settlements have become a cost of doing business not a deterrent. "Companies will think twice about committing fraud if they can’t settle for chump change,” said Hurley.

Robert Fusfeld, a former SEC employee of 31 years and manager of litigation in the Denver office of the SEC for 15 years, suggests that current settlements include the potential punishment of the company if they break the law again. “If you violate again, the SEC will bring an administrative proceeding. We will pull your ticket (license), close you down for 6 months, or deny your right to bring in new business for a period of time,” he said. “If corporations knew that they could be barred from soliciting new customers or could potentially be closed for a period of time, they might think twice about violating the law.”

Although the SEC has rarely rescinded the license of a major New York firm, he emphasized that that the pulling of a license is standard procedure in law enforcement.  He noted, “When a business is caught serving someone under aged alcohol, they lose their license immediately. The SEC bars mom and pop, no name firms in the Midwest all the time. Yet, they do not use this weapon in their arsenal against major New York firms.”

Katz, who described his position at the SEC as the last set of eyes before an enforcement action was voted on, wants to see more SEC enforcement actions end in criminal prosecutions.

“Ponzi schemes are criminal activity. Injunctive relief, which is the sole weapon of the SEC, is not effective. There should be a criminal prosecution,” said Katz. “While the SEC routinely cooperates with the DOJ, I would propose that it become standard practice that they refer cases to local law enforcement if the DOJ declines to prosecute.”

It was shocking too many that Citigroup’s recent settlement was their fifth violation of the nation’s securities laws. Former NY Governor Spitzer, known as the “Sheriff on Wall Street during his tenure as NY State Attorney General, believes the first step in tackling the problem of corporate recidivism is to establish a career criminals unit that would be modeled after similar unit at the Manhattan District’s office.  He recalled, “When I was assistant district attorney in the career criminal’s unit, those that had committed more than two felonies were punished more severely. They were sent away for a long time,” he said. “For corporations that repeatedly offend, we need to increase exponentially the financial penalties and insist on structural changes such as compensation.”

“Right now, the SEC now uses restitution as a proxy,” said Spitzer. Under that current system, it is the shareholders, not the corporate executives that committed the wrongdoing, that bear much of the financial pain of a corporation’s malfeasance. Spitzer wants to change that. “There must be individual responsibility. Executives of violating corporations must be held responsible."

If the SEC is going to effectively change, Katz opines that it must be restructured from the top down. “The commissioners are overburdened,” he said.  “The problem is that too many decisions are being made at the staff level.”

 In his opinion, the number of commissioners needs to expand from five to seven. Currently, all five commissioners must vote on an enforcement action. Katz proposes that number be reduced to rotating working groups of three.

Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, recommends changing the way the commissioners are chosen. She laments, “SEC commissioners can’t be straight up and down consumer advocates, which is the job that they are appointed to do. They must be acceptable to the financial industry, the very industry that they have been appointed to regulate.”

Most financial regulation experts are in consensus that no additional regulations are needed. “The collapse of MF Global violated long existing securities laws about customer account segregation not newer regulations like Dodd Frank, said Hurley. “Regulation is about individuals, culture.  Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan could have protected the mortgage borrower with powers given to him in the Home Owners Equity Protection Act had he been a different person – not a free market champion and devotee of Ayn Rand.”

The research for this article was supported by the community report site spot.us

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Outsourcing the SEC's Oversight Function Could Strengthen the Agency

Many consider the SEC’s nadir was their failure to detect the Madoff and Stanford frauds. Jonathan Katz, the former Secretary of the SEC, admits that the investment advisory division has always been “the Achilles heel of the Commission.”  He said, “The SEC does not have the resources to adequately monitor investment advisors and Congress refuses to allocate additional money. State regulators can’t be relied on to do the SEC’s work because there is too much variation in the law state by state.”                                                                        

Robert M. Fusfeld, , who worked at the SEC for 31 years, said, “The system is clearly broken. The SEC needs to do a major rethinking.”

Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, believes that an increase in funding would solve many of the SEC's problems. The case of Spencer Barasch, the former head of enforcement at the SEC’s Fort Worth office, is illustrative that the SEC is a Gordian knot that money alone can unravel. Barasch, now in private practice, is expected to settle charges that he improperly represented Stanford before the commission. A scathing report by SEC Inspector General David Kotz, who is not your typical mealy mouthed SEC employee, found that Barasch was involved in repeated attempts to quash investigations into Stanford while in the employ of the SEC. After leaving the SEC, he then represented Stanford despite this being a violation of SEC ethics rules and being explicitly denied permission three times.

Barasch explained his egregious behavior this way- “Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich over this case. Okay? And I hated being on the sidelines.” His greed illustrates that the revolving door between the SEC and Wall Street is one of the major causes of the SEC’s ineffectuality. The SEC lawyers, many of whom intend to eventually move to the more lucrative private sector, avoid launching investigations that will antagonize potential well-heeled clients.

Fraud examiner Harry Markopolos warned the SEC in great detail about the likelihood of something wrong in Madoff's operation. In addition, the SEC conducted several onsite inspections and audits. The vast majority of fraud by investment advisers escapes exposure simply because there has been no audit. 

Buddy Doyle, a founder of regulatory and compliance consulting practice Oyster LLC, said, “The SEC only audits 9% of all investment advisers each year. In practical terms that means that investment advisers are audited, at the most every ten years. I have clients that have never been audited.”

Even if an investment adviser is audited, the fraud could still go undiscovered. “Examiners are under pressure to finish their audits quickly. The SEC likes to issue press releases trumpeting their record number of enforcement actions and fines, said Fusfeld. “This discourages investigators and examiners from doing complex investigations that take time and money.”

Katz, who recently wrote a 130 page report on reforming the SEC for the Chamber of Commerce, thinks the best way to combat investment adviser fraud is to mandate private regulatory audits. Compulsory regulatory audits would be analogous to the current requirement for public companies of an annual accounting audit. 

Privatization of SEC functions may not be as radical as it seems.  The SEC already outsources some of its oversight to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the self-regulatory organization (SRO) of the financial industry. Possibly due to its reliance on the financial industry for funding, FINRA was inefficacious in its supervision during the financial crisis.

Privatization of law enforcement duties has a long history. Abraham Lincoln probably regrets not being guarded by his regular Pinkerton detectives the night that John Wilkes Booth entered the theater. Municipalities regularly use private security officers to guard government buildings, the care of prisoners is often privatized, and bounty hunters are rewarded for catching fugitives. While the city provides a minimal level of police service, San Francisco is divided into patrol areas and licenses were auctioned off to private security firms. The private contractors, who can make arrests, write tickets, and conduct investigations, customize their patrol services to the individual needs of the resident. The independent companies answer to both a government body and the individual consumer.

Lawrence Reed, president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said, “Communities that have experimented with alternative and private-sector police services introduce market principles such as accountability to the customer, cost consciousness, and competition into what is regarded as strictly a government function. The possibilities for privatization are limited only by the ingenuity and political courage of local leaders.

“Privatization of some SEC functions is what my firm has been doing for 30 years,” said Todd Collins, a partner at Berger Montague. “The plaintiff’s securities bar is demonized for doing too much, just as the SEC is criticized for doing too little.”

The state of Indiana has been utilizing private contractors to audit broker-dealers since the 1990’s. With only a staff of 30, Chris Naylor, the zealous Indiana Securities Commissioner, has no choice but to use private firms to supplement his regulatory monitoring of more than 1800 broker-dealers and 132,000 brokers registered with the state. “In 2011, we sent out letters to 181 broker-dealers mandating that they undergo a compliance audit within 45 days,” said Naylor.

This program has allowed Indiana to earn a stellar record in prosecuting fraud. “During my term in my office, we have sent more than 50 people to jail. Vaughn Reeves, the family patriarch, was sentenced to 54 years in prison after being convicted of selling millions of dollars of fake church bonds in the name of the holding company Alanar,” he said.

Naylor credits the successful prosecutions to the close coordination between his Prosecution Assistance Unit with local prosecutors. “We don’t just send over fifteen boxes to prosecutors. We work complementary, hand to hand with them.”
It is doubtful that the SEC will implement a program using private contractors in the near future. The Occupy Wall Street movement has railed against Goldman Sachs, the Supreme Court, and the Fed, but has largely stayed silent about the SEC. It was not an outcry from the public but a cri du couer from Federal Judge Jed Rakoff that forced the SEC to modify their decades old "neither admit nor deny" policy.

CLSA bank analyst Mike Mayo, author of the revealing “Exile on Wall Street” wants investors to become more militant in their repudiation of bad behavior by withholding business from the offending banks. When he tried to raise the alarm that Citigroup violated Sarbanes Oxley by not disclosing a letter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in their 2008 10-k, the public and media yawned.

 “Despite several securities law violations, Citigroup has not seen a mass exodus of clients. I would like to see the day come when customers award their business to the brokerage houses that provide the best research, even if it is critical of the company,” said a clearly frustrated Mayo.

The research for this article was sponsored by the community reporting site Spot.us

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sandra Bernhard Credits Israel Trip with Work Ethic

Sandra Bernhard's cutting edge humor was on display at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia last night. Who knew that Bernhard and Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachman had something in common? Both of them worked on a Kibbutz after high school. The only difference being that Bernhard had lots of family here.
Bernhard credits the Kibbutz with instilling a work ethic in her. She rose at 7 15, 6 days a week to pick fruit, cotton, etc.
University of Arts Professor Camille Paglia and Bernhard used to be good friends. Their friendship ended over Palin. Paglia semi endorsed Palin's brand of feminism during the 2008 elections, which disturbed Bernhard. "This election is too important to even joke about things like that," said Bernhard.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day in Philadelphia

There is no place that I would rather be on New Year's Day in Philadelphia. The Mummers String Bands strutting Broad Street lends a festive air to a day that would be otherwise be spent nursing hangovers.