An interview with Jim Chanos:
Lynn Parramore: You’re often characterized as a short-seller. How does fraud become a concern in that context?
Jim Chanos: One of things we like to say is that in virtually all cases of major financial market fraud over the past 20 years, the only people who really brought forth the fraud into the light were either internal whistleblowers, the press, and/or short-sellers. It was not the normal guardians of the marketplace – regulators, law enforcement, external auditors or people like that -- that did it. It was people who had an incentive to come forward either for personal reasons or for profit to point out what was going on at the Enrons and the Sunbeams and Worldcoms. Short-sellers played an important role in the marketplace not only in terms of capping, sometimes, irrational exuberance in terms of prices, but also in ferreting out wrongdoing.
LP: Researchers have created all kinds of tools, like software to detect speech patterns associated with lying, to try to detect fraud. What are some of the best tools for catching financial fraudsters?
JC: There’s no single tool that works all the time, and some of them are kind of interesting, like the voice detection, or Bedford’s law, which looks at numbers and repetition patterns in accounting. But we have seen some models that we work with and I teach in my class-- frameworks of fraud and fraud analysis – that have been helpful in looking down through the years where we’ve seen patterns continue. One is a wonderful checklist, the Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse in an organization. Some are clearly intuitive, such as a board full of one’s cronies or an obsession with making earnings forecasts. But some are not so obvious, for example, doing good to mask doing bad.
LP: Good deeds can be a sign of fraud?
JC: One of the more interesting observations in the world of fraud is that some of the most egregious frauds were some of the most philanthropic companies in their communities. In some ways, if you look at Bill Black’s theory of the corporation as both a weapon and shield (we teach a lot of Bill Black’s things in my class), you can begin to see that that would be one way in which the bad guys in corporate suites would basically use the corporation as a shield. They’d say, well, look at all the wonderful things we do in the community, how many people we employ. We give to hospitals, we give to the Little League team, and so on. Not all these things would be immediately obvious to the casual observer.
LP: You’re known for your early detection of Enron’s problems. How does a company like Enron stay in business for years? How is the fraud sustained over time?
JC: It’s one of the great questions, Lynn, and I think that in the case of Enron, there were a lot of people getting rich aiding and abetting what turned out to be to be a fraud. They may not have known it was go-to-jail fraud, as it turned out to be (and most fraud certainly does not end up in jail sentences for the perpetrators, as we know).
But if you look, for example, at the investment banks that were in on structuring the offshore vehicles that Andy Fastow used to offload bad investments from Enron the parent to these vehicles without telling Enron shareholders that he’d also given them a secret agreement that they would made good any losses by issuing Enron stock (that, by the way, was the crux of the fraud of the firm), when you see just how much in fees a lot of the banks and brokers made in these things, there’s an awfully strong incentive to look the other way and not ask the tough questions. That’s really one of the big flaws, I think, in our current market structure.
LP: What do we know about the timing of frauds? When are they most likely to happen?
JC: One of our models is the Kindleberger-Minsky model, named after Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger. It’s a macro model, and basically it takes a look at various market cycles. What we find is that the greatest clustering of fraud in the financial markets occurs, as you might imagine, during and immediately after the biggest bull markets. As I like to tell my students, it’s basically a period in which people suspend their disbelief. Everybody’s getting rich and it becomes increasingly easy to sell more questionable schemes and investments to investors. Typically the major frauds are uncovered or unmasked after the markets decline, for example, Bernie Madoff or Enron, when investors need money from other losses (and often these things have a Ponzi-like nature and can’t finance themselves from a self-sustaining basis) or people simply begin to build back their sense of disbelief and begin to ask tough questions that they didn’t ask during the bull market. So we do see that the fraud cycle generally does track the broader financial market cycles we see with a little bit of a lag.
LP: One look at your Yale syllabus shows that fraud has been rife through business history. Yet for the last 20 years, many people have insisted with near-religious conviction that markets are efficient and therefore resistant to fraud. Where is this belief coming from, and why is it a problem?
JC: It rests upon an assumption that is deeply flawed, and that is that the people who are stewarding your capital in the marketplace -- the boards of directors and the people that the boards hire – management -- are acting not only in your best interest, but are playing by the rules all the time, so that, for example, the accounts that the company puts together for the accountants (and keep in mind, management prepares financial statement, not accountants, not the auditors) are accurate. The auditors simply review them, and that’s an important point I always stress to my class. If there are games being played, and if you read the boilerplate of any auditor’s opinion, it says “we rely on the statements of management” – and so if, again, the people in the corporate suite have ethical flaws, we have a system based on truth-telling that may not be exactly always accurate.
I point out to my class that in 1998 there was a survey-- Business Week (which is owned by McGraw-Hill) and McGraw-Hill (which also owns Standard and Poor’s) had a conference for the S&P’s 500 chief financial officers. They asked these chief financial officers if they’ve ever been asked to falsify their financial statements by their superior. Now, the chief financial officer’s superior is the chief executive officer, or the chief operating officer—basically the boss. It was a stunning—of course anonymous – survey. 55 percent of the CFOs indicated they’d been asked, but did not do so. 12 percent admitted that they’d been asked and did so. And then 33 percent said they’d never been pressured to do that. In effect, only one third of the companies in the S&P’s 500 at that time did not have a CEO or COO try to pressure their financial officer to falsify financial results.
So this is agency risk writ large. Investors need to know that. They need to know that an awful lot of games are being played with the numbers and with disclosure and they’ve got to be on their guard. As Tony Soprano once said, as he exhorted his minions to redouble their efforts in the rackets, “We don’t got one of these Enron things going.”
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An interview with Jim Chanos: