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Fiduciary Duty to Cheat? Stock Market Super-Star Jim Chanos Reveals the Perverse New Mindset of Financial Fraudsters

American business has always had cheaters and crooks, but today they are escaping prosecution and are incentivized to cheat more.

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So you never know. A lot depends on the mood, and really, leadership at the top to say, this is wrong and we’re going to bring these people to justice.

LP: Journalists have played a key role in exposing fraud, but they have often been complicit, too. Are the media doing their job covering fraud?

JC: It’s funny because I remember when I spoke to Bethany McClean in early 2001 about Enron, I sort of scoffed at the idea that her magazine – Fortune, at the time – would do anything because Fortune kept putting Enron at the top of its most-admired-companies list. Sometimes it just takes the journalist to actually do the work and get the story and convince a good editor that, well, no matter what we said about it in the past, this is an important story that we need to tell the public. And there are still journalists, like Bethany, out there. Jesse Eisinger is another one who does just amazing work. Jon Weil at Bloomberg --I’m happy to give these people a shout-out because I think they played an important role, and they’re read avidly, so there is a market demand for this kind of journalism—to really call it like they see it.

But journalists are human beings and organizations are filled with human beings and when the bull market gets going, you know, no one wants to be the one who says the emperor has no clothes, unless you can actually point to a smoking gun and say, well, look at this.

LP: Right now, the news is filled of reports of fraud, from companies lying to regulators to money laundering and so on. Yet the GOP is trying to abolish Dodd-Frank, which addresses fraud by providing greater protection for whistleblowers, for example. Why would they be doing this?

JC: Well, I think the best comment was from a senior Democratic senator a number of years ago, who simply and bluntly said, “The banks own this place.” I always tell the story that right after the Bear Stearns collapse in March of ’08, the heads of all the big banks and brokers, they headed down to Washington immediately in April of ’08 to talk to senators and other lawmakers and regulators.

As we now know, what they didn’t ask for was forgiveness for their misdeeds or perhaps forbearance on capital until they could get their house in order or to work with the regulators on what was obviously a massive credit crunch coming. No, what they asked for was two things. They asked for the accounting rules to be liberalized on their hard-to-value assets and for short-sellers to be cracked down on. That was their focus, and, by the way, both happened. There were short-selling bans shortly thereafter and the accounting profession, at the urging of Washington, changed, liberalized, the rules on hard-to-value assets in March of ’09. They got what they wanted, and this tells you something.

It really is amazing to the extent that lawmakers, despite all the evidence that major legislative initiatives that banks have asked for in the last 50 years have generally been harmful to the public purse, they’ve generally gotten what they’ve asked for. You can’t be too cynical.

LP: Will Dodd-Frank really have an impact?

JC: Well, again, banks have gotten into all kinds of trouble throughout their history—with rigorous regulation and not-so-rigorous regulation. It’s the nature of the beast. But things like the Volcker Rule make common sense – that we should not put taxpayers at risk for trading activities, for example. But the banks have made a very strong case that most of what they’re doing can be seen as a hedge in one way or another, and some other part of their business, so therefore it’s not trading. I think all of those activities should be done at the holding company and not at the deposit-taking institutions. That’s a simple way to handle this.