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What If the “Broken Windows” Theory Were Applied to Wall Street?

James Q. Wilson's famous “broken windows” theory led to strict policing of working class behavior. What if his ideas were applied to Wall Street?

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“Broken windows” theory, in the white collar crime context, would lead us to make the prevention and deterrence of consumer frauds and anti-trust violations through prosecutions a high priority because of their tendency to produce a “Gresham’s” dynamic in which businesses or CEOs that cheat gain a competitive advantage and bad ethics drives good ethics out of the markets. These offenses degrade ethics and erode peer restraints on misconduct.

The ongoing crisis demonstrates that anti-consumer frauds are a direct assault on community. Mortgage fraud – and it was overwhelmingly the lenders and their agents who put the lies in millions of liar’s loans – physically and socially destroy community by producing mass defaults, homelessness, and vacant homes.

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct. Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning. We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic. We have excused and ignored the endemic “earnings management” that is the inherent result of these compensation policies and the inherent degradation of professionalism that results from allowing CEOs to create a Gresham’s dynamic among appraisers, auditors, credit rating agencies, and stock analysts. The intellectual father of modern executive compensation, Michael Jensen, now warns about his Frankenstein creation. He argues that one of our problems is dishonesty about the results. Surveys indicate that the great bulk of CFOs claim that it is essential to manipulate earnings. Jensen explains that the manipulation inherently reduces shareholder value and insists that it be called “lying.” I have seen Mary Jo White, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who now defends senior managers, lecture that there is “good” “earnings management.”

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties. For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve. Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care. The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud. The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA) has achieved its true intended purpose – making it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are the victims of securities fraud to bring even the most meritorious securities fraud action.

The Supreme Court has held that banks and other entities that aid and abet securities fraud are immune from suit by the victims of securities fraud. Only the federal government may sue those that aid and abet fraud. The federal government has cut the number of financial fraud prosecutions by over one-half over the last twenty years even as financial fraud has grown massively. No elite CEO leading a control fraud that helped drive the current crisis has even been indicted. Elite CEOs can defraud with near impunity and become wealthy. Elite white collar fraud is a “sure thing” – the only strategy likely to make a mediocre CEO wealthy and famous.

Because Wilson did not research elite white collar crimes, he did not direct his formidable intellectual energies and expertise to the study of who could prevent the breaking of corporate windows and repair those that were broken. This was a great loss because his studies of varieties of police behavior in response to blue collar crime are justly famous among criminologists. The central truth he would have quickly recognized had he thought of seeking to reduce elite white collar crimes is that only the financial regulators can serve as the “regulatory cops on the beat.” The police do not deal with elite white collar crimes. A small cadre of FBI special agents works on elite white collar crimes. There are roughly three special agents assigned to white collar crime investigations per industry in the U.S., so they never “patrol a beat.” They investigate only when someone brings a possible white collar crime to their attention. That means whistleblowers, but it overwhelmingly means criminal referrals from the federal financial regulators. Financial institutions may make criminal referrals against their customers, but they will virtually never make them against their CEOs. Only the regulators can make the thousands of criminal referrals against elite white collar criminals essential to a successful prosecutorial effort against the epidemics of accounting control fraud that drive our worst financial crises. In the lead up to the ongoing crisis we gutted the federal regulators, preempted the state regulators, and appointed anti-regulators to head the agencies. A majority of the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to further gut the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). If we want to stop the criminals who are destroying our economy and our communities by breaking windows on an epic scale the first step is to rebuild a regulatory force committed to serving as the essential “cops on the beat."

 
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