Management and directors of financial institutions cannot really understand what is going on – it’s simply not practical. They cannot be across all the products. For example, Robert Rubin, the former head of Goldman Sachs and Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, encouraged increased risk taking at CitiGroup. He was guided by a consultant’s report and famously stated that risk was the only underpriced asset. He encouraged investment in AAA securities assuming that they were ‘money good’. He seemed not to be aware of the liquidity puts that Citi had written which meant that toxic off-balance sheet assets would come back to the mother ship in the case of a crisis. Now, if he didn’t understand, others would find it near impossible. And I’m talking about executive management.
Non executives are even further removed. Upon joining the Salomon Brothers Board, Henry Kaufman, the original Dr. Doom found that most non-executive directors had little experience or understanding of banking. They relied on board reports that were, “neither comprehensive … nor detailed enough … about the diversity and complexity of our operations.” Non-executive directors were reliant “on the veracity and competency of senior managers, who in turn … are beholden to the veracity of middle managers, who are themselves motivated to take risks through a variety of profit compensation formulas.”
Kaufman later joined the board of Lehman Brothers. Nine out of ten members of the Lehman board were retired, four were 75 years or more in age, only two had banking experience, but in a different era. The octogenarian Kaufman sat on the Lehman Risk Committee with a Broadway producer, a former Navy admiral, a former CEO of a Spanish-language TV station and the former chairman of IBM. The Committee only had two meetings in 2006 and 2007. AIG’s board included several heavyweight diplomats and admirals; even though Richard Breeden, former head of the SEC told a reporter, “AIG, as far as I know, didn’t own any aircraft carriers and didn’t have a seat in the United Nations.”
Related book: Extreme Money