Pretty Much the Worst Financial Crisis Ever

Chart of the Day (From Yesterday): Audit Failure Edition

As if the combination of March Madness and St. Patrick weren’t enough, this slide from yesterday’s Investor Advisory Group meeting should drive many to drink.


After yesterday’s findings on the usefulness (or lack thereof) of the auditor’s report, we bring you “The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark … Again.” It’s not as caught up on surveys and whatnot, as it is just pointing out some of the well, failures by auditors during the financial crisis.

The presentation was prepared by The Working Group on Lessons Learned from the Financial Crisis of the IAG and includes past comments from critics like Francine McKenna and Jonathan Weil on the expectations gap between auditors and basically everyone else. But don’t worry, it also presents the audit profession’s defense of itself including past statements from the Center for Audit Quality and PwC’s Richard Sexton the head of audit it the UK, who said this:

Now, one could come to the conclusion that Mr Sexton works for his clients first and not investors but you might not agree with that.

Now before all the Big 4 auditors get in a huff, the presentation has some criticisms of the PCAOB as well, specifically on the report the Board issued in September 2010:

If you can manage to stop drinking your breakfast for two, check out the full presentation below and discuss.

The Watchdog That Didnt Bark

A PwC Partner’s Scribbled Notes Helped Save Joe Cassano’s Hide

Back in April, the DOJ and SEC passed on filing criminal charges against the man everyone perceived to be the cause of the financial apocalypse, Joe Cassano.

The Journal digs into a few of the details behind the failed pursuit of criminal charges against JC and we first learn that PwC’s audit team wasn’t rve when they were poking around AIGFP:

Auditors at PricewaterhouseCoopers, AIG’s accounting firm, felt Mr. Cassano was evasive when they asked questions as the housing market weakened that year, according to people familiar with the matter. Tim Ryan, a PwC auditor, was concerned about requests for collateral from Goldman Sachs, which had purchased AIG’s derivatives contracts. He believed the requests were an indication the value of the swaps needed to be lowered and that further collateral calls were likely, people familiar with the matter said.

In interviews in 2008, Mr. Ryan told prosecutors he sometimes couldn’t get straight answers from Mr. Cassano when he asked him to justify how AIG accounted for the swaps, these people said. Through a PwC spokeswoman, Mr. Ryan declined to comment.

Okay, so Cassano was a prickly guy. That’s no surprise, especially since the lion’s share of people that have to deal with auditors, dislike them based purely on spite. Regardless of that factoid, it irks auditors to no end when they have to deal with an uncooperative client.

Cassano’s attitude was noted by prosecutors and this led them to believe that maybe he was withholding information from PwC and the AIG brass about the shitstorm that was growing at AIGFP:

“Why would he do that?” said Jim Walden, one of Mr. Cassano’s attorneys. Mr. Cassano had no reason to hide key facts because he knew the year-end audit was approaching and the unit’s books would be examined.

“He was smart enough many times before” in surviving prior problems, Mr. Pelletier retorted. “He thought he could pull a rabbit out of the hat” and turn things around.

In meetings spanning several weeks in Washington, the defense team rebutted the prosecution’s allegations, presenting a version of events that portrayed Mr. Cassano as repeatedly disclosing bad news to his bosses, investors and PwC.

The defense team didn’t know it at the time, but its efforts helped focus prosecutors’ attention on an obscure set of handwritten notes in their files, found scrawled on the bottom of a printed spreadsheet.

Prosecutors had seen the annotations, which were made by a PwC partner at a meeting with Mr. Cassano and AIG management a week before the key December 2007 investor conference. But the strange hieroglyphs from the world of financial derivatives were hard to decipher and ambiguous enough to support several readings.

Some of the broken phrases that could be made out: “Cash/CDS spread differential,” “need to quantify” and “could be 10 points on $75 billion.”

At this point, prosecutors knew that the jig was up, regardless if started out as a good jig or not. As much as they wanted to pin the near death experience of the financial world on this one shifty (and easily unlikable) guy, they couldn’t. The fact that no one that was at the meeting in Dec. ’07 could remember anything, “According to people familiar with the matter, no one at the meeting—including the author of the handwritten notes—recalled Mr. Cassano disclosing the magnitude of the accounting adjustments he was preparing to make,” certainly didn’t help matters. Especially since, for all we know, the partners’s chicken scratch could have been a recipe for pineapple upside down cake.

And after failing to nail Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi back in November of ’09, the feds could hardly go to trial on such shaky ground. Sigh. OH well! Can’t always catch the (perceived) bad guys!

A Set of Scribbled Notes Helped Scuttle AIG Probe [WSJ]

Legg Mason to Financial Crisis: 100 Years, You.

financial-crisis2.jpgThat’s it. It’s official. Worst. Crisis. Ever. If Legg Mason is your gauge on financial crisises, that is.
And since it is such a momentous occasion, guess what this calls for…wait for it…executive bonuses!
Courtesy of footnoted.org, we learn that Chairman and CEO, Mark Fetting’s received approximately a $3M bonus for “leadership of the company during one of the worst financial crises of the last 100 years, which particularly affected financial services companies”
Footnoted goes on to give us some perspective:

Just to make sure, we did a quick check for the word crisis (or crises) at other financial services companies and didn’t come up with anything that even came close. While the word was used in several other proxies, it wasn’t used in a way to justify a bonus and there were no pronouncements about this being the “worst financial crises”.

Okay, so Legg has some melodramatic types writing their filings. But how about some chicanery?:

Equally interesting is that while the board set Fetting’s bonus at 21% of the bonus pool in June 2008, Legg Mason’s loss of $1.9 billion last year meant that there was no bonus pool. But that didn’t stop the bonus because as the comp committee writes in the proxy the net loss was due to just two items and without those two items, the company “would have had net income, and the plan would have produced a total bonus pool large enough to accommodate the annual incentive awards made. Although the terms of the plan do not explicitly provide for the exclusion of those items, the Committee considered the items to be extraordinary expense.”

Seriously, who’s going to let two measly items stop them from paying executives bonuses out of a bonus pool that didn’t really exist? This is financial wartime people, we will not be denied.

Legg Mason calls it: The worst financial crisis
[footnoted.org]