Posts Tagged: learning lessons
For Want of a Nail ……
April 6 2021
First – a definition.
“Lessons learnt: lessons which are never learnt by those who need to learn them.”
Today we learn that Credit Suisse has lost 4.4 billion Swiss francs following Archegos’ failure. This comes on top of its problems with Greensill, now in administration. This will result in a first quarter loss of ca. 900 million Swiss francs and has already led to the departure of its Head of Investment Banking and Chief Risk Officer.
A world of pain awaits.
– There may be more departures. Others will be nervous about the scrutiny now being given to past decisions.
– There will be internal investigators, internal audit, external investigators, lawyers, accountants and regulators crawling over thousands of internal documents.
– The remediation costs will be horrible.
– Clients whose money was invested in these ventures will need to be pacified if legal action is to be avoided.
– Enforcement action from regulators may follow. Scrutiny by them certainly will.
– It will be urgently looking to see where else it has made similar mistakes.
And a number of other banks also involved with these two entities will be undergoing something similar, though with less publicity. They have either had – or will have in due course – their turn in the sun.
Still, it’s not all bad news. The Chief Executive has said that “Serious lessons will be learnt.”
Would it be unkind and/or tactless to say that if it had learnt any of the serious lessons that were available to be learnt from the many similar disasters over, ooh I don’t know, the last couple of decades or so, they might not have had to learn them now and that £3.4 billion would still be in the bank?
It would. Oh well. Never mind. Let me update the definition instead.
“Lessons learnt: lessons which are never learnt by those who need to learn them, until it is too late.“
Same old, Same Old
March 30 2021
Perhaps there was a clue in the name: Archegos. Arch. Egos. As a description of many in finance it can scarcely be bettered. A novelist might even think it a tad too unbelievable, unless you were seeking to write satire.
But why bother when reality serves it up on a plate.
The founder of Archegos Capital Management, Bill Hwang described himself in 2008 as “like a little child looking for where can I invest to please our God.” Not long after – in November 2009 – Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein described bankers as “doing God’s work“. Oh dear. The full extent of what bankers had been doing had yet to reveal itself, whether to God or anyone else. Still, PR advisors would do well to note that such statements do not impress. Rather they tend to bring to mind the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
“The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”
Back to Mr Hwang. At the time of his humblebrag he was running Tiger Asia Management, which ended up being one of the largest investors in the expanding and profitable Asian market.
What God thought of Mr Hwang’s activities is unknown. What the SEC thought is, however. For in 2012 following a lengthy investigation, also involving the HK regulator, he pleaded guilty to insider trading and manipulation relating to trading in various Chinese stocks in late 2008 / early 2009. Surely not when he was trying to please God? Yes, apparently so.
A humongous fine inevitably followed. And almost as inevitably, the following year in 2013 Tiger Asia Management was wound up and Archegos rose, Phoenix-like in its place.
Now it is in trouble as a result of risky and very large investments having soured. Also in trouble are a number of banks which funded it, provided it with services and helped it trade. Questions no doubt are being asked – and, if not, they should be – about banks’ exposure to the firm, was this within risk limits, why so much leverage and so on. Other questions might also be asked: what due diligence was done? Was a fund run by a convicted insider dealer really a suitable client? How was it monitored? And so on.
Still, since bragging seems to be the fashion, might I modestly refer you to this article and my comments on what is often found when something goes wrong: “…so often, in virtually every case, there were bloody great red flags, or there was a clue that was missed.”
The name might have permitted a wry smile. Mr Hwang’s track record should not have done. Does no-one ever read this stuff?
To Discipline or Not?
April 30 2019
The recent decision of the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority to strike off Emily Scott, a junior solicitor, for being involved in misconduct while a trainee, only belatedly raising her concerns as a whistleblower after she left, raises, albeit tangentially, the difficult question of when – or if – it is ever right to discipline an employee for misconduct if they are also a whistleblower about that misconduct.
In this case, Ms Scott felt unable to report clients being defrauded by her firm while she was a trainee. She was involved in perpetrating the frauds on the instructions of the partners, the Disciplinary Tribunal finding her conduct to have been “deliberate, calculated and repeated”. It was only after she had left, some two years after the conduct in question, that she reported the fraud to the SRA who then took action against the partners of her firm and, controversially, her. The Tribunal reached its decision on Ms Scott despite accepting that she had been young, a trainee and had been “deceived, pressured, bullied and manipulated” by the partners into both carrying out the fraud and covering it up. The fact that she did not use the confidential route open to her by reporting the matter to the SRA was a factor, as was the fact that part of the conduct involved misleading the regulator when it sought answers.
Ms Scott feels that she has been punished for – eventually – doing the right thing, with the Tribunal refusing to accept her mitigation, even while expressing sympathy for her. It is easy to feel sorry for her: in her first job, anxious to impress, worried about her prospects if she refused or left and feeling bullied. In such circumstances, it is not hard to see how someone can justify to themselves what they are doing and convince themselves that they are still an honest person despite doing dishonest things.
Still, the SRA took the view that a solicitor, even a trainee one, is rightly held to a very high standard and there can be no excuse for dishonesty. Our system of justice depends on its practitioners being utterly trustworthy.
Will such a decision nonetheless lead to unintended consequences? Misconduct is often perpetrated by the most junior employees being made to do something wrong by superiors who seek to keep their hands clean. So it will often be those most involved who have the best knowledge of misconduct which should be reported and stopped. If their own careers will be lost – as Ms Scott’s has been – will this encourage those with the relevant knowledge to speak up? The SRA is, understandably, reviewing its rules in light of this case in order to ensure that it gets that balance right.
Ms Scott was not retaliated against by her employers for being a whistleblower. She was disciplined by a regulatory authority, which has different and wider concerns. Nonetheless, all employers will likely come across whistleblowers who have themselves been involved in bad behaviour and who may seek to protect themselves from the consequences of such bad behaviour by blowing the whistle, sometimes at a late stage when an investigation has already started – or is about to. Ensuring that a whistleblower is not retaliated for speaking up but is not also given a free pass against being disciplined for misconduct requires the most careful of judgments.
But the moral – however harsh it may seem – is that, ultimately, a professional – or someone aspiring to be one – is responsible for their own actions, that they need to do the right thing even if this prejudices their personal position and that acting dishonestly but saying to yourself “I’m not a dishonest person” may be comforting but is still a dangerous self-deception. It is our actions that make us what we are.
Similar considerations arose in the case of Dr Bawa-Garba, a paediatrician convicted of manslaughter over the death of a young child from sepsis, suspended from practice, then struck off and recently reinstated. There are, however, some obvious differences between the two cases:-
- The doctor was open about – and admitted – her mistakes immediately and was convicted in court. The initial medical disciplinary panel felt, however, that it was not just her mistakes which led to the child’s death and that these wider failures were a reason why her additional punishment should be suspension, during which she could do the necessary training to learn from those mistakes and improve her professional competence.
- It was the General Medical Council which sought to strike her off on the basis that her standards as a doctor were so far below those to be expected that she should not be allowed to practise.
- The concern within the medical community at this decision was that this would lead to the wrong consequences, both for doctors and patients. Criminalising individual mistakes would be more likely to lead to cover ups and a failure to learn from problems. It would have a chilling effect on health professionals’ willingness to be candid about errors and thereby learn what to do better next time. There was also significant concern that the wider failings which had been identified – lack of staff, poor supervision, inadequate resources, poor note-keeping by others – were being ignored in favour of placing the blame, unfairly, all on one individual.
- Most obviously, the consequences of the wrongful behaviour were much more serious in the doctor’s case than in Ms Scott’s. Yet it is Ms Scott who has lost her career and the doctor who will continue to practice.
Unfair? Superficially maybe. Is gross incompetence in a doctor less bad than dishonesty in a lawyer? Whatever the doctor’s failings, she was not dishonest; indeed, her very openness about her failings made it easier for her to be convicted and disciplined. A lack of knowledge or competence is something which is capable of being remedied.
Whereas integrity and honesty and the courage to say no when asked to do the wrong thing go to the heart of what it means to be a lawyer. If they are missing or capable of being so easily subverted, what else is there?
And while the work culture in which a person operates matters, often significantly, and frequently needs improving, it should never be an excuse for behaving without integrity.