Gambling, Lies & Markets — Investor Amnesia

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Visualizing History 

Anglo-Mexican Mining Association

The first of the British mining companies to go public in the Speculative Boom of 1825.

(Source: Global Financial Data)


From the Archives

Facts, Failures, and Frauds (1859)

A 19th century account of financial fraud that reads as relevant today as it did back then. Consider the first page of Chapter 1:

“Without any great violence, all the incentives to commercial crime may be brought under the one common rubric — the desire to make money easily and in a hurry.

The apprentice-boy, who robs the till of a few shillings in order that he may enjoy himself on a particular evening; the gigantic forger or swindler, who absorbs thousands that he may outshine the people who live and breathe around him, are so far in the same predicament that they cannot endure any delay to the gratification of this common passion.

Apart from these, but still actuated by the same desire, is the reckless speculator, who would risk everything in the hope of a sudden gain, rather than toil safely and laboriously for a distant reward. The speculator may, of course, be a perfectly honourable man, who would instinctively shrink from any deed that would invoke the interference of the criminal law; but if for time is adverse, he is on the high road to wrong-doing, and, moreover, there are many crimes not enumerated in the statute-book that are still heavy sins against the dictates of morality.”


Sunday Reads

“The man with a new idea is a crank, until the idea succeeds.”

– Mark Twain

The always impressive Alex Danco recently wrote an article provocatively titled: Are Founders Allowed to Lie? I won’t dilute the quality of his article by paraphrasing, so instead I’ll provide the excerpts that will inform the focus of today’s discussion.

“If you are only allowed to tell the literal, complete truth, and you’re compelled to tell that truth at all times, it is very difficult to create something out of nothing. 

You probably don’t call it “lying”, but founders have to will an unlikely future into existence. To build confidence in everyone around you – investors, customers, employees, partners – sometimes you have to paint a picture of how unstoppable you are, or how your duct tape and Mechanical Turk tech stack is scaling beautifully, or tell a few “pre-truths” about your progress. Hey, it will be true, we’re almost there, let’s just say it’s done, it will be soon enough. Here’s Byrne Hobart on Microsoft:

‘Microsoft’s march to a $1.54tr market value started with the company selling a product it had not, in fact, built. Bill Gates and Paul Allen contacted computer manufacturer MITS to sell them a BASIC interpreter… Subsequent success turned that from a lie to an endearing exaggeration…’

Okay, and now this is where it gets really interesting, so pay attention:

“VCs don’t just give founders money, advice, and introductions. They give founders something powerful, and almost mystical: they bestow on founders a type of blessing. ‘You are the founder. You stand apart. Now go make the future real.’

‘You Stand Apart’ is crucial. The most important pillar of the Silicon Valley Social Contract is that founders are not like other people… They stand apart, like kings.

How do you get to be the King? You get to be king if everyone believes you’re the king. And one powerful way that kings can continually remind their subjects who’s the king is through taboos. When you see the King violate a taboo, but no one else is allowed to, it reinforces that they are different from you. Look at Trump, and how every time some accusation gets bounced off him, his power just grows. Look at Elon, and how every time he breaks some rule and gets away with it, it just reinforces that he is the King of Tesla.”

However, that line between ‘accepted’ levels of taboo violation, pre-truths, and downright misleading investors is very thin.

“Founders use this soft power to their advantage. When blessed by their VCs, they are uniquely permitted to “pre-tell” the truth in a way that no one else is allowed to do, so long as they observe all of the unwritten rules in doing so. You can’t push it too much; you can only push it in certain ways and not others; and most importantly, you must genuinely do so in an effort to bootstrap the future into existence. You’re not misleading investors; your investors get it: they’re optimizing for authenticity over ‘fact-fulness’. It’s not fraud. It’s just jump starting a battery, that’s all. 

You’ve all seen this. It doesn’t look like much; the overly optimistic promises, the “our tech is scaling nicely” head fakes… It’s not so different from Gates and Allen starting Microsoft with a bit of misdirection. It comes true in time; by the next round, for sure.”

A serious problem with this weird norm of accepted taboo violation in Silicon Valley can arise when such founders and private companies are confronted by the public market, which does not adhere to this mutual understanding on “pre-truths”. And if you couldn’t tell where this is going already… this brings us to Nikola.

“Outside of Silicon Valley, such a social contract does not exist. If you pre-tell the truth too much and get caught, you’re going to be in an altogether different kind of trouble. Nikola is in that kind of trouble. 

Normally, when a short seller accuses a company of fraud, the case to make is financial: that they’re fudging numbers, juicing quarters, or doing improper accounting of some sort. But here there are no numbers. There’s only story, and promises. So the [Hindenburg Research] report walks us through various promises by the Nikola team over that period of time…

[But] look at the bulk of these accusations [by Hindenburg Research], and ask yourself: if Elon made any of these not-quite-true claims, would it matter at all in how anyone thought about Tesla? For that matter, if a startup founder showcased their “order for up to 800 product units” (even with none of them hard committed), wouldn’t you just write that off as salesmanship? 

The thing is, outside of Silicon Valley – and especially in the public markets – it’s a far less forgiving climate. You’re going to get a phone call from the SEC pretty quickly

The problem is that now Nikola, and especially Trevor Milton, are in scapegoat mode. So everything they’ve ever said or promised is now seen in a rather different light…

[For example] You cannot just throw out preposterous line items like ‘The infotainment system is an HTML 5 super computer that lets us build our own chips.’ This disqualifies you… something like this pretty much reveals that you are not, in fact, building the future. You’re just pretending. 

And that, I think, reveals the real principle behind the rule. What’s important in Silicon Valley isn’t quite what’s true right now. It’s a different kind of truth; less about factual truth and more about authenticity. That’s why the blessing that VCs grant founders is so important: it’s a power, but also an acknowledgement of the burden of authenticity that founders have to carry…

That bargain, as subtle and as powerful as it might be, only works when it’s in the dark. Shining light on it makes it stop working. And that’s why the taboo around asking, are founders always supposed to tell the literal truth, is such an important social convention.”

Treading the Line: Thomas Edison vs. John Keely

From a historical perspective, Thomas Edison and John Keely offer prime examples of treading that thin line of violating taboos successfully and unsuccessfully.

Thomas Edison

Biography of Thomas Edison, American Inventor

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a great inventor and master marketer that often came close to that line of misleading investors and telling a “pre-truth”. One of his biographers, Randall Stross, offered this description:

“Edison is famously associated with the beginnings of movies, which is where the modern business of celebrity begins. But he deserves to be credited with another, no less important, discovery related to celebrity that he made early in his own public life, accidentally: the application of celebrity to business…

After “Edison” became a household name, he would pretend that nothing had changed, that he was as indifferent as ever. But this stance is unconvincing. He did care, at least most of the time. When he tried to burnish his public image with exaggerated claims of progress in his laboratory, for example, he demonstrated a hunger for credit unknown in his earliest tinkering…

A 2018 New Yorker article also summed up Thomas Edison in this context perfectly:

Also Read on FinMedium:  Historical Resources — Investor Amnesia

Like tech C.E.O.s today, Edison attracted an enormous following, both because his inventions fundamentally altered the texture of daily life and because he nurtured a media scrum that fawned over every inch of his laboratory and fixated on every minute of his day. Newspapers covered his inventions months and sometimes years before they were functional, and journalist after journalist conspired with him for better coverage…

A recent book by Jeff Guinn, “The Vagabonds”, chronicles the publicity-seeking road trips that Edison took with Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford every summer from 1914 to 1924, driving a caravan of cars around the country, promoting themselves as much as the automobiles.”

Edison is remembered for as one of America’s greatest inventors. While he may have exaggerated aspects of his inventions and told some “pre-truths” along the way, he ultimately executed on enough of them that he was given the type of blessing described by Alex earlier.

John Keely

John Keely

We covered John Keely’s story two weeks ago, but he is the perfect example of a Founder that pushed things too far by overpromising on his inventions, and literally never delivering an actual product. By 1899, newspapers were calling him the greatest fraud of the century.

In 1872, Keely announced his newly invented ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine that allegedly provided a new form of energy at a low cost. The charismatic founder proclaimed that his invention could fuel a round trip train journey from New York to San Francisco using just one quart of water, and that a single gallon could power a return New York – Liverpool steamship voyage.

These grandiose ambitions attracted investments from around the country, and Keely even listed shares of his company on the stock exchange. However, the Keely Motor Company was an elaborate fraud that never brought a product to market over a 26 year period.

How did this ruse last so long? Keely manipulated investors’ emotions by constantly announcing new ‘breakthroughs’ and exciting research projects. While searching his laboratory after Keely’s death, however, investigators discovered his work had all been a façade aimed at duping investors with secret wiring and tubes to give off the illusion of success:

That last line demonstrates that even 100+ years ago people were aware of this thin line founders must toe. It’s even repeated earlier in the article:

Nikola

Nikola Founder and Ex-Chairman Trevor Milton was clearly on the wrong side of the line. Trevor had quickly garnered a reputation for being a salesy hype man to the point where it was almost hard to take him seriously. However, people had largely accepted Trevor’s antics because of that unspoken social understanding that Founder’s have to be a bit over the top in order to sell their company and narrative.

But then we found out that Trevor crossed the line and all those comical examples of how larger than life Trevor was suddenly morphed into damning evidence of why Trevor was a deceitful Founder. Stretched truths suddenly became blatant lies in hindsight after the Hindenburg report.

SPACs & The Silicon Valley Social Contract

So, what happens next? I am most interested in what effect Nikola’s fall from grace will have on the recent SPAC boom. In every aspect of life there is always that one person or group that takes a good thing too far and ruins it for everybody. This may be the case for Nikola and SPACs. We all remember when WeWork was the darling of Silicon Valley and ultimate VC unicorn, but its rapid downfall and botched IPO spooked other large private companies in Silicon Valley from going public, and investors started to exercise greater scrutiny over all these “disruptors” in the Valley.

To tie this all together, we know that problems arise when companies in the narrative-heavy world of private markets – where the social contract Alex described thrives – are confronted by the scrutiny of short-term results focused public market investors.

SPACs are interesting because they both facilitate and expedite that confrontation between private and public markets, but also allow more narrative-based companies like Nikola that thrive in speculative markets exercising less scrutiny to go public. For Nikola, the SPAC ended up being a poisoned chalice because while it allowed Nikola to capitalize on the mania around electric vehicles by going public quickly, it could have also set the company up for failure by expediting the unprepared company’s confrontation with public market scrutiny, where investors are much less forgiving.

To illustrate this last point about private companies’ jarring confrontation with less-forgiving public market investors, consider the fact that Nikola’s faked video of their truck “driving” (see: rolling down a hill**) was posted in January 2018 – when Nikola was a private company- and for over two years there were no headlines.

Conversely, it took less than three months as a public company for this controversy to be aired and result in Trevor Milton stepping down from the company. A stark contrast.

For those of you that made it through the lengthy intro, thank you. Hopefully it was worth it!

After everything we just discussed, the articles included in today’s post will focus on other examples of controversial companies / founders in history, and what the environments were like in each case that allowed such companies to temporarily thrive. Let’s dive in!

The Panic of 1825: In Quest of Aztec Gold

As mentioned in the introduction, the easiest time for companies with questionable business practices and promotional founders to raise money is in the midst of an exciting boom of either new companies in general, and/or a new investment “opportunity” (asset, sector, region, technology, etc.).

The 1820s in London offer a prime example of this phenomenon, as there multiple booms occurring at the same time. First, there was the boom in Latin American debt and subsequently mining stocks:

“After gaining independence from Spain, several South American nations, starting with Colombia, issued bonds in March 1822. These became very popular amongst British investors as they paid much higher rates on interest than British government Consols and were issued at steep discounts. However, many of these issues were Ponzi schemes, whose proceeds went primarily to British ‘contractors’ with what remained often being frittered away on fighting wars with neighbouring countries.

Moreover, investors found it difficult to distinguish the more trustworthy issuers, so all the issues were similarly priced at punitively low levels. This meant that the market was dominated by low quality sovereign issuers such as Peru, rather than higher quality issuers such as Brazil which could resort to internal sources of funds or borrow more cheaply from a narrower group of knowledgeable investors… 

From 1824, there was also a boom in the securities of Latin American gold and silver mines. Investors were sanguine about what the application of British capital and mining expertise in these newly established countries could achieve, believing they had not been developed to their full potential under the Spanish, and were tickled pink by the claims of company prospectuses that neglected gold nuggets could be found lying everywhere.”

It was in the midst of this excitement and mania around Latin American investments that the infamous Gregor MacGregor floated bonds for his fictitious country of Poyais. Again, how could this be possible? Investors just wanted to invest in Latin America because the returns were good, and consequently there was very little due diligence. At a time where news did not flow quickly between London and Latin America, how would the average London investor know that Honduras was a real country, but Poyais was not?

“The Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor set himself up as the leader of a small, fictitious territory called Poyais (modern-day Nicaragua). His Highness MacGregor visited London in early 1821, intending to sell land rights and titles of nobility and encourage emigration to his country.

Finding a growing appetite for foreign loans, MacGregor arranged to float a £600,000 Poyaisian loan with a 6% coupon. The issue was a tremendous success, and the bonds sold at a hefty premium. In early 1823, 200 colonists arrived in St Joseph, the Poyaisian capital. Instead of the promised grand Baroque city, they found a malarial swamp surrounded by belligerent Indians. Only 50 colonists got back to Britain. MacGregor, meanwhile, fled to France with his family and the proceeds of the bond issue.”

The mania in Latin American investments then gave way to a speculative boom at home through an explosion in new joint-stock companies. As Winton states, in March of 1824 there were 30 bills submitted to parliament related to forming new companies. The very next month there were 250…

Also Read on FinMedium:  Part II — Investor Amnesia

For those unwilling to get involved with South American investments, there were also exciting opportunities at home and, following Nathan Rothschild’s successful flotation of Alliance Fire and Insurance Company in March 1824, there was a proliferation in domestic joint-stock company promotions as other entrepreneurs sought to emulate his success.

From this time ‘bubble schemes came out in shoals like herring from the Polar Seas’, illustrated by the fact that the number of bills coming before Parliament for forming new companies shot up from 30 in March to 250 in April.

All manner of companies were floated. Many were related to Assurance; there were also some novel ventures such as the Metropolitan Bath Company which aimed to pump seawater to London so that poor Londoners could experience seawater bathing, and the London Umbrella Company which intended to set up umbrella stations all over the capital.

Many ventures, however, were arrant swindles designed to test investor credulity. Such examples include the Resurrection Metal Company, which intended to salvage underwater cannonballs that had been used at Trafalgar and other naval battles, and a company (possibly a parody) which was set up ‘to drain the Red Sea, in search of the gold and jewels left by the Egyptians, in their passage after the Israelites’.”

The Electric Vehicle Company – A Monopoly That Missed

As we covered last month, the electric vehicle is an almost two hundred year old innovation that is making a resurgence today. Like today, the late 19th century was also defined by an explosion in new electric vehicle companies:

“Moreover, in those early years of the automobile industry, it was extremely easy for new firms to enter the field, since production called for comparatively modest resources in capital and equipment, while the demand for cars was mounting so rapidly that the newcomer could be reasonably sure of finding a market.”

This article focuses on the journey of one EV company in particular, aptly named The Electric Vehicle Company, which aimed to dominate the production and operation of electric taxi cabs. Some of the company’s claims are reminiscent of another modern California based EV manufacturer in terms of EV taxi fleets. A Richmond Fed article stated:

EVC’s ambitious plans to build and operate 12,000 cabs failed. ‘About two thousand were built and put into service,’ Rae reported, “but they were clumsy, expensive vehicles to operate, with batteries that weighed a ton and had to be replaced after each trip.’

The company soon encountered major problems with its batteries, its business model, and its bottom line. When word got out that the company was losing lots of money, the press dubbed it the ‘Lead Cab Trust.’ EVC went into default in 1907, and its failure was blamed largely, perhaps unfairly, on electric vehicle technology, Kirsch says. ‘Far from creating an opportunity for the future development of an electric-vehicle-based urban system, the shadow of EVC hung over the industry for years’.”

The relationship between storage batteries and EVs has obviously been crucial since the very beginning. According to the Fed article:

“This turning point was created in part by consumer expectations that a miracle battery was “only a day away” — so it seemed prudent to postpone buying any electric car. Thomas Edison heightened those expectations in 1901, when he announced that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. Edison’s iron-nickel battery was better (and more expensive) than the lead-acid batteries of his day, but its performance fell far short of miraculous, and it did not make it to market until 1909 (not counting a false start in 1903).”

Sounds very similar to the “battery breakthroughs” announced today. It is interesting that even Edison was pulled into this battery game after stating the following in an earlier interview:

But, back to the Electric Vehicle Company.

The inception of this enterprise dates back to 1896, when Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salam founded the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which began to operate electrically driven taxicabs in New York City early in 1897. At about the same time, the concern was bought by Isaac L. Rice, president of the Electric  Storage Battery Company of Philadelphia, and reincorporated (27 September 1897) as the Electric Vehicle Company. Rice, whose company held Charles F. Brush’s patent on lead storage batteries, saw in the electric taxicab business a desirable affiliation for his own concern. From the outset, therefore, the Electric Vehicle Company was tinged with the passion for combination which affected so many of the businessmen of this period.

In the course of a year Rice expanded the taxicab fleet from the thirteen with which Morris and Salom had started to about a hundred. This apparent success, which was probably due more to the novelty of the vehicles than to their efficiency, attracted the attention of a group of electric traction magnates led by William C. Whitney and including P. A. B. Widener, Anthony N. Brady, and Thomas F. Ryan. Since they were already experienced in the art of merger and stock manipulation, it was natural enough for these men to decide that electric taxicabs offered a useful adjunct to their traction interests, particularly with the battery patent offering monopolistic possibilities.

At any rate, they bought both the Electric Vehicle Company and the Electric Storage Battery Company at a handsome profit to Rice and launched an ambitious scheme for organizing taxicab companies in all the principal cities of the United States.”

Tell me that this description below doesn’t sound like many of the EV companies today…

To the extent that it was aimed at dominating the manufacture and operation of electric automobiles, the Electric Vehicle Company was founded on an error of judgment. It had put its money on the wrong horse – or, to be more accurate, the wrong horseless carriage. The error was pardonable enough in 1899, since it was not until after the turn of the century that the gasoline car began to pull clearly ahead of its rivals, but it was nonetheless avoidable. Only two years before, Thomas A. Edison had stated in an interview that the horseless carriage would most likely be run by a gasoline or naphtha motor, unless a new and more economical electric storage battery should be discovered.

There is another possibility which must be considered in view of the record of Whitney, Widener, and the others in the traction business, namely, that they were far less interested in making and operating automobiles than in developing a fresh opportunity for stock promotion. Maxim, a disapproving but immediate observer of the birth of the Electric Vehicle Company, has this to say: 

‘The scheme was a very broad one, promising all manner of possibilities in the way of stock manipulation. Whether it was intended to develop profits out of earned dividends, or by unloading the stock on the public, I will not venture to guess. In those days of wild finance, unloading upon the public was very fashionable’.”

Like with most bad businesses, it was a financial crisis that eventually sunk the company. In this case, it was the Panic of 1907:

“The Panic of 1907 saw both the Electric Vehicle Company and the Pope Manufacturing Company go into receivership, although the automobile industry in general weathered this crisis quite successfully.”

It is just interesting to read about promotional EV companies (*cough* Nikola *cough*) in a speculative boom not in 2020, but over 100 years ago. Nuts, right? Deja vu.

The Hatry Group Collapse – Much Ado About Nothing

Although the name Clarence Hatry is unfamiliar to many, he was at the epicenter of the 1929 crash, and some argue he led to the crash itself.

Though few people have heard about the collapse of the Hatry Group of companies in September 1929, some people have claimed that it triggered the New York stock market crash of October 1929 and ultimately the Great Depression.  Our review of the facts has led us to believe that the collapse of the Hatry Group had little impact on financial markets, despite the claims to the contrary. Hatry no more caused the crash of 1929 than Bernie Madoff caused the Great Recession of 2008.”

He was, however, a flamboyant entrepreneur that pushed things to the limit, to say the least.

Also Read on FinMedium:  The Next Frontier — Investor Amnesia

“Clarence Hatry was a dedicated self-promoter who never had a chance of being part of the British upper crust.  Hatry was the son of a prosperous Jewish silk merchant and was bankrupt by the age of 25. He built his fortune by speculating in oil stocks and promoting industrial conglomerates. Like any entrepreneur, he had spectacular successes and spectacular failures.  He built a retail conglomerate, the Drapery Trust, which he sold to the department store Debenhams. He engineered the merger of the London bus corporations into the London General Omnibus Company, ran a stockbroking firm that specialized in municipal bonds, set up the Photomaton Parent Company, which operated a chain of photographic booths, and controlled the Associated Automatic Machine Corporation which owned vending machines on railway platforms.  He certainly knew how to diversify his holdings.”

 

From Insull to Enron: Corporate (Re)Regulation After the Rise and Fall of Two Energy Icons

I have shared this article before, but it is worth revisiting because of today’s focus on founders that push things to the limit and toe that line of respected visionary / fraudster. This article focuses on two  well-known instances of fraud / misleading investors: Samuel Insull and Enron. Since most people know the Enron story, I’ll focus on the Insull Empire of the 1920s and 30s. Coincidentally, Samuel Insull was also the former colleague of a gentleman we discussed earlier in today’s post: Thomas Edison.

My colleague Chris Meredith and I wrote about Insull as part of an article on Value investing last year, and I’ve included our description of the Insull affair below:

“Although not well known, Samuel Insull might have had more effect on the utilities industry than anyone else in the country. Insull was originally hired as Thomas Edison’s personal secretary and had risen to become the number three person at General Electric by 1892. At the age of 32, he left to take over Chicago Edison which was about 2% of the size of GE. At Chicago Edison, he established several business paradigms for utilities that exist in today’s utility markets, including the use of AC/DC in distributing power.

As he built out the utility business, Insull aggressively purchased several other utilities, creating a gas and electric empire extending over thirty-two states. The basis for his ability to purchase so many companies was a pyramid holding company structure that heavily favored bonds and preferred stock with a guaranteed dividend. His aggressive acquisition spurred others to similar action, resulting in “eight holding companies controlling 73 percent of the investor-owned electric business.” As cash dried up, Insull also switched from cash dividends to stock dividends, using the inflated stock valuations in lieu of cash to keep the machine going. After a takeover attempt, Insull created two additional layers of holding companies to try and retain control. Stacking these structures created massive amounts of leverage, to the point where he controlled an empire of $500m in assets with only $27m in equity. This leverage was fine in the upmarket, but a market decline would cause significant problems. When asked in a Forbes interview about the leverage in his holding company, Insull responded that “a slump or calamity that would be disastrous [for electric utilities] is practically inconceivable”. 

During the decline of the Great Depression, Utility revenues did hold up better than manufacturing, but even a slight decline caused significant pressure on the company. Insull’s company had pledged its stock as collateral to New York banks, and eventually the company went under when England announced that it was leaving the gold standard. As the banks started uncovering the issues with leverage, the state initiated criminal proceedings, and Insull immediately fled the country, believing there was no way he could get a fair trial. He was eventually extradited and faced trial but was exonerated on all charges. One juror that had served as a sheriff commented he had “never heard of a band of crooks who thought up a scheme, wrote it all down, and kept an honest and careful record of everything they did.”

Now, back to the linked article. The authors had this to say about Insull:

“In late 1931 and early 1932, the country looked on in horror as Samuel Insull’s mighty and seemingly invulnerable electric utility holding company empire collapsed without warning, wiping out the holdings of over 1 million investors, most of whom believed that they had invested in a safe and secure electric utility enterprise… The newspapers of the day declared the event ‘the biggest business failure in the history of the world’.”

In fact, it was the collapse of Samuel Insull’s empire that spurred a wave of securities acts and regulations of the 1930s:

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the progressives in Congress subsequently used the Insull debacle as a rallying point from which to promote many of the most important laws of the New Deal, including the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, the Federal Power Act of 1935, and the legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration.”

As you can imagine, things didn’t work out well for Insull.

However, the primary takeaway from this article concerns the role of regulators and preventing similar debacles from occurring in the future:

“The main lesson that emerges from our analysis is not so much that we need to strengthen laws against corporate wrongdoing. Rather, it is in recognizing that, during a financial bubble driven by rapid growth in network industries (e.g., electricity and the Internet), regulatory officials will almost inevitably buckle under political pressure and (a) fail to issue new rules that might interfere with the financial “hijinks“ and (b) fail to enforce vigorously laws already on the books. This Article suggests that the laws adopted in response to Enron are destined to be watered down and ignored during the next boom, just as the New Deal laws, passed in response to the Insull debacle, were watered down and ignored during the 1990s. The authors reluctantly conclude that history will likely repeat itself in another generation or two, and there is little that can be done beyond vain entreaties to our own grandchildren to become more devoted students of history.”

Fraud and Financial Scandals: A Historical Analysis of Opportunity and Impediment

“The paper analyses the history of fraud and financial scandal and identifies some common features. To do so it develops a conceptual framework based on the long run interaction of technology and market development. These features lead respectively to problems of context specific asset valuation and value verification, which taken together define the environment of mispricing opportunities. Such opportunities do not in themselves lead to specific fraudulent transactions, but do influence the probability of their occurrence and their character. Thus, whereas particular frauds vary in terms of the specific opportunity, motivation and ex post rationalizations of the individuals involved (Cressey, 1953), historians might focus on the factors that make frauds more or less likely.

A historical approach may accordingly explain why frauds and scandals tend to cluster in certain time periods. The paper begins by developing a conceptual framework based on the dynamic interaction of opportunity and impediment. It then presents a brief history of fraud and financial scandal in the United Kingdom, in three broad periods. The first, on manias and frauds before and during industrialisation, examines the features of frauds that became common in subsequent events. The second period begins by considering Victorian frauds and the notions of reasonable business behaviour and honesty as substitutes for direct intervention in corporation’s affairs, which have survived largely unmodified through a series of twentieth century frauds. The third details the period since 1980 during which time the process of financialisation compounded earlier circumstances leading to fraud opportunity, culminating in financial crash of 2007-2008. The final section draws conclusions referring to limitations of the conceptual framework whilst noting the value of a historical approach for the purposes of identifying the long run determinants of fraud and financial scandal.”

 

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Jamie Catherwood
My name is Jamie Catherwood, and I’m a Client Portfolio Associate at O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. Get your financial history fix through reading my articles, or those that I link to in my weekly “Financial History: Sunday Reads”.
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