Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Backdating Molehill Revisited

The Backdating Molehill Revisited. By Holman W Jenkins, Jr
Why are the prosecutions going so badly? Maybe because there was no crime.
WSJ, Dec 16, 2009

It pains us, naturally, to see our forecasts and premonitions borne out in such exacting detail in the government's backdating prosecutions—why didn't we take our moment of searing foresight to the dog track instead?

Yesterday a judge threw out, with resort to unceremonious language, criminal charges against Broadcom co-founder Henry Nicholas III.

Mr. Nicholas, a physically large man, with an erratic personality, and accused of patronizing drug dealers and prostitutes, must have seemed a prosecutors' dream, since he gave them so much to talk about besides the details of backdating, which when examined closely invariably lead careful reasoners to wonder: Where's the crime here?

Mr. Nicholas did not benefit from any backdated stock options. He was Broadcom's largest shareholder, thus had no natural or unnatural interest in overpaying employees with backdated stock options. The company's outside auditor also appears to have blessed the essential no-no here, which amounts to reading into accounting rules a logic and coherence that didn't exist at the time.

The goal of backdating, it becomes clearer than ever, was to motivate employees at the lowest possible cost to shareholders. This was done by granting stock options that, at the date of issue, were "in the money"—because, it appears, Broadcom and hundreds of other Silicon Valley companies discovered in practice what a Nobel Prize in economics had discovered in theory: That people overvalue a seeming bird in the hand.

As far as we know, no court has gotten to the essential nullity of the backdating "wrong," but U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney seems to have gotten close. Less than a week earlier, he had thrown out the conviction of Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli—who had pleaded guilty—saying he did not believe Mr. Samueli had committed a crime.

Yesterday he dismissed the remaining criminal charges against Mr. Nicholas and the company's former chief financial officer William J. Ruehle, saying the government's behavior had been "shameful," that it had made a "mockery" of a defendant's constitutional rights, and that prosecutors had "intimidated and improperly influenced" three crucial witnesses, including threatening one with prosecution if he repeated testimony already given to the SEC in a civil proceeding.

Now, call us cynical, but aren't threats often used against employees to turn them into friendly witnesses for the government? The judge complained that prosecutors had improperly leaked details of the investigation to the press—also unattractive behavior by government servants, but not exactly unusual.

Indeed, it's hard to escape the sense that such behavior was judged especially beyond the pale in this case because it was in the service of a prosecution that fundamentally never deserved to be brought.
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To be sure, because of the incoherence of the applicable accounting rules, Broadcom had to take the biggest charge of any company to rectify its accounting for employee stock options: $2.2 billion. Investors would have understood, though, that this was not real cash, that indeed under then-regnant accounting rules Broadcom could have tried to give away the entire market cap of the company to employees without taking an accounting charge, had it simply issued "at the money" options instead of "in the money" options.

As we say, most backdating cases amount to companies trying to behave rationally amid irrational accounting rules, rather than the media's standard trope of businessmen a-lyin' and a-stealin'. Deep, rich and disappointing, then, is the irony of a recent decision by federal prosecutors to have a second go at another former Silicon Valley CEO, Gregory Reyes, of Brocade Communications

All that distinguished the Brocade case from hundreds of other instances of backdating was a prosecutor's allegation that, in order to effect backdating, Mr. Reyes had misled the company's own finance department.

This was laughable, since the SEC was simultaneously charging two former heads of Brocade's finance department with participating in and profiting from backdating. The prosecution's sole witness on the vital point recanted almost as soon as she got off the stand, and a federal appeals court eventually overturned Mr. Reyes's conviction on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Why a U.S. attorney in San Francisco would want to try Mr. Reyes again is a mystery to us, but maybe it's time for an investigation of backdating investigations.

We can't close without mentioning the exemplary diligence and enterprise with which, way back when, certain reporters and editors uncovered the backdating phenomenon, and then the intellectual sluggishness with which they analyzed it.

They found an interesting story (one that fit well under the current interest in behavioral economics) and then got it fundamentally wrong by insisting on shoving it into a procrustean off-the-shelf narrative of executive "greed."

Indeed, for want of a single paragraph explaining why backdating could be (in the words of a recent academic paper) a case of optimum contracting between companies and employees, we might have avoided the waste and injustice of these misguided backdating prosecutions.

Endangering the Economy in an Attempt to Pass Cap-and-Trade

Endangering the Economy in an Attempt to Pass Cap-and-Trade

IER, December 15, 2009

For years Congress has struggled to pass legislation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions because Americans know that the regulation of carbon dioxide emission is a tax on energy. Today, the Obama Administration is pushing a new scheme that would create regulations so burdensome that Congress is forced to pass a cap-and-trade bill to reduce the economic pain caused by the regulations. The Administration admits their plan will harm the economy, but they are using it as a threat in order to urge Congress to pass their proposal to tax and regulate energy use.

The Administration’s Plan to Coerce Congress to Pass Cap-and-Trade—Force Congress to Rescue the Economy from the Administration’s Heavy-Handed, Command-and-Control Regulations

During the Presidential campaign Obama’s advisors promised to have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate carbon dioxide. Today, the President made good on that promise and EPA published a rule in the Federal Register regulating carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases by declaring that these gases “endanger public health or welfare.” (This is why it is called the “endangerment finding” because EPA is finding that greenhouse gases “endanger public health and welfare.”) This announcement was timed to coincide with the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Last week, a top White House economic official explained the Administration’s cynical strategy to reporters:

“If you don’t pass this legislation, then … the EPA is going to have to regulate in this area,” the official said. ”And it is not going to be able to regulate in a market-based way, so it’s going to have to regulate in a command-and-control way, which will probably generate even more uncertainty.”

In other words, the Administration realizes that these regulations will harm the economy, but is trying to push Congress to pass a law they say will reduce the harm. Amazingly, a week and a half after holding a summit to discuss how to create jobs, the Administration is promoting a policy that it admits will harm job prospects. As one news report stated, a White House “official warned that the kind of ‘uncertainty’ generated by unilateral EPA action would be a huge ‘deterrent to investment,’ in an economy already desperate for jobs.” The Administration was acting, in the words of another newspaper writer, like Tony Soprano saying essentially, “Nice economy you got there, Congress. Now either youze guys pass da capntrade deal or my associate here, Ms. Jackson, breaks its legs.”

EPA Was Not Forced to Regulate Greenhouse Gases

The endangerment finding is a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. That decision required EPA to make a finding, but it did not require EPA to find that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. As the Supreme Court explained, “We need not and do not reach the question whether on remand EPA must make an endangerment finding, or whether policy concerns can inform EPA’s actions in the event that it makes such a finding. We hold only that EPA must ground its reasons for action or inaction in the statute.”[1]

What’s really disingenuous about the Administration’s ploy is that even if the Senate had already passed the Kerry-Boxer cap and tax bill, the Supreme Court decision would still stand, meaning the EPA would still have to determine whether CO2 endangers public health and welfare

Thus the entire premise of the Administration’s claim that Congress must pass a bill because if they don’t “EPA is going to have to regulate in this area” is bogus. Whether or not Congress passed a cap-and-trade bill, the Supreme Court ruling required EPA to either reject or issue an endangerment finding.

Command-and-Control versus “Market-Based” Approach

EPA’s threat is misleading in yet another way. By contrasting a top-down regulatory approach with the ostensibly market-based approach of cap-and-trade, one is led to the assumption that the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer bills simply augment the market price of carbon to reflect the alleged “social cost of carbon” and then let the magic of the market take control.

This is nonsense. In the first place, IER has already demonstrated the tremendous thicket of command-and-control regulations in Waxman-Markey besides its cap-and-trade program. To contrast EPA’s admittedly top-down, command-and-control-style approach with the climate bills in Congress is a false dichotomy. They are both command-and-control.

Second, even the cap-and-trade programs in Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer are not what environmental economists would have recommended to correct the “externality” of possible future climate damages. Many (perhaps most) economists who actually publish academic articles on the issue think that if the government is going to take “market-based” action, it should set a straightforward carbon tax and use the proceeds to reduce other taxes. Failing that, they would argue that the government should implement a cap-and-trade program with full auctioning of permits, and then use the receipts to reduce other taxes. No academic economist endorses the hodge-podge of allowance handouts, “offsets,” and subsidies to various “green” recipients contained in the two pending bills. The only way to justify them is to say “that’s how politics works.”

Follow the Money

So, if the Obama Administration wasn’t legally required to issue regulations but did so—knowing full well they would be harmful to jobs and the economy—why did they do it? The answer is simple—to force Congress to enact the policies the White House really wants: cap-and-trade—and the money that goes along with it. Regulation by EPA only gives the Administration regulatory authority over 85 percent of our energy use (energy from coal, oil, and natural gas) but there is no real revenue increase for the federal government. Cap-and-trade provides huge revenue increases to the federal government. The Administration’s proposed budget called for raising $646 billion in new fees from cap-and-trade between 2012 and 2019. A senior aide later admitted the number could be 2 to 3 times that much, or $1.3 to $1.9 trillion. That makes it the largest tax increase in world history. And this tax will only go up over time as emissions prices go up.

Legislative proposals such as the Waxman-Markey bill and the Kerry-Boxer bill do not raise as much revenue for the federal government as Obama’s budget proposal, but instead the bills redistribute trillions of dollars to preferred interest groups. Under EPA regulation, the government cannot collect taxes or sell credits for carbon dioxide. Under the cap-and-trade plan, it makes out like a bandit and gets to choose economic winners and losers. Government power and money would increase, paid for with the people’s economic liberties.


The Supreme Court did not require EPA to find that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. The Obama Administration chose to make that finding, even though it understands that EPA regulations would be very harmful to a struggling economy. Now the Administration is trying to leverage the harm they have created to force Congress to pass the largest tax increase in the history. We should reject this cynical strategy. Instead of passing legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, Congress could restore the original intent of the Clean Air Act by removing EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Those actions would protect the American people from the Administration’s economically harmful regulations.

[1] 549 U.S. 497, 533–34 (2007).