Changes in compliance on Wall Street

It has been five years since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. This has allowed regulators and Wall Street ample time to reflect on what they could and should have done. On the brighter side, since the financial crisis companies have become much more direct about impending litigation and government investigations. Furthermore, the significant public scrutiny they have faced has led companies to invest a lot more money and resources into compliance with the many regulatory requirements. The fall of Lehman Brothers as a whole had little to do with how firms followed the rules. But the public outrage over how the government failed to oversee financial institutions has created a significantly tougher regulatory environment where companies cannot afford to misstep.

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act was adopted to address the inadequate regulation and oversight of the financial markets. It was deemed as a means to prevent “too big to fail” banks from utilizing government bailouts. Yet, many of the rules included in the law have not been adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. They have been tied down with having to figure out how to regulate financial products such as money market funds and derivatives.

People tend to criticize the government for not acting swiftly enough. However, when they moved quickly by bailing out American International Group (AIG) in response to the Lehman bankruptcy, the criticisms were that it was overreaching and playing favorites in the market. That culture of act now, respond later, no longer exists within companies. They don’t wait around to be stirred. Despite the lack of total regulations being in place, it has become somewhat of an arms race among firms to see who complies with the law the best. But, we must not expect this commitment to last. At some point in time companies will begin to complain about the excess costs that are required to keep up with “burdensome” regulations.

Chief Executive of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, survived the financial crisis while earning the strongest reputation. He led the bank charge against regulations like the Volcker Rule which would have restricted investments made by large banks. Firms are beginning to lobby behind the scenes to keep these rules from becoming oppressive.

Unfortunately things are not looking as bright as they used to for Dimon. Last year JPMorgan had to deal with several government investigations that included its disclosure of $6 billion in trading losses and whether their hiring of the children of government officials in Asia violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In fact, JPMorgan’s most recent quarterly securities filing consisted of a nine-page narration of numerous lawsuits and investigations it faces. This is on the opposite end of the spectrum from how Goldman Sachs dealt with their 2009 investigation of their sale of collateralized debt obligations. In their case, they made no mention of it, so it came by surpise when the SEC filed a civil fraud lawsuit in 2010 that ended with Goldman paying $550 million to settle. JPMorgan disclosed that estimated potential litigation costs could run as high as $6.8 billion with its legal expenses being $678 million for the quarter. Also, sources told The Wall Street Journal last week, “the bank planned to spend an additional $1.5 billion and commit 5,000 employees to its compliance program while strengthening the autonomy of those responsible for how it follows laws and regulations.”

Spending money on compliance is not something that will generate revenue or increase the profitability of a company. Rather it is more along the lines of insurance or any other preventative measure. The money that they put into training employees on how to act in favor of regulations and following the law can result in the company not having to face future investigations or penalties the government would impose on a violation. For now, the idea of compliance is that it is no longer an excess cost, but an overhead cost that is just a part of any other daily expense for an organization.

It is clear that the debacle that was Lehman Brothers has undoubtedly placed a greater emphasis on firms showing that they are indeed following the rules and regulations. One question remains, will the inevitable pushback against regulation lead to a substantial weakening in the compliance department? After praising the Dodd-Frank Act President Obama said, “No law can force anybody to be responsible; it’s still incumbent on those on Wall Street to heed the lessons of this crisis in terms of how they conduct their businesses.” The question of whether the clarity promoted since the Fall of Lehman Brothers will continue to allow monitoring if the pledge to following the law remains in place.

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