Step one: don’t have a manual. That’s the message in an information-packed new book about the inner workings of the SEC just after the Madoff and now largely forgotten (but just as egregious) Allen Stanford frauds.

Step 1

In his memoir of five years at the agency, former SEC Director of Investment Management Norm Champ (now back in private practice) writes that he was stunned to arrive into public service in 2010 to find that examiners had no set procedures both when looking at regulated entities or in following up on their findings.

“If SEC inspectors ever arrived at a financial firm for an examination and discovered that the firm had no manual about how to comply with federal securities laws, that firm would immediately be cited for deficiencies and most likely subject to enforcement action,” he writes in Going Public (My Adventures Inside the SEC and How to Prevent the Next Devastating Crisis).

Among his proudest achievements were instituting such procedures at the SEC, and holding accountable anyone at the SEC who begins to follow up on a whistle-blower’s report – the kind that the Commission ignored in relation to Madoff and Stanford.

We’ve written and spoken lots about our methodology for due diligence. You start from scratch and look not just to verify what you’ve been handed, but for information the person or company don’t want you to see. You don’t close investigative doors prematurely even though human nature makes you want to do just that.

Starting from scratch means that you assume nothing. You don’t assume Madoff has all those assets under management unless you check. It would have been easy to do but nobody asked. Anyone who was suspicious of the absence of an independent custodian or a major auditor similarly let it slide.

This is what we refer to as a Paint-by-Numbers investigation: the forms and relationships are all taken as givens, and all you get to do is decide on color. In Madoff’s case, the “forms” (the existence of invested money) were illusory. Who cares about the color (say, the risk profile of the “securities”) of something that doesn’t exist?

In Stanford’s case, there was lots of information he wouldn’t have been proud of. An April 2007 FINRA report on the Stanford Group Company said the firm had been found to be operating a securities business while failing to maintain its required minimum net capital.  A former employee of Stanford’s alleged in an April 2006 complaint in Florida state court that Stanford was operating a Ponzi scheme.

Without internal accountability procedures in place, did all of the people at the SEC just sit there? No. Champ (who arrived post-Madoff and Stanford) describes an agency packed with a lot of dedicated professionals but with a good bit of deadwood immune to the disciplines of the private-sector job market. As we read about the federal budget proposals that seek to cut funding at a variety of agencies, this book contains two other pertinent messages:

  1. If you could fire people in government the way you can in the private sector, it would be easier for the government to save money.
  2. That battle is so tough that most people (including Champ) just try to work with the good people they can find and leave personnel reform for someone else.

Champ makes no promises that there won’t be more Ponzi schemes, but hopes that his organizational reforms will reduce the chances. As in any due diligence, you can’t promise that you will always catch everything – only that if there are repeated indications of a problem staring you in the face (complete with former employees blowing whistles), you will follow up.

Among Champ’s recommendations for blunting the damage of the next crisis, one is especially welcome: eliminate the scandalous government sponsorship of lotteries. Lotteries are the world’s worst investment, and yet the poorest members of society spend like crazy on them, all prompted by a lot of misleading and predatory government advertising “far beyond what private businesses are allowed.”

Champ asks us to imagine what could be done with all that money people waste if it were properly invested and devoted to investor education.

We agree. The millionaires who lost with Madoff could at least have afforded $2,000 of due diligence on their investment. The poor who play the lottery and who should be saving their money are the ones who need help the most help from the SEC and from state governments that need to find a less repugnant way to raise revenue.