SKARBECK: Regulators and 'experts' failed to stop scammers

December 25, 2010

Ken SkarbeckThere are many things that are difficult to understand. For example, why do the big pharmaceutical companies spend billions on advertising that warn us—in graphic detail—of the potential for repulsive side effects of using the very product they are selling?

How come politicians grant generous retirement benefits to public employees and then fail to set aside the required money in pension funds to pay for them?

Why do otherwise sane people put their money into a fund-of-funds that charges oversized fees, which in turn just hands the money off to another hedge fund that charges another layer of massive fees?

Why did certain Wall Street executives walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars as the economy was laid to shambles, and yet every day we send petty thieves to jail? A fair number of people in this country have been financially ruined in the wake of their transgressions, but the eggnog flows freely in the Hamptons.

Why is the tax rate levied on the billions of dollars earned by private equity and venture capitalists only 15 percent, when the rest of America pays tax on their income as high as 35 percent?

Do corporate boards really have the best interests of shareholders in mind? Particularly when it comes to setting executive compensation? Are their policies influenced by the generous compensation and benefits they in turn receive?

Most people find it incomprehensible that there are hundreds of con men around the country who wake up every morning with the objective of looting people who have placed their trust in them. Where were the rating agencies, accountants, lawyers and investment consultants who were paid handsomely to provide the due diligence and unbiased checks and balances that are supposed to ferret out these scams? Are they incompetent, complacent, willingly looking away, drinking the Kool-Aid, intimidated, or some combination of the above?

How does the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ignore Bernie Madoff for 30 years, particularly when they were alerted to his crimes multiple times? Why did the Ohio Division of Securities routinely allow the issuance of non-insured investment certificates backed by personal loans with no equity behind them? We need more regulators with the backbone of the Cuomos, Spitzers and Volckers.

This is not to say that investors deserve a free pass. For example, should you invest in a 9-percent non-insured certificate paying more than twice the risk-free rate and not ask why? People need to understand the concept of no free lunch—if the touted returns look too good to be true, the danger signs should flash.

And that perhaps is the central lesson: We just can’t blindly rely on proclaimed experts and regulators when making decisions on financial affairs. It is incumbent on all of us to educate ourselves and use a strong dose of common sense.

Finally, one last thing I know I will never understand: Why we must remain pin-drop silent while a golfer swings at a stationary ball sitting on the ground, but we can scream at a batter trying to hit a 90 mph fastball?•


Skarbeck is managing partner of Indianapolis-based Aldebaran Capital LLC, a money-management firm. His column appears every other week. Views expressed are his own. He can be reached at 818-7827 or ken@aldebarancapital.com.


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