Boy, do I feel like an idiot. I've been out there on radio and TV in the last few months saying that I thought there was a chance Barack Obama was listening to the popular anger against Wall Street that drove the Occupy movement, that decisions like putting a for-real law enforcement guy like New York AG Eric Schneiderman in charge of a mortgage fraud task force meant he was at least willing to pay lip service to public outrage against the banks.
Then the JOBS Act happened.
The "Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act" (in addition to everything else, the Act has an annoying, redundant title) will very nearly legalize fraud in the stock market.
In fact, one could say this law is not just a sweeping piece of deregulation that will have an increase in securities fraud as an accidental, ancillary consequence. No, this law actually appears to have been specifically written to encourage fraud in the stock markets.
Ostensibly, the law makes it easier for startup companies (particularly tech companies, whose lobbyists were a driving force behind its passage) to attract capital by, among other things, exempting them from independent accounting requirements for up to five years after they first begin selling shares in the stock market.
The law also rolls back rules designed to prevent bank analysts from talking up a stock just to win business, a practice that was so pervasive in the tech-boom years as to be almost industry standard.
Even worse, the JOBS Act, incredibly, will allow executives to give "pre-prospectus" presentations to investors using PowerPoint and other tools in which they will not be held liable for misrepresentations. These firms will still be obligated to submit prospectuses before their IPOs, and they'll still be held liable for what's in those. But it'll be up to the investor to check and make sure that the prospectus matches the "pre-presentation."
The JOBS Act also loosens a whole range of other reporting requirements, and expands stock investment beyond "accredited investors," giving official sanction to the internet-based fundraising activity known as "crowdfunding."
But the big one, to me, is the bit about exempting firms from real independent tests of internal controls for five years.
When I first read this, I asked myself: how does a law exempting a Silicon Valley startup from independent accounting actually encourage investment? If American companies have to have their internal processes independently verified before and after they go public, doesn't that give investors all around the world a big reason to put their money here, instead of investing in, say, Mobbed-Up Siberian Aluminum LLC, or Bangalore Sweatshop Inc.?
In other words, how does letting www.investonawhim.com go to market (and stay on the market for five years!) without publishing real numbers actually help the industry attract more financing in general, when the whole point of all of these controls is to make investment a less risky experience for the investor?
Get ready for the ostensible answer, because you won't believe it. Here's how CNN explained the reasoning behind that exemption:
Having 500 investors or raising $5 million previously forced a company to register with the SEC -- a costly endeavor. Filling out stacks of legal forms and undergoing independent accounting audits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The law loosens requirements for most companies by raising several thresholds.
We needed Barack Obama and the congress to compromise the entire U.S. stock market because it's too expensive for a publicly-listed company with billion-dollar ambitions to hire an accountant? That almost sounds like a comedy routine:
SILICON VALLEY EXECUTIVE: Listen, IJustThoughtOfSomething.com is the hottest thing on the internet. We're so huge it hurts... I can't even walk to my corner bodega without women throwing me their phone numbers!
INVESTOR: I'd love to invest. Can I see your numbers from last year?
SILICON VALLEY EXECUTIVE: Well, that's just the thing. We painted the bathrooms last March, and then we also had that Vitamin Water machine put in the lounge. You know, the one next to the ping-pong table? So we just didn't have any money left over for an accountant. But I estimate our revenues for 2014 to be $4.2 billion.
INVESTOR: Sounds hot! Where do I send the check?
There's just no benefit that the JOBS Act brings to an honest startup company. In fact, it puts an honest company at a severe disadvantage, because now it has to compete against other, less scrupulous companies that can simply make their projections up on the backs of envelopes.
This is like formally eliminating steroid testing for the first five years of a baseball player's career. Yes, you can pretty much bet that you'll see a lot of home runs in the first few years after you institute a rule like that. But you'd better be ready to stick a lot of asterisks in the record books ten or fifteen years down the line.
In the same way, get ready for an avalanche of shareholder suits ten years from now, since post-factum civil litigation will be the only real regulation of the startup market. In fact, there are already supporters talking up future lawsuits as an appropriate tool to replace the regulations being wiped out by this bill.
The JOBS Act seems like it will invite a replay of the disastrous tech-stock bubble of the late nineties. That mess was made possible by a historic collapse in accounting standards, with the great investment banks the pioneers of the collapse. In the old days, in the fifties and sixties for instance, you would never take a company public that wasn't profitable at the time of the IPO, or didn't have a multi-year track record of solid revenues.
When the banks stopped insisting on proven track records or real profitability before taking a company public, there was a sudden explosion of stock-market investment into heretofore unknown internet firms. Companies with no track records went from having literally no revenues at all to having five or six billion dollars' worth of market capitalization overnight. Banks explained that the new way to measure a company was by the quality of its ideas, not boring old indicators like revenues.
Even Alan Greenspan told the world that technology had made such great advances that the traditional laws of economics no longer applied, that there was "new paradigm," and that it was possible to have long-term growth without inflation. He essentially told the world that the bubble wasn't a bubble, because all that phony growth was not phony at all, it was just a whole bunch of people properly evaluating great new ideas, albeit before they had actually performed.
And we later found out, of course, a lot of that value wasn't value at all. And a lot of that sharp growth in the nineties was actually caused by complex fraud schemes like "spinning" and "laddering,", wherein banks artificially pumped up startup stocks in exchange for future business, or rigged the IPOs so that they would have fake "bumps" in investment at pre-arranged times.
Sometimes the companies themselves were the victims in the fraud scams, and sometimes the company executives were beneficiaries of fraud. But in virtually all of these schemes, the casual investor was the big dupe in the con. When the dot-com bubble finally collapsed, costing the world about $5 trillion in losses, the major victims were ordinary people. We can expect a replay of the same thing now, only on a much bigger scale.
The finance world is buzzing over this bill. The reactions I've heard so far range from minutes-long guffaws of dark laughter to bloodcurdling, I-can't-freaking-believe-they-went-this-far outrage. "I thought I had lost the ability to be shocked," one friend of mine, a former regulator, told me this weekend, chuckling at the sheer stones it took to push the law. "But this thing is just inspired. They broke the mold with this one."
There are some crazy side-stories that I'll get to later in the week, including the hilarious influence certain preposterous individuals had in pushing this bill (most notably Steve Case, former co-founder of AOL and a veteran of multiple accounting fraud scandals, who was recruited by both parties to lobby the bill). There are also some remarkable contradictions in the arguments the bill's supporters made when they pushed for the bill's passage. Anyway, more on this to come.
In the meantime, let's just say this is a dramatic step taken by Barack Obama. Nobody should have any illusions about where he stands on Wall Street corruption after this thing. Boss Tweed himself couldn't have done any worse.