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AICPA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props Where We Are

The Past, The Present, The Future

John W. Cromwell

If the way things are had nothing to do with what has come before, history wouldn’t be something taught at school. However, we learn in many arenas that the past plays a big part in shaping the present and the future. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon, nothing but carbon, yet they are very different from each other because of the environment in which they are formed. What happened to the carbon in the past, determines whether is a diamond or graphite today. Is there any story that we can tell that does not involve cause and effect?

On April 17, 1896, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation was established in law in New York. 25 years later, in 1921, John W. Cromwell became the first Black CPA. This year we celebrate the centennial of his achievement and the doors Cromwell opened. When, as a member of the class of 1906, Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth, he was its top science student and then went on to get his masters, also from Dartmouth, in 1907. Despite these achievements, it was 15 years before Cromwell became a CPA, and not through any fault of his.

A native of Washington, D.C., Cromwell had returned home after graduation and discovered that he faced two barriers. First, because he was Black, he was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. He also faced a barrier, that would stymie many Black people who wished to become CPAs – the experience requirement. In those states, in order to become a CPA, you were required to work under the supervision of a CPA, something that became the biggest barrier, for Black people, to become a licensed CPA. Even as recently as the 1960’s Bert Mitchell, who was the 100th Black CPA in the United States, struggled to find a job with an accounting firm. Despite graduating at the top of his class, 25 firms would not hire him, using their clients’ attitudes (it could never be their own) toward people of color as an excuse. A window opened for Cromwell in 1921, when New Hampshire instituted CPA laws that did not mandate the experience requirement, and Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity. He traveled to New Hampshire, sat for, and passed the CPA exam in 1921.

Fulfilling the academic requirements of the CPA license is difficult enough – right now, only about half of those who take the CPA exam pass it, and back then an even smaller fraction passed. Now, imagine that you had to wait 15 years, and travel over 500 miles, just to be allowed to even try to suffer through it, despite having graduated from an Ivy League school, at or near the top of your class. Because of their race, the first Black CPAs faced and overcame groundless barriers that had nothing to do with their abilities and everything to do with people’s biases, discriminatory views, and actions.

100 years ago, when Cromwell became a CPA, he became an example of the possible and opened the way for others to follow. Perhaps in 1926, when Cauncey L. Christian took the CPA exam in Kentucky, Christian was braver because Cromwell had shown what was possible. Christian sat for the exam at a time when the exam was not open to Black people. So, in that exam room, Christian had a concern that the other 49 White men taking that exam did not. Although Christian was light skinned enough to pass for white, he must have been fearful of his race being discovered. But, because of his courage, out of the 50 men who took the CPA exam, Christian was one of 7 who passed and, by doing so, became the third Black CPA in the United States. As each Black CPA was licensed, more Black students saw a path to the profession opening up for them as well.

2021 is the Black CPA Centennial and, in commemoration of the trail that John W. Cromwell blazed a century ago, several organizations, including organizing partners the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), Diverse Organization of Firms, Inc., Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), and National Society of Black CPAs (NSBCPA) will recognize Black CPAs and push for greater progress. The themes of the centennial are honoring the past, celebrating the progress that has been made, and continuing to build the future.

As we learn about the history of our profession, the pioneers, the challenges, and the triumphs, it should help us better understand its current state. The more we know about the history of exclusion, the better we can understand the lack of diversity and the lack of inclusion of various demographics, especially in leadership positions. We should think harder and question if the status quo exists for any better reason than the environments that existed in the past. We should remember and honor those who, in addition to having to work hard had to find their success, had to navigate around or through the arbitrary biases of others. Most of all, we should look at our present and what we can do now to create an environment that builds a future of belonging, equity, and inclusion in our profession.

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From The Radio In The News My Two Cents PSA

Know When to Hold Them

I am the absolute worst gambler. Several years ago, I headed out to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, spent a lot of time in the casinos, and very little time gambling. My friend discovered that if she was sitting in front of a slot machine, occasionally pushing the button, she got drinks for free. Sitting next to her, I benefitted from this perk. Thus, we spent a lot of the long weekend chatting and sipping on drinks, while hanging out near a slot machine. It was a lot more fun than it generally has been when I lose my money in a casino. I am sure there are may strategies and techniques that people employ when gambling, but I don’t even know the theories, so I tend to essentially throw my money at a machine or croupier and hope for the best.

When it comes to some financial terms that are being bandied about in discussions about GameStop, I can at least try to explain what the terms mean. I find that what is going on in the stock market right now involves many short words that may be more complicated than they sound. Hopefully, clarifying them will help us all get a better idea of what is going on. I am going to speak about shares (because that is what is at play with GameStop) but these financial terms apply to all kinds of securities. Securities are financial instruments that are tradable and fungible, or mutually interchangeable. The fungible characteristic is what makes securities so easily tradable. Securities being fungible means that they are for all practical purposes, considered to be identical and can be exchanged for one another. You can exchange one $20 bill for two $10 bills. In contrast, though they are both seats one does not consider a front row seat to be the same as a back row seat, especially if everyone in front of you is way taller, so these seats are non-fungible.

I shall start out by talking about buying on margin. In the stock market, when you buy on margin, it means that you are buying securities using only a percentage of your own money. For example, say you want to buy a share for $100 but only have $10 to your name. You approach your local broker and that broker agrees to lend you $90 to get you to the $100 to buy that share. Because just about nothing in life is free, the broker charges you 10% interest on the $90. In a year, you decide to sell that share. When you do that, you will need to repay the broker $90 plus $9 in interest. If you skipped over those sentences because you saw numbers and didn’t want to to math, buying on margin means you only need to use a fraction of the money needed to buy shares and you can borrow the rest, paying interest. If you are able to sell the shares for more than what you paid to buy it, that’s great. You can use your profit to pay back your loan (plus interest) and happily take the rest home with you to do with as you please. However, if the price of the shares goes down, you will lose your money and may have to find money elsewhere to repay your loan. In the United States, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) generally requires that a customer use 50% of their own money for their first time or initial purchase of securities. People who want to short sell securities, also need margin accounts.

For all the people who are optimistic about share prices and financial markets, there are those who look at securities and believe that the value of the securities will go down. Some may call these people pessimists, and these people may call themselves realists. Po-tay-to or Po-tah-to, these folks seek to benefit from their price downturn point of view by doing what is called short selling (or shorting) the security, and this is how shorting works. Pessireal (as we shall call them) goes to their broker and says, “I would like to borrow one $100 share of Tulip stock. Everyone is all about Tulip these days, but I just don’t see that ending well.” The broker will then sell a $100 share of Tulip stock, and give the $100 to Pessireal, less any transaction fees (again, nothing for free). Pessireal will then sit back, wait, and watch the market. If Pessireal’s gut is correct about Tulip and that the value of the share goes down to $50, Pessireal will take $50 of the $100 and buy a share of Tulip stock which they will give to the broker to, as they say, close the short position. So, Pessireal is giving back the borrowed share and has made $50 (less fees) while they’re at it.

Suppose, however, that Pessireal is wrong about Tulip, it becomes the best thing since sliced bread, and nothing can keep its price down. Pessireal may realize the error of their ways and decide to cut their losses when the share price is $200. In addition to the $100 they got from their borrowed share, Pessireal will have to spend an additional $100 of their own money to buy the share they need to return to the broker. Although this is rare, sometimes it is the broker who may decide that they want their share back. It could be because the broker has been watching Tulip’s share price going up and when it gets to $300 a share, they start to fear that Pessireal won’t be able to pay them back. So they call Pessireal up and, despite’s Pessireal’s attempts to assure them that Tulip’s demise is on the horizon, they demand their share be returned. This means, whether they like it or not, Pessireal will have to find an additional $200 to bring the $100 from the borrowed share up to the $300 needed in order to buy a share of Tulip and return it to the broker.

With the regular trading of securities, the worst that can happen is that the value of your investment can go down to zero. That hurts but at least you know that the most you can lose is what you put in. The best that can happen is pretty much infinite. Your gain is whatever the price of the security goes up to be, over what you put in. Short selling is the opposite. You can calculate the most you can earn on a security – the lower the price goes, the more you make, up until the security is worthless. On the very scary flip side, the most you can lose is pretty much as high as the share price soars, which could be, as GameStop short sellers are finding out, can be pretty darn high. Brook Gladstone, the host of On The Media, shared that she spent almost $1,000 on 42 shares of GameStop stock in 1999 and by April 2020, that investment was worth $3.50 a share – $147. She sold her shares when they were at $100 a share. Most of last year, GameStop’s stock was valued at $250 million. The stock has exploded to a point where GameStop’s stock value is around $20 billion! If you are a short seller, that hurts.

The last thing I will mention here is the short squeeze. Say, Pessireal was not alone in thinking that Tulip’s share price was going to crash, and that many had decided to short Tulip but, instead, that price was soaring. Some short sellers may take a look at the soaring price and at their sources of funds and decide that they were ready to cut their losses. If there were enough of these short sellers looking to buy Tulip shares so that they could return them to their brokers, and close the short position, this higher demand could push the share price even higher. Right now, with GameStop (and other stocks) there are a lot more people looking to buy shares than are looking to sell. The trusty supply and demand chart comes in to show how the increased demand will increase the price. The short sellers, looking to cut their losses and repay their borrowed stock, are, in turn, squeezing that price up too.

I can’t say when and how this will end; I am no good at the Vegas game. Heck, I can’t even let what happened in Vegas stay there. I do, however, hope that as you read or listen to stories that are throwing out financial terms, you will nod along and think – I get it.

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In The News Inspiration PSA

Nobody’s Perfect

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Barings Bank was the United Kingdom’s oldest merchant bank and the second oldest merchant bank in the world. In 1992, the bank sent 25-year-old Nick Leeson to be the general manager at its new office in Singapore. During that first year there, Leeson made unauthorized trades that earned Barings £10 million in profits. The bank should have had a system where one person was a trader, and another was double-checking and then authorizing these trades. Instead, Leeson did everything with no checks and balances. Yes, these trades were unauthorized, but they made the bank a lot of money and so, instead of nipping the unauthorized trades in the bud, Barings paid Leeson a massive bonus and labeled him a rising star. Things changed very quickly, and Leeson started losing money on his trades. Instead of reporting his losses, Leeson hid them in a suspense account, that he created and tried, unsuccessfully, to recoup his losses. He would then hide those losses in this suspense account as well. By the end of 1994, the losses stood at £208 million. In February of 1994, Leeson left a note stating, “I’m sorry”, and fled Singapore, leaving Barings Bank with £897 million in losses (equivalent to $1.4 billion). Barings Bank could not recover from those losses and, after being in business since 1762, collapsed and was bought by ING for £1.

The story of Barings Bank and Nick Leeson is like one of those puzzles where you circle the ten things wrong in a picture – there are that many problem areas and weaknesses that led to the downfall that we could revisit this story many times for lessons. Today we shall focus on Nick Leeson hiding his bad bets. Initially, Leeson made errors and miscalculations on some trades that he made and lost money from those errors. From some of the accounts from Leeson, it is implied that mistakes were not looked upon kindly. Leeson claimed that he first opened the suspense account in which he hid losses after a colleague lost £20,000 after making an error herself. Instead of either one of them reporting the error, they decided to hide this error from leadership. Nick Leeson then went on to hide more of his trading errors here, thinking, in the manner of a gambler, that he could gain the money he had lost back, and his bosses would never find out what he was doing.

I thought about Nick Leeson this week because I am reading Principles by Ray Dalio. In it, he tells the story of how his employee Ross, who was in charge of trading at the time, forgot to make a trade and that cost the business “several hundred thousand dollars”. Dalio tells us that, with such a costly error, he could have dramatically fired Ross and “set the tone that mistakes would not be tolerated. Instead, Dalio recognized that mistakes happen to us all the time, he himself had made mistakes so large that he had essentially lost his business at some point. Dalio’s approach, which is an approach that I am a huge fan of and have tried to follow for a long time, is to think about what to learn from mistakes and how to improve things to minimize the chances of those mistakes happening again, or at least how to minimize their impact should they occur. As I have written before, Dalio recognized that punishing Ross for his mistake would likely result in other people working hard to hide any errors. Dalio saw that would cost his business a lot more in the long run. At his firm, Bridgewater, Dalio and Ross created an error log where errors were tracked and addressed. Instead of people getting into trouble for making mistakes, they would get into trouble when they didn’t report mistakes.

With Leeson (and Barings Bank) and Dalio in mind and the different outcomes that have resulted from their approaches to dealing with mistakes is very telling. One person brought down the second oldest merchant bank and the other has what is considered to be the fifth most important private company in the United States. Some things to keep in mind when considering how to manage responses to errors in your business:

  • Create an environment where everyone is comfortable reporting errors that they have made. Be explicit with this, both in what you say and how you respond.
  • When you discover a mistake, take the time to look, with your team, into how this mistake might have been avoided or recognized and resolved earlier. An example is, with a missed trade, it is likely that Dalio and his team looked at the process and sought to put in checks to make sure that there were others aware of the trade, checking to make sure the trade was made and having a way to check in with Ross to make sure he had not forgotten.
  • Review your systems to see where there are checks and balances and if especially important areas are not put on one person. Make sure that someone else is checking – we all make mistakes and that is why there is a checking system. Not to make us feel bad about ourselves but in recognition of our humanness.
  • Have open discussions about errors and get input from all levels on how to avoid or detect errors. At the leadership level, you may come up with a system, but you may find that staff find that process cumbersome, don’t stick with it and errors can go undetected for a while. And if an error has not even been detected, it can’t be reported.

These are just a few things to think about but the most important part is creating an environment that is open to communication, not just about success, but about the things that have gone wrong. You should think about making the environment open for the hard conversations the priority because it is simple to report and celebrate success but failure and error are what kill our business. With that in mind, are there situations that you have found yourself in where either you or someone on your team made a mistake? How did you respond, how did others respond, and how did things turn out?

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AICPA In The News My Two Cents PSA

Taking Over…

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Last year, I visited Atlanta Airport seeking an incident report. The airport is a massive place and, after I found a very helpful airport employee, I wound up outside the emergency services offices. Fortunately, the staff was both friendly and helpful and, within minutes, the gentleman I was speaking with was asking his colleague to look up the incident in question in order to provide me with the information I needed for the next steps forward. It all seemed very easy until it wasn’t. His colleague looked at his screen and then stated that something seemed to be going on and his computer was not responding. After trying a few things without success, I was given a phone number to call and follow up. I was to get what I was looking for within the next couple of days.

I left and heard nothing for almost a month, which actually worked out for me because I was traveling a lot and would not have been able to do much with the information. When my call was finally returned, I learned that the reason it had taken so long was that the city of Atlanta had been taken down by a Ransomware attack. The day I was at the airport, was when the attack was happening! Imagine that, I was in the midst of a lot of drama and excitement and had no idea. The only story I have to tell is that I saw a blue screen of death and then it took three weeks for my call to be returned.

I will say this: if anyone is affected by a ransomware attack, my story is probably the best outcome to have. A couple of years ago I shared a story about my friend whose clients were victims of ransomware attacks where $300 to $600 was demanded of them. In that time, ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated and a lot more frequent. Cryptocurrencies have also contributed to the boom because it makes the attackers more difficult to track down. As I wrote in a piece on ransomware, the first known ransomware attack happened in 1989, where the attacker sent floppy disks to attendees at a conference. A program on that disk locked the computer on its 90th restart, demanding $189 of the user for a resolution. The Atlanta ransomware attackers demanded $52,000 (and it took over $2.5 million for the city to recover from the attack). The attackers may ask for what may seem as relatively small amounts when they attack but it adds up. In 2016, ransomware attackers made over $1 billion and that amount climbs every year. In addition to the upfront cost of the ransomware demand, often a victim has to spend a lot of time and money recovering from the attack. I mentioned before that Atlanta spent over $2.5 million and they are not alone. Ransomware damages are predicted to reach $11.5 billion this year.

As you can see from my friend’s experience and that of Atlanta, there is no victim too large or too small for an attack and so it is imperative for all of us to take steps to protect ourselves and do what we can to mitigate any damages should we be attacked.

  • The first easy step is backup, backup and then backup offline. Because I have had backups fail on me, I try to have two backups of information and itis important to make sure that your backup is separate from your computer. In this way, should your computer be attacked, your backup will be someplace else.
  • Then try to use two-factor authentication for your logins. Many applications and websites already insist on this but try to make it a habit for yourself, whether or not someone else is doing it.
  • Update your passwords regularly – yes, it’s a schlep but especially with very regular news about companies being hacked, companies that house your sensitive information and logins, it makes sense to keep changing these.
  • Be careful about opening up emails and clicking on attachments or links in those emails. I know we live in a world with way too many emails and way too little time, but think before you click. If you receive an email you are not expecting, check to make sure that it is a valid email. Just last week, I received an email from a fellow CPA and when I checked with her, it turned out that her email was hacked and was sending out malicious links. If the tone and language of the email are vague or don’t sound like the voice of the person you have dealt with in the past, double-check with the person. It doesn’t take long and can save a lot of pain.
  • Update your software. A lot of ransomware takes advantage of vulnerabilities in software and taking advantage of the fact that many people do not regularly update their software. Set your machine to update automatically, then you don’t even have to think about it.
  • If, unfortunately, you are a victim of a ransomware attack, think on it before you pay. You are dealing with criminals. Although it seems that more often ransomware attackers do restore machines after attacks (it’s better for business, apparently) it is not assured. Often people find that they have no option because they do not have a recovery plan. If you have the option of recovery, it is easier to make the decision on whether or not to take the chance of paying.

Ransomware is on the rise and so it seems that more of us are at risk than before. It is smart to take a few protective steps if only to keep you from taking weeks to return a call.

 

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In The News My Two Cents

Makes You WannaCry

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A couple of years ago a lawyer friend told me about clients who were coming to her office, panicked because their computers had been locked by parties claiming to be the FBI. In order to get their machines unlocked, these fake FBI agents demanded to be paid a ransom. On Friday, over 200,000 machines were locked by people (I assume it was more than one person) who did not even pretend to be good. They encrypted the information on these machines and demanded $300 to $600 per machine or, they threatened, all the data on those machines would be destroyed. This type of attack is called a ransomware attack. A program is introduced into the machine, and it locks and encrypts all the data on the machine. A message pops up on the infected machine demanding that money be paid, almost always via bitcoin. Once the ransom has been paid, the message says, a method to unlock the machine will be sent. If the ransom is not paid within the time demanded, all the data on the machine will be erased. So much of our lives, both personal and business, is stored on computers; can you imagine what would happen if your computer was locked? The mere thought makes my heart speed up.

Earlier this year, a hacker crew called Shadow Brokers released several tools used by the National Security Agency (NSA). Among these tools was one called EternalBlue and this tool exploited a flaw in Microsoft Windows. Armed with the information that was leaked, Microsoft created a patch to fix this flaw and released this patch in March. Perhaps you have now read this far and you are wondering, if the patch was released in March, how did this massive attack happen in May? How many times has a message popped up on your machine while you are in the middle of something. The message tells you that an update is available for your machine. You see it, but you are in the middle of something important. You close the window and delay the update. This can happen over and over again. Some people, irritated by the notices, turn off the alerts altogether. Now, these automatic alerts are only available on versions of Windows that Microsoft is still actively supporting. So, if you have an older version of Windows, such as XP, Windows 8 or Windows Server 2003, you no longer receive alerts for updates. Either way, there are millions of machines that were vulnerable to attack on Friday. And on Friday, ransomware aptly called WannaCry, wreaked havoc all over the world.

It is believed that the attackers gained access to computers and systems using infected zip files attached to emails. People opened emails and clicked on attachments. These emails did not come from friends and the people clicked on attachments, not knowing what they were opening. Taking advantage of the fact that many organizations store their computer information on servers, making all users interconnected. The WannaCry ransomware, once released by one user, made its way through the interconnected systems and attacked other machines, even those belonging to people who did not click on the infected attachments.

This attack has made many things apparent:

  • Keeping secrets can sometimes go very wrong. The NSA knew that there was a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows. If it was not for the Shadow Brokers leak, Microsoft may not have discovered this vulnerability and they would not have developed a patch to fix it. One can also argue that, if Shadow Brokers had not leaked this information, the hackers may not have known to create WannaCry and none of this would have happened in the first place. I have found, though, that generally speaking, secrets are not kept that way forever.
  • When I wrote about the fake FBI attacks, I stated the importance of keeping your computers up to date. I cannot stress this enough. When the reminders pop up on your machine to update your software, update your software. Install the security fixes. If you don’t want to be disturbed, set up a timetable so that your machine will automatically check for and install updates on a regular basis. Remember, also, to restart your machine on a regular basis. Many installations are not complete without a restart and some updates are triggered by a restart.
  • We live in a time where everyone receives more email than they want to deal with. We run the risk of making careless mistakes, opening up emails and clicking on attachments when we have no idea who sent the email and what is in the attachment. Nowadays, you are almost lucky if the only thing that the attachment does is send out a lot of spam to your friends. More often, click on that attachment can lead to hackers stealing information from you or holding your machine hostage. Sometimes, even when I receive an email, with an attachment, that appears to be from a friend, I will double-check with the friend to make sure that they have sent the email and their account has not been hacked. The extra step may seem tedious but, enough times I have found out that my friend was hacked, so I keep asking when I am suspicious.
  • If your operating system is no longer supported, you should consider getting new software that is. I say this with mixed feelings. Like most people, I hate being forced to buy something when what I already have has been working well for me and when I don’t like the new version. I feel scammed being made to spend that extra money and if the world only contained righteous people I would tell you to keep your software and change it when you are ready. But, we live in a world where people are ready to take advantage of an opportunity to get money out of you. Microsoft stopped providing support for Windows XP in 2014. This ransomware is specifically taking advantage of this fact. It’s a shame, but it is the way it is.
  • Back up, Back up and back up some more. If you are regularly backing up your machine and keeping the backup either in the cloud or on an external drive, you know what you can do when your machine is held for ransom? You can ignore the ransom demand because you have your data saved some place safe. The clock can tick down, the files on your machine can all be delete and, even though it will suck to restore everything, you can do so.

On Monday morning, people are going to go to work and turn on their machines and many machines running Windows XP or that have not been updated in months will be open to attack. Many of those that are attacked will want to pay the ransom because their data has not been backed. Just weeks ago, articles were written about how British hospitals spent nothing on cyber-defense.  On Friday, they could barely function. Maybe they had started having meetings and started discussing taking steps to protect their systems. But, like we all do when that warning popped up, they put it off. I am sure right now they are wishing they had done something to protect themselves because they had to scramble to fix a disaster.

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At the Movies In The News Social Media Where We Are

Who Is The Accountant?

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I have been excited about watching “The Accountant” for over a year, when I first heard about this movie – a film about a forensic accountant! I lived in fear of the project being canceled by film bigwigs, who would decide that no one wanted to see a movie about an accountant. Accountants are almost never depicted, on screen, as anyone worth one’s time. You can’t love or hate them, they are too boring to think about. But here was a movie and the filmmaker was so confident about it that he called it “The Accountant.”  I would tell people how excited I was about the film and they would almost always express surprise that anyone would want to make a film about a CPA, let alone watch one. I don’t blame them because just about every time I have seen a CPA being portrayed on film or television, I don’t want to be him (and it is almost always a him). He is a guy with zero social skills that people put up with because he is some kind of numbers-whisperer; a guy who can find secrets in the numbers that the true heroes are too busy being interesting to find. So, on Sunday, I dragged my husband, who is a true saint, to the movie theaters to watch “The Accountant.”

From the previews, you will see that Ben Affleck, the Accountant, seriously lacks social skills and does not appear to have any friends. He is, as a forensic accountant, a super numbers-whisperer who gobbles up financial statements for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  However, he is also the hero and is an incredibly interesting guy who can do all the running, jumping and full mystery solving that heroes can! They also threw in the story of Crazy Eddie and his “Panama pump”. I may have been the only person in the movie theater who exclaimed in excitement when that came up, but the story of Crazy Eddie is one of many years of various fraud schemes, ranging from money laundering and tax evasion, to financial statement fraud.  I had a great time watching this movie and, I even forgave the woman who yelled out a spoiler reveal before it happened.

It seems that many had been convinced to try out a film about a forensic accountant. “The Accountant” won the box office this weekend, by a massive margin that you don’t have to be an accountant to understand. This gives me hope for the future of CPAs on the screen (big or small). I can see it now – characters who are at least as interesting as lawyers and doctors. We may even be portrayed as people who can tell funny jokes, who can be engaging and who can even have friends: I am excited about films that break long-standing stereotypes. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but I will say something that is a first, with respect to how I feel about a CPA of any kind on TV or on film. I watched this movie and I came out wanting to be a forensic accountant!

 

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In The News My Two Cents What's Going On?

Massive Betrayal of Trust

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Photo by Mamnaimie Piotr

On September 8, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) put out a press release that it was fining Wells Fargo Bank $100 million for secretly opening deposit and credit card accounts, without customer approval. In addition to the CFPB fine, Wells Fargo was fined $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, $50 million by the City and Country of Los Angeles and will have to pay approximately $5 million in restitution to customers. This fraudulent behavior occurred on a massive scale and, based on the CFPB’s investigation, resulted in:

  • Employees opening 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts;
  • Employees submitting applications for 565,443 credit-card accounts, without the knowledge or consent of the people in whose names the applications were made;
  • Employees creating fake email addresses in order to enroll consumers in online-banking services;
  • Employees requesting debit cards for customers, without the customers’ knowledge or consent, and creating PINs to activate these cards.

All of the above has happened only since January 1, 2011. That is about five years in which these shenanigans were going on. During this time, Wells Fargo fired about 5,300 employees but it does not appear that the bank did a lot more than that to change the culture and systems in order to keep these practices from recurring, or that it took any steps to do right by the customers who were affected. To boot, the executive who oversaw the unit where this all happened left without having to pay back any of the almost $125 million that she earned with the bank. To understand why employees engaged in these dishonest practices, it is important to understand how they benefitted.

Wells Fargo is valued at over $250 billion, making it the most valuable bank in United States, by this yardstick. Wells Fargo was also considered to be the king of cross-selling. Cross-selling is a practice where banks sell more than one service to a customer. For instance, say you open a checking account with Wells Fargo. If the person that you open your account with convinces you to then open a savings account, a credit card account and a mortgage, all of that is cross-selling. At Wells Fargo, employees were paid and received bonuses based on the number of different services they were able to sell to customers. At times, employees would have to work unpaid overtime hours in order to reach these goals and would be threatened with losing their jobs if they did not do enough cross-selling. These employees were told to do “whatever it takes” in order to meet sales goals and this turned out to include engaging in the fraudulent behaviors I noted above.

With the pressure to perform in order to increase earnings, through bonuses, or merely keep a job, the retail employees, at least 5,300 of them, found many opportunities to game the system. Controls at Wells Fargo, when it came to ensuring accounts were valid and authorized by customers, appears to have been very lax. For instance:

  • Employees were able to sign up customers for banking services and would use fake email addresses that used wellsfargo.com as the domain name, such as 1234@wellsfargo.com or none@wellsfargo.com. Doesn’t that seem rather brazen? It also seems like a security shortfall on the part of the bank, that the application process wouldn’t flag an email that doesn’t exist in your own system.
  • When employees opened fake deposit accounts, they would fund these accounts by transferring a customers money from an authorized account to the fake account. Sometimes, as a result of the transfer, the authorized account would incur insufficient balance and overdraft fees. Also, the fake accounts would also incur fees and Wells Fargo would withdraw money from the authorized accounts in order to pay these fees.
  • In a similar manner, credit card accounts opened, without the approval or knowledge of customers, would incur annual and other fees. At times, these customers would find that they were in collections and their credit scores had been affected by accounts that they did not even know they had.
  • Some customers actually received credit cards for accounts that they had not authorized. When these customers contacted Wells Fargo to complain about these cards, they were told to simply destroy the cards. Destroying a credit card does not close the credit card account, nor does the shredding of a card do anything as far as the shredding that your credit profile may have taken.
  • In order to meet quarterly goals, employees would hold back applications for account openings. The manual applications, that included sensitive personal information, would be stockpiled in an unsecured manner and the accounts would only be opened in the next sales goal period, in a practice referred to as sandbagging.
  • Wells Fargo also misled customers by telling them that they could not get one service without getting a bundle of other included services. That would be like opening a checking account and being told that you cannot do so unless you open a savings account and get a credit card with the bank.

With how widespread these practices were, it seems that employees were sharing knowledge about how to best bulk up their cross-selling numbers, without actually cross-selling. Also, when customers complained about fees, it is unclear how much of a follow-up there was to discover if what had happened was a mistake or not. Then, when Wells Fargo discovered this behavior and fired an employee, the bank did not take any steps to let the impacted customers know that their information had been used to open accounts in their name and, if applicable, charge them fees. The bank did not go back and refund customers the fees they had been charged, unless the customer raised a stink about them. When I was discussing this case with my husband and explaining how customers were negatively affected, he had a tale of his own. He has a credit card (not Wells Fargo) and the company changed his credit card information, without letting him know. When he sent payment on his account, they accepted the payment, without telling him that the account was closed, and then charged him interest and fees on the balance that had been moved to a new account. He, not the credit card company, had to figure out what had happened and he, not the credit card company had to calculate the monies that needed to be refunded to him and make sure that the company was not just holding money on a nonexistent account but actually crediting it to his account.

As a result of this case, in addition to the fines that Wells Fargo has been ordered to pay, there are steps the bank has been ordered to take in order to improve the culture and strengthen the system so that this kind of behavior can be prevented, detected and corrected in the future. This includes:

  • Employee training to prevent “Improper Sales Practices” and improve integrity at the bank;
  • Creating monitoring processes and policies to effectively deal with customer complaints;
  • Creating systems to ensure that customer approval is received before accounts are opened on their behalf;
  • Revising the basis for how employees are paid and reviewing sales goals to ensure that they are not unrealistic and do not impose unreasonable pressure on employees.

Wells Fargo will continue to be monitored for five years, to make sure that they comply with the CFPB’s consent order.

On your part, with all your accounts, you can check to make sure that they accounts that you have are ones that you have authorized and that transactions made in your name are valid. Some steps that you can take are:

  • Review your credit report on a regular basis to make sure that all accounts listed are ones that you know about. Several financial institutions offer free credit reports to customers. If this is not an option for you, you can visit the Annual Credit Report website. On this website, you are entitled to credit report per year, from each of the three major credit reporting companies. A strategy to employ is to check a report with one agency every four months;
  • Check your bank statements regularly (at least monthly) for any transactions that are incorrect. Even if it is a small amount, look into a transaction. That small amount could be an indication of something bigger;
  • If you receive a card in the mail that you did not apply for it, follow-up on it and make sure that it is cancelled. Then check your credit report again.

On the Wells Fargo website, the Chairman and CEO states that “Everything we do is built on trust.” It seems that many employees have been playing lip service to that value and we know that, even with trust, it is important to verify. Take the time to check in on your finances. There may be mistakes that need fixing and there may also be pressured employees who are trying to get ahead or merely hold onto their jobs by engaging in dishonest practices.

Categories
D.O.J. Enforcement In The News

A Matter of Trust

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I fell in love with economics, in part, because it made so much sense. Just about everything could be boiled down into a supply and demand chart that even I, with my limited artistic skills, could draw, freehand. In a free market (the basis of all things good in this world) and in our economics 101 diagrams, the goal was to get everything, neatly, to equilibrium. It was glorious! In every situation, supply and demand, in a free market, would come to a price where both parties were happy and all goods and services to be sold were bought. In equilibrium, there were no shortages, there were no overages and the price was right. For instance, say guy made Twix bars and was selling them for five cents. He would likely find that a lot of people, including those who might ordinarily prefer Snickers, would be clamoring to stock up on Twix bars. Chances are that this guy would sell out of Twix bars in no time. People seeking these cheap, and now sold out, Twix bars might start placing ads on Craigslist, perhaps even offering ten cents for a Twix bar. Others might go to the Twix maker and offer him ten cents a bar to be put on a pre-sale list. Some people might see how well the Twix bar maker is doing and decide to start making Twix bars too. In the world of the perfect graphs, this cycle would go on, with the Twix makers raising their prices a little more and making more Twix bars, in response to the great demand for the chocolate bars. However, as the price goes up and gets closer to the price of a Snickers bar, some of the people who are not so crazy about the Twix will find that the higher price is not enough of a bargain for them, so they will no longer want to buy the Twix bar at this high price. The Twix makers might get too excited about the demand for the chocolate bars and decide to raise the price to two dollars. Even though a few Twix or nothing people might be willing to sacrifice all for a Twix, most people would tell the Twix makers that they are crazy and go looking for an alternative. The Twix makers would then find that the Twix bars are going old and stale in their storage facilities and they are not selling enough chocolate to even cover their costs. To resolve this, they will lower their prices and reduce production, until they get to the point where the price is such that sellers have enough unexpired Twix bars to sell to everyone who comes in looking for them, no extras, no shortages. That, according to the graphs, is how a free market works.

When a monopoly exists, it messes with the free market. In the case of a monopoly, there are no other options and people have no choice but to buy a product or service from one source. This would like living in a place where you can only buy electricity from one provider. For most people in that society, they will be forced to pay whatever the electricity provider charges for electricity. Try as they might, they will not have an alternative to electricity in order to charge their mobile phones and laptops. Twix bars won’t cut it. What economists have found is that, left to their own devices, monopolies will charge more for their products and services than people would be willing to pay in a free market where they could choose their supplier. Monopolies have pros and cons. Some pros of monopolies are:

  • Stable Prices that come about because there is no one coming in and out of the market to create bidding wars, where suppliers fight, with prices, to get customers. With only one supplier, there tends to be just one price that tends to remain the same for a while.
  • Economies of Scale. This basically means that, because the monopolist is making all the product for the entire market, he is making a lot of product at one time. As a result, the large scale will lead to lower costs per unit. If the monopolist chooses to pass the savings on to the customer the customers will be able to get goods and services at a lower price than they might have in an open market with many supplies making goods on a smaller scale.
  • Research and Development may benefit from monopolies. Since the monopolies are making all the money in the market, from sales, they can take these larger profits and have more money to put towards innovations and improvements of their goods and services.

On the flip side, the cons of monopolies are:

  • Higher Prices may be a result of monopolies. Because people have no other options, the monopolies can get away with charging whatever they feel like charging.
  • Price Discrimination can happen with monopolies as well. Because they can charge whatever they want, they can decide to charge some people one price and others another price and, because customers have no options, they are forced to accept the price quoted to them.
  • Inferior Goods and Services are a possibility with monopolies. Monopolies may look at the market and decide to cut corners and produce inferior quality goods and services because they know that customers can’t go anywhere else.

Generally, monopolies are not considered to be in the spirit of the free market. Competition, that would correct inefficiencies and unfairness in the markets, does not exist with monopolies and so there is a risk that consumers can be taken advantage of. As a result, regulators tend to take steps to review mergers of large companies in order to reduce the risk of monopolies (or something close to a monopoly). The action by the regulators is related to their enforcement of antitrust laws.

Currently, several health insurance companies are fighting with the US Department of Justice. Humana and Aetna are seeking to merge into one company as are Athena and Cigna. Currently there are five national health insurance providers; the merger will leave us with three providers. The health insurance companies are touting the pros of monopolies, claiming that the mergers will lead to lower prices to consumers and increased research and development. The justice department, on the other hand, argues that, with fewer national insurance companies, there will be less innovation and there will be the risk that customers will be charged higher rates.

As we enter the complications of humans, trust, regulations and court battles, we can keep in mind the memory of the neat graphs of the perfect markets. It may help us better understand the news articles, full-page ads and other coverage of this and other antitrust actions related to other mergers and acquisition deals in the news. If not, we can take comfort in our still affordable Twix bars.

Categories
In The News Inspiration My Two Cents Running

Cheating Mysteries

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When I first started running long distance, my goal was to run the New York Marathon. After I completed the Chicago Marathon, things changed a little. Of course I still held my breath every year, hoping to make it into the New York Marathon. But I also had another distant dream – qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It was a distant dream because I would need to run a qualifying time in order to get into Boston and my pace at that time was nowhere near one that would get me into Boston. Over the last few years, my pace has improved and qualifying for Boston has become a more attainable dream. Over the years, I have also come to know more runners and have found that many of us aspire to qualify. I know I am always in awe of a person who has qualified for Boston – it is no mean feat.

With the line of work that I am in, I should not have been surprised, but I was, when I read a recent Runner’s World piece about people who cheat to get into the Boston Marathon. I wanted to run the New York Marathon because I was inspired by the runners who ran past my block, the runners who would touch all five boroughs that make up the city that I call home. I enjoy running races in cities and towns that I have never been to, as I find it a great way to visit and discover new places. When I think about Boston, I don’t necessarily think about running the race itself. The power of Boston, for me and for many that I speak with is in what it takes to qualify. That is the challenge. So, when I read about people who cheated by getting someone else to run a qualifying time in their place, or by cutting a course, I was baffled. Where is the joy in telling someone that you achieved something that you didn’t or that you had someone achieve on your behalf? When I speak with fellow runners, I tend to speak with like-minded people who are just as baffled as I am.

This article reminded me that just because one cannot understand the motivations of a cheater, it does not mean that the cheating will not happen. The fact that many of us cannot understand this motivation is exactly what those that cheat bank on. If no one can imagine how or why someone would fake qualifying for the Boston Marathon, the chances are high that a person will get away with faking in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This is something that we all should be mindful of, beyond the realms of the Boston Marathon. Way too often, a business owner or manager will forgo instituting checks and balances in their company, because that business owner can’t imagine that anyone that works for them could be the kind of person that would defraud them.

It is important to take steps to keep from being blindsided by your world view. Precisely because you can’t imagine how a person could behave in a fraudulent manner is why you should seek out the services of a forensic accountant, whose job it is to both imagine how a person could defraud you and how to prevent and detect such actions. We all hope that people will be honest, but it is a sad truth that for various reasons, people will cheat. In the context of the Boston Marathon, perhaps some people feel that they are so close to a qualifying time that a little cheat is not such a bad thing. Maybe some people hunger for praise, even if they have not earned it. Maybe some people just don’t think it is a big deal to cheat in order to get into Boston and see it as a victimless crime. In the context of a business, some people may face personal pressures that they feel push them to fraud. Some people may feel that they are not sufficiently appreciated by their employer and may, therefore, feel justified in taking from that employer. No one is immune from the pressures or motivations that lead to fraud, but what we can do is take steps to make it as difficult as possible to be defrauded.

 

Categories
In The News NPR

On the Record

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I first wrote about Scott London in April 2013, soon after he had been arrested on insider trading charges. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and was released early, for good behavior, earlier this year. I was listening to my regular Planet Money podcast last week and, like an awesome Christmas gift, they were interviewing Scott London about what he did and why he did it.

London spoke about how, when he was an audit partner at KPMG, he started sharing non-public information on his clients with a golfing buddy. It is not as though London did not know that what he was doing was both unethical and illegal. He speaks about how much training KPMG gave to employees, training that he himself gave at times. Yet, when his friend’s business was struggling and his friend asked for just a little help, Scott London was able to rationalize what he did. In his mind, the money that Bryan Shaw, the friend, was making was small and this made what he was doing not so bad. This is something that happens often in fraud stories. Most frauds start small, either because the fraudster is testing the waters or because the fraudster initially intends to just take a little to cover their perceived need. It is generally because the initial idea of a fraud is small so it does not seem like a big deal and will not hurt anyone. it is a good reminder that when you are looking into or for fraud, you should not just look for large amounts. The fraudsters are going to do what they can to stay under the radar and many are going to be committing in ways that minimize, in their minds, what they are doing.

All in all, Shaw paid London about $70,000 in cash and gifts, while Shaw made $1.27 million from the insider trading. I was amused to hear London’s shock at how much money Shaw made trading on the information that he got from London. You see, when Shaw asked for the tips, he proposed that they share the money equally. It was funny that London was shocked to find out that the person who had partnered with him in an illegal pursuit had been less than honest with him. I suppose he had not heard that there is no honor among thieves. I am not sure if he was surprised because he realized how much more money he should have been paid or if he thinks he would have nipped the insider trading in the bud had he known just how much money was at stake (making the crime a bigger deal than he imagined).

During the podcast, the Planet Money folk discussed whether insider trading is a victimless crime. They struggled to find who is hurt by the trading. They came to their conclusions about who is hurt and you can also read various others opine. When I look at insider trading and think about who can be seen as victims, I have a long list. If you are competing in what you believe is a level playing field but where some parties know more than you do, it is just about a given that those parties are going to beat you every time. And, in this day and age where many retirement and savings plans involve trading on the stock market, why would you even bother if you knew that there were people making lots of money, primarily because they had inside information that you were not privy to?

There are so many layers in the Scott London story that could fill a book and, one such book, by James Ulvog, about Scott London’s fraud is well worth a read. Hearing from Scott London himself was a great gift and is a lesson in insider trading, tone at the top, how easily a fraud can begin and the consequences of taking the path that he took. Thank you Santa and Planet Money!