Most reasonably intelligent readers are finally willing to admit the financial crisis was neither an unpredictable, uncontrollable, once in a blue-moon "black swan" event nor the result of a conspiracy by shadow bankers who've implemented a new world order while flying from Manhattan to Islip in black helicopters.
Most of the stories about what caused the crisis have too many "hands." On the one hand, there was too little regulation. Or too little, depending on whom you ask. On the other hand, some blame the government for pushing home ownership down the throats of supposedly undeserving borrowers, who now want someone to pay for their greed and stupidity. That, in my opinion, is preposterous.
If I were the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, I would have at least two more hands and two more crazy and contradictory theories for what caused the troubles we're in now.
But one thing is clear. The financial crisis was caused by people. A few were simply stupid, some were too smart for their own good, others had enormous egos and many let greed get in the way of good judgment too often. Some, I believe, actually committed crimes.
Massive re-regulation or not, they'll surely be another crisis. I’m nearly fifty, but I expect it to occur in my lifetime, assuming we get out of the doldrums we're still in soon.
I'm certain we'll see another bubble and then a collapse because I've heard from the business students who've learned no lessons from the last one.
I've been invited to speak at universities about the frauds, the scandals, ethics and auditors a lot lately. The faculty, most of them middle-aged or older, are alternately furious and frightened. Mature professionals are mad at politicians and business leaders. They're angry at the ratings agencies and some are furious at the auditors.
Students, for the most part, are only worried about how the current recession will affect their careers. When I visit a campus, students' questions are often self-centered. They're more concerned about getting a job than an education. Maybe the sample is skewed. My audiences are mostly business students, primarily accounting and finance undergraduates and MBA and masters in accountancy candidates. They are self-selecting overachievers and generally conservative in attitude and approach.
Many of these students believe they are entitled to the world and its riches because they’ve earned a degree. Business students know the sacred texts of Ayn Rand by heart. There aren't so many flashes of recognition, or interest, when I talk about Barney Frank or John Boehner.
One student a few weeks ago took strong exception to my demands for more realistic financial reporting, even if it meant choppy, volatile quarterly results. "Why," he asked, "are you against managing earnings? Isn't it management's job to produce smooth earnings and share price growth for shareholders? Everyone builds up reserves in the good times and then releases earnings over time to make up for the tough quarters."
"Building up reserves" is the no-no otherwise called "cookie jar accounting". And "releasing earnings" is another way of saying "accounting manipulation" or "earnings management," both of which can be civil or even criminal offenses. This student probably idolizes Gordon Gekko instead of Patrick Fitzgerald. In fact, I'm pretty sure he has no idea who Patrick Fitzgerald is.
This week, a professor at another school told me about a case they discussed on the subject of ethics and whistleblowers. Most students said they would be reluctant to report a theft or illegal act in the office because they might get fired. How would they pay their loans? How would they get another job if they were blackballed as a troublemaker?
Most accounting students and young auditors look at me like I'm an alien — not Sigourney Weaver but something green from another planet — when I talk about the auditors "public duty." I have to remind them, and some of their professors, that the external auditor's true client is the shareholder, not the company's executives.
"But the CFO pays the bill," they respond. "We have to make the CEO and CFO happy or we'll lose the engagement. How will I ever get promoted to partner if I follow your advice and make everyone look bad by raising objections and pointing out errors? Are you a communist? Audit partners are entrepreneurs investing capital in their business. Why are you against them making a profit?"
With future business leaders like these, the next bubble is inevitable.
Francine McKenna writes the blog re: The Auditors, about the Big Four accounting firms. She worked in consulting, professional services, accounting and financial management for more than 25 years.