Hold Wall Street managers to account

At 1:45 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the fourth largest investment bank, sought Chapter 11 protection in the biggest bankruptcy proceeding ever filed. There are many reasons why Lehman failed and responsibility is shared by auditors, government officials, regulators, and credit rating agencies.

Looking back, much of the blame for Lehman’s failure and the ensuing financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession resided with senior executives, aka professional managers, in the financial markets who did a poor job of allocating capital and managing risk. They acted less like stewards of their firms and more like the keepers of a guild, accountable only to themselves and focused on short-term results at the expense of long-term performance.

The failure to understand that there are huge risks associated with the pursuit of high returns was a major contributor to the financial meltdown. One way to avoid repeating this disaster would be to require top managers in industries that are important to the public welfare to earn government licenses that testify to their qualifications, just like physicians and lawyers, who must pass tough state exams, and accountants, who must also demonstrate a certain number of years of successful professional work in their field to gain a certified public accountant license.

Why not have the same rigorous licensing requirements for professional managers before they are permitted to hold top management jobs in critical industries and public-sector positions? It has become clear that the challenges of managing large organizations have grown to such a level of complexity that only individuals with the right mix of skills can effectively meet them.

One way to begin professionalizing management is to require anyone graduating with a management degree to pass a comprehensive federal or state exam that tests their mastery of the fundamental body of knowledge they allegedly learned, including accounting, finance, statistics, data analysis and organizational behavior.

During the financial meltdown, Lehman’s top executives could have by no means been described as competent. Ditto for Merrill Lynch, AIG, and so many other firms. Finding incompetent executives among this crowd was like finding sand on the beach; they were clueless to the real dangers of excessive risk taking in the form of the lack of protective equity capital and massive use of leverage built around short-term borrowings.

Despite earning more than managers in any of the world’s other major industries, they were like irresponsible children who had somehow gained access to Cold War missile control rooms, playing with the shiny buttons that could launch nuclear warheads against an unsuspecting world.

Which they ultimately did, wiping out more than $11 trillion of wealth in the process and leaving the American taxpayer to clean up the mess.

In addition to core technical skills, a management licensure test should measure the ability to think critically and consider the moral consequences of decisions. Is it too much to expect a management graduate to be educated about how to leverage the power of markets to create a better world rather than serving only their own selfish interests? Or to possess the ability to think critically, which allows them to solve problems beyond those addressed by their functional training?

For sure, such an examination would increase employers’ faith in a graduates’ competence. It might be wise to make passing the test a periodic requirement to ensure that managers stay current in their knowledge and the ethical challenges posed by an ever-changing business world.

To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana: those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. The incompetence of senior managers was a driving force behind the 2008 financial meltdown from which many Americans still have not recovered nearly a decade later. The time has come to hold managers to the same standards as other professionals whose competence impacts the well-being of society.

Originally published: September 16, 2017

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