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THE NATION | NEWS ANALYSIS / THE WORLDCOM SCANDAL

Congress Now Likely to Be Forced to Act

June 27, 2002|PETER G. GOSSELIN and JAMES FLANIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- Until WorldCom Inc.'s admission that it improperly accounted for $3.9 billion in expenses, the revelations of business misdeeds beginning with Enron's collapse in early December looked as if they would produce little more than some arcane accounting changes and a few prosecutions.

Washington's lack of appetite for stiff action was especially striking because among its most ardent advocates were heads of some of the most powerful business institutions in America, the New York Stock Exchange and investment bank Goldman Sachs. The lack of fallout was a gigantic relief to Republicans.

But the latest scandal may finally do what its predecessors have not done so far--set off a chain reaction that results in considerable economic damage and substantial political change. And it raises the question of how much of the booms of the last two decades were real, and how much were financial gimmickry.

"It's raised the decibel level of the crisis high enough the politicians are going to have to act," said Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Most immediately, WorldCom could make corporate scandal a fall election issue. The accumulated weight of accounting misstatements and executive self-dealing already have helped drive down the stock market in recent weeks, and pollsters now detect signs its effects are showing up in the political arena.

"It's now possible a loss of confidence in the market will spill over into the economy and therefore into the November election," said Bill McInturff, a prominent Republican pollster. McInturff and others have begun warning Republican candidates to prepare for Democratic attacks on the GOP as too close to business.

A new CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll finds that public confidence in business, which remained high until recently, has slipped to levels not seen in the early 1990s when a shallow but damaging recession helped force President Bush's father from the White House.

"The steady drip of scandal is beginning to have an effect on the economy and politics," said Karlyn K. Bowman, a polling expert with the generally conservative American Enterprise Institute.

More broadly, the new revelations could help force a reassessment of the preeminence business achieved during the economic booms of the last two decades, opening the way for substantially stronger legislation and regulations than have been proposed so far.

On Wednesday, President Bush himself appeared to move slightly beyond the administration's stock position that the problems are confined to a few bad apples. He labeled WorldCom's accounting practices "outrageous," and warned executives that "when we find egregious practices ... we'll go after them, and need to." Democrats picked up on the change quickly.

"Once you stop talking about bad apples and start talking about corporate responsibility, you're on the road to broader reform," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

At root, what must be answered in the debate over the recent scandals is how much of corporate America's accomplishments in the last decades were real, and how much was the illusory product of financial manipulation.

Virtually all of America's economic expansions have ended with stock tumbles and scandal. The 1960s were followed by the collapse of the "Nifty 50" stocks and the indictment of Robert Vesco for looting a mutual fund. In the late 1980s came revelations about massive stock and bond manipulations by Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken.

What's striking this time, according to observers, is how widespread the problems are and how enriching for the executives involved. Some explain the problem in strictly moral terms. "Basically, what we've had in the last two decades is an erosion of the ethical values of corporations," said Levitt, the former SEC chairman.

But at least four other factors appear to have been at work. First, big companies came to rely more heavily than ever before on the stock market, rather than banks or the traditional bond market, for funds. As they did, they were able to buy and sell whole companies, rather than engage in the considerably less glamorous task of building plants or developing new businesses from scratch.

As corporate reliance on stocks grew, so did the need to meet investors' increasingly exuberant demands for higher profits and share prices.

"It became necessary to account for everything in the most favorable light," said Edward Lawler, a USC management professor. If a company failed to do so, he said "then everybody was unhappy--stockholders, directors, the television programs that grilled chief executives."

Second, top executives were given generous stock options that, while intended to align their interests with those of other shareholders, ended up acting as an incentives for them to cook the books of their firms to send share prices ever higher.

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