Sabew Commentary Award

Today, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers said that I won the “Best in Business” award for commentary in the news agency category for columns I wrote in 2013 for Bloomberg View.

Here’s a list of all the winners, including writers worth following on a regular basis, such as Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica and Michael Smallberg of The Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

If you’re looking for smart and talented financial journalists worth adding to your regular reading list, take a few minutes to go through the roster of Sabew winners.

Notes from the judges on my submission:

NEWS AGENCIES COMMENTARY

Winner: Susan Antilla, Bloomberg View, for her columns.

Terrific topics. Tough, engaging, enlightening, head-snapping. Well-reasoned arguments. Writes with authority and insight in a simple, declarative style that doesnt wander. No navel-gazing. Sophisticated humor used lightly in a way that advances the argument. Not humor for humors sake.

Here are links to the stories the judges considered:

Do Deutsche Bank’s ‘Prettier’ Women Get the Best?

JP Morgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

Hate Follows When the Police Try to Do Their Job

Top Stock Picks of 2013 Lose Out to Honey Boo-Boo

McKinsey Clients Shrugged at Scandals, Ignored Greed

McKinsey & Co. is the global fix-it firm of choice, whether you’re a company looking for an outsider to justify laying off thousands of employees or a government looking to get its managerial act together. A new book by Duff McDonald, a contributing editor at Fortune and The New York Observer, provides a good history of the firm but can’t seem to decide whether McKinsey is a valuable advisor or a waste of money.

I reviewed “The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business,” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

When markets come undone from crisis fraud, regulators investigate something else

The public was pretty peeved about the financial crisis in 2008, and regulators felt the pressure to produce a few scalps in response. So what did the regulators do? They investigated something that had nothing to do with the crisis.

I reviewed Charles Gasparino’s new book “Circle of Friends: The Massive Federal Crackdown on Insider Trading — And Why the Markets Always Work Against the Little Guy” for Bloomberg Muse this week.

Gasparino tells the story of the all-out war on insider trading that began in 2008, and he questions the regulators’ priorities in pursuing inside traders when there were people who’d just about brought down the economy roaming free.

The book has some problems, but Gasparino is right that our regulators are chasing all the wrong people. Here’s the review.

Amaranth hit death spiral as sycophants, fools cavorted

The Greenwich, Connecticut hedge fund Amaranth Advisors LLC collapsed in September 2006 after losing more than $6 billion in the natural-gas futures market. I reviewed the new book about the debacle, “Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street’s Largest Hedge Fund Disaster,” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

How banks keep the lid on sex discrimination cases (and thus avoid having to change)

In my Bloomberg View column earlier this week, I wrote about the disconnect between image and reality when it comes to Deutsche Bank’s record on diversity. The Frankfurt-based global bank wins all those warm-and-fuzzy prizes for “Best Company” for working mothers, for example, but is the target of lawsuits brought by women who say are treated with nasty little barbs at work such as “Maybe I should get pregnant so I can work from home.”

Those same women say they endured more than Neanderthal-style comments from the guys: They say lost their jobs when they became mothers, too. Deutsche Bank dodged a bullet big-time when two women who were considering a class-action pregnancy discrimination suit settled with the bank earlier this year. In a court filing, the bank denied one of the pregnancy claims against it, and its spokeswoman Michele Allison declined to comment on the others.

Discrimination against women on Wall Street is a persistent problem that hasn’t been fixed despite an assortment of programs that purport to address it. Deutsche Bank, in fact, takes a deep bow for its programs around the world for women in finance. The bank says that 5,000 women from Deutsche and other firms attended their conferences for women last year alone.

Despite all the woman programs, diversity training and new “heads of diversity” jobs at financial firms, the lawsuits and internal investigations around gender discrimination just keep on coming.

Deutsche Bank is far from the only problematic bank out there — they all are. But  it does have some history that illustrates how hard financial firms work to keep the public from knowing how bad things are for their female employees. In a splashy lawsuit filed more than a decade ago, Virginia Gambale, a partner in Deutsche Bank’s Capital partners unit, said she was passed over for a promotion because of gender discrimination and that the bank’s work environment was hostile to women. She would wind up with a “multi-million dollar settlement,” according to a transcript of a court conference in her case.

Gambale’s lawsuit described a September 1999 business meeting she was required to attend in Cannes, France where approximately 100 men and 5 women had to walk past “a welcoming committee of ‘sex goddesses’ who were wearing revealing clothing that was highly inappropriate for a business meeting.” The complaint said that entertainment at the meeting included “a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who publicly fondled several male executives.”

The most interesting part of her lawsuit, though, were the lengths Deutsche Bank went to to avoid having information about the gender breakdown of salary and promotion at the bank become public. In an August 2, 2004 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second circuit, Judge Robert D. Sack described some of the history around efforts by the bank to lock up documents.

During discovery, Deutsche Bank had produced compensation planning charts “and four pages of an internal Bank study of diversity at the Bank, which contained information about the gender composition of the Bank’s employees,” Sack wrote. The judge added that the bank had said the settlement was “motivated significantly by its desire to avoid public disclosure at trial of the temporarily sealed documents.”

Sack wrote that Harold Baer, the district judge in the case had “wondered aloud why the public should not know about discrimination at a major banking institution.” Baer told the bank that he’d disclose the contents of the settlement agreement unless Deutsche Bank agreed to hire a third party to do a global gender review and provide the results to the court. No way, said the bank, cooking up a stipulation of dismissal with Gambale to get the case out of Baer’s jurisdiction.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to a number of women who’ve taken settlements after years of emotional and expensive litigation. They get worn out, and often wind up feeling guilty that they didn’t fight to the bitter end in court so that the ugly details of gender differences in pay and promotion would be exposed. Those who can’t sue in court because of mandatory arbitration agreements don’t even get satisfaction when they win: Men who lose a discrimination or harassment case do not have to reveal that in their public “BrokerCheck” records. Is there any wonder the problems go on and on?

What we really need is a system that forces employers to report how many internal complaints they’re getting that allege discrimination, and how much men and women are being paid for doing similar jobs. We’ve got an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after all, and it’s time that agency’s mandate was expanded to demand those statistics. The way things work now, there are too many ways for banks and brokers to keep evidence of their discrimination under lock and key.

A bit of welcome news in all this: It turns out that six years after Gambale’s 2003 settlement, some of those Deutsche Bank documents were unsealed. They are not available electronically, but I’ve put in a request with a document service to get them. Look for another post when I’ve got them in hand.

JPMorgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

What does it take for investors and other supporters of a popular public company to finally decide the firm has gone too far in breaking the rules?

If you’re JPMorgan Chase & Co., it apparently takes more than a $6.2 billion trading blunder, a really embarrassing hearing before a Senate investigations committee, and a report that 8 federal agencies are circling you with probes.

In my column today for Bloomberg View, I write about the stunning ability of “The World’s Most-Admired Bank” to wallow in credit for all its good news, but slip by when the bad stuff happens.

“Steel City Re, a Pittsburgh-based firm that measures corporate reputations, ranks the bank in the 90th percentile among 50 financial conglomerates…Little wonder, I suppose, that earlier this year, JPMorgan topped the Fortune magazine list of most-admired banks in the world for the second year in a row. Are the bank’s admirers living in some parallel universe where black marks just don’t register?”

 

How does JPMorgan do it? You can read my column here.

Are you a lowly Main Street investor? Well, nobody cares what you think about financial reform

It’s never a great time to be a lowly member of the investing public looking for protection from the sharks of finance. But today? Well, try to lower your expectations a tad more.

Deep-pocketed banks are dominating the process of writing the new financial rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. It isn’t that there’s nobody advocating for small investors. It’s just that the few organizations that make a case for the public are outgunned by the well-funded financial industry.

“Despite a significant expansion in the number of foot soldiers out there working in the public interest on these financial issues, we are still completely overwhelmed by the industry lobbyists,” Dennis Kelleher, chief executive officer of Better Markets, told me.

I wrote about the lopsided battle to influence the new financial rules in my Bloomberg View column tonight. You can read it here.

 

 

Don’t Skewer Sheryl Sandberg

There’s a lot of work to be done between here and equality for women. Rich women in good jobs have one set of problems and poor women have another. Women with children pile on a whole new set of challenges. And women most anywhere can tell you there’s still discrimination that needs to be fixed in the workplace.

So why do critics expect that Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, would be able to solve every problem that women face in one book? I review Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

Antilla columns get Commentary award

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) announced winners of its “Best in Business” journalism awards today. I’m honored to be on the list for my 2012 columns for Bloomberg View. You can see a list of all the winners here.

From the judges: “Susan Antilla’s sharp-edged commentaries give no quarter to those who mistreat investors or to the meek regulators who let offenders off easy. Her writing is crisp and eviscerating — two powerful traits when it comes to sharing opinions. Antilla demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the financial industry and its unsteady interaction with the federal government.”

Getting a little vertigo from the regulatory revolving door?

There’s been a lot of attention to the government-to-private practice “revolving door” since President Barack Obama nominated white-collar defense lawyer Mary Jo White to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investor advocates say we should be worried when lawyers shuffle back and forth between jobs as regulators and lucrative spots defending banks and brokerage firms. But the lawyers who move in and out of government jobs say they can handle the conflicts just fine.

The New York City Bar Association had a panel to discuss “The Financial Crisis and the Regulatory Revolving Door” on Feb. 12 and moderator Scott Cohn of CNBC posed the question “Which is it?” Is it spinning out of control or is it non-existent?”

I was one of the six panelists, and cited a few gems from a just-released report by The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that illustrated the close connection between the SEC and its alumni who’d moved on to represent the institutions the SEC regulates.

In an item about the panel on Feb. 19, POGO said “White’s nomination highlights the challenge that the SEC and many agencies face when senior officials have tangled ties to the industry they’re supposed to be regulating.” You can read the POGO post here.

I wrote about Mary Jo White’s conflicts in a recent column for Bloomberg View.

Your thoughts on the debate? Let me know at @antillaview or susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Mary Jo White’s Past and the Future of the SEC

Have you been buying into the sales pitch for President Obama’s nominee for chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission?

Mary Jo White’s supporters say she was tough as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted mobsters and terrorists. From my column for Bloomberg View today:

She spent the past 10 years representing Wall Street, so she knows something about the legerdemain of banksters. And — insert violin solo here — she is a patriot, willing to give up millions of dollars in income as chairman of the litigation department at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP for a lousy government salary.”

Of course, the addition of “former SEC chairman” can only enhance her resume if and when she decides to go back to private practice. As for the idea that she might somehow be able to use her experience working for Wall Street to help crack cases as a regulator, I’m not buying it.

The SEC and Justice Department have had former defense lawyers checking in and out of top spots for years, and it hasn’t led to any big-bank carnage among the people who orchestrated flakey derivatives, self-destructing collateralized-debt obligations or other outrages. When was the last time you saw anyone from a well-known bank doing a perp walk for his role in the financial crisis?

You can read the full column here.

As always, I’m happy to hear from readers via Twitter or at susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

AIG’s Greenberg Thumbs Nose at Taxpayers

The man who made the insurance company AIG into an industry giant has written a book — The AIG Story — and if there’s one thing we learn from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, it’s that Hank admires Hank.

The book, co-written with George Washington University law professor Lawrence Cunningham, describes Greenberg as “innovative” and “independent” and “pioneering.” I reviewed it for Bloomberg Muse today:

If you’re among the U.S. taxpayers who watched in horror as $182 billion of your money made its way to the collapsing insurance giant American International Group Inc. (AIG) during the financial crisis, it might come as a surprise to learn that your forced munificence didn’t make much of a difference. In his new book, “The AIG Story,” former chief executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg offers his take on what kept the company alive: “It was saved only by the loyalty and tenacity of its valiant workforce,” he says.

You can read my full review here. But the main thing I came away with when I put  ”The AIG Story” down was what a disappointment it is when powerful people with inside access to world events miss an opportunity to pass on insights to the rest of us.

Surely, after a high-flying career befriending heads of state and moving AIG from an insurance runt to a world-wide behemoth, a man of 87 would have constructive insights about the near-collapse of the global economy. And, with a little luck, maybe even a bit of introspection about lessons he’s learned? Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self- congratulation.

So there you have it. A wasted opportunity. But do take a look at the list of people willing to praise the book on the back cover, and consider adding them to the list of authors you needn’t follow. Amazon.com publishes the “praise” here.

 

Top stock picks of 2013 lose out to Honey Boo Boo

You’ve been reading them again, haven’t you? I’m talking about those annual “best investment ideas” that you’re seeing on every TV business show and in all your favorite newspapers, magazines, and blogs.

Stop reading them. Their advice stinks at least half the time, which means — at best — you lose half the time and win half the time. You do the math.

I wrote about the useless “Best ideas of 2013″ style articles in my latest column for Bloomberg: Top Stock picks of 2013 lose out to Honey Boo Boo:

“My advice? When you see one of those how-to articles, retreat to the kitchen for what’s left of the holiday eggnog and shut off the computer. If some TV stock jock is interviewing a Wall Street star about a best pick for the year ahead, grab the remote and surf for a rerun of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” At least it won’t be you who is being exploited.”

You can read the story here.

In a Sex Scandal, You Want to be the Guy, not the Gal

In the unlikely event you missed it, our former Central Intelligence Agency chief got a tad too friendly with Paula Broadwell, the author of his biography “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.” The ensuing media storm was, frankly, a gift to reporters who were dreading that the fiscal cliff would be the only news story around once the election was over.

But a gift they could have handled with a little more care.

In my Bloomberg View column this week, I take a look at the differences in both the language used and the questions raised in coverage of the two players in Washington’s latest sex scandal. Petraeus, for example, was referred to as “vulnerable.” Broadwell was referred to as a “slut.”

They both cheated on their spouses. They both were accomplished professionals. But there was a lot that wasn’t equal about the way they were treated in the media. “They threw this poor fellow to the wolves,” said celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder on Daily Beast TV. Meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun called it just another “bimbo eruption.” A West Point grad with two master’s degrees, Broadwell is no bimbo. Let’s hope the coverage is a little better next time a sex scandal rolls around.