Board Games

Boards are supposed to monitor top executives, but too often give them carte blanche. That's why regulators are writing stricter rules for the corporate-governance game. Plus: Finance executives sound off about audit committees in a new CFO survey.

Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow is by all accounts a persuasive personality, but that doesn’t explain why Enron’s board of directors failed to raise even the smallest red flag. Not once did it voice an objection to any of management’s accounting practices, according to a Senate subcommittee investigation, despite repeated warnings from Arthur Andersen auditors that those practices were “high risk.” Shockingly, the board even waived its own conflict-of-interest guidelines to allow Fastow to set up off-balance-sheet partnerships that profited at the expense of Enron’s shareholders.

In short, corporate governance failed abysmally at Enron, just as it failed at a number of other scandal-plagued companies in recent years, from Tyco International to WorldCom to Adelphia. As a result, the confidence of investors in the capital markets has been badly battered — along with their wallets — and reformers on Wall Street and Capitol Hill are trying to do something about it, by enacting the most sweeping agenda of corporate-governance reforms in 70 years.

The reforms — as embodied in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, and in proposed guidelines from NASD — aim to make corporate boards more independent and knowledgeable, and thus a stronger check on corporate management. Indeed, by giving boards and audit committees greater responsibility for monitoring the actions of senior executives, the reforms may signal a radical rebalancing of corporate power.

“We’re moving away from the imperial CEO model,” comments William Allen, director of New York University’s Center for Law and Business. “In the past, we have had powerful CEOs and passive boards of directors. If the CEO is good and honest, it’s probably the most productive business model. If he’s not, you can have a disaster.”

But some observers question whether the new corporate-governance rules can prevent managerial shenanigans and the disasters they have caused. After all, in terms of knowledge and independence, Enron had an exemplary board of directors in the summer of 2001 — at least on paper. Its members included CEOs, lawyers, academics, and former regulators. The chairman of the audit committee was the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. And only 2 of the 17 members, Enron’s then-chairman Kenneth Lay and then-CEO Jeffrey Skilling, were insiders.

At the same time, the new rules may make it harder for companies to recruit effective board members, say critics. In the worst case, newly empowered boards may subject management to crippling second-guessing. “If you start to gut management’s ability to make decisions and bet on the future, they can’t compete,” warns Harold Bradley, president of Kansas City, Missouri-based American Century Ventures, a unit of investment-management firm American Century Investments.

Unbinding the Ties

Independence is the main theme of the NYSE and NASD rules, which have yet to be approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission. They mandate that all listed companies have a majority of independent directors on their boards. The rules also considerably tighten the definition of independence. An independent director can have no material relationship with the listed company other than in his or her role as director, and companies must disclose how they arrived at that determination in proxy filings. The requirement means no commercial or industrial relationships; no family ties to management; no professional-services contracts to perform banking, consulting, accounting, or legal work for the company. The rules also require a five-year “cooling-off period” before former employees or auditors of the company can be designated independent directors.

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