What do you do if you are IBM, supposedly one of the most reliable of blue-chip companies, and you want to acquire another company that is, shall we say, a little more ethically and morally challenged? You convince everyone that the new acquisition will allow IBM to advance the practical applications of the supercomputer named Watson, its mysterious and envelope-pushing entry into the exploding world of artificial intelligence.

That is the impression conveyed last week with IBM’s announcement it would acquire the Promontory Group, a consulting firm made up of scores of former Washington financial regulators, for an undisclosed amount. Added to IBM’s suite of consulting services, Promontory is somehow going to put Watson in a position to help financial institutions grapple with the millions of pages of new financial regulations its many executives put in place during their former careers as regulators in Washington.

According to an IBM news release, more than 20,000 new regulations were created in 2015 alone, and the “complete catalog” will exceed 300 million pages by 2020, “rapidly outstripping the capacity of humans to keep up.” IBM estimated that complying with these regulations costs financial institutions $270 billion a year. “This is a workload ideally suited for Watson’s cognitive capabilities intended to allow financial institutions to absorb the regulatory changes, understand their obligations, and close gaps in systems and practices to address compliance requirements more quickly and efficiently,” IBM wrote.

Other than defeating “Jeopardy” champions, what Watson can do is not exactly obvious to the layman, but I am willing to give IBM the benefit of the doubt that Watson can do something or other to help big banks deal with their extraordinary regulatory requirements.

It is the next part of the news release that had me in stitches: “Promontory’s professionals will train Watson, which will learn by continuously ingesting regulatory information as it is created and through interaction in real-world applications.” Really, IBM?

The 600 Promontory consultants worldwide, among them Mary L. Schapiro, a former chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Eugene A. Ludwig, the former comptroller of the currency (and the founder of Promontory), are going to train Watson while it ingests the mountain of regulations that they once helped write? I don’t think so. Nor do I think any of the other Promontory consultants are up to the task of training Watson, whatever that means. But Mr. Ludwig, of course, is on board.

“Combining Promontory’s expertise with IBM’s extraordinary technological capabilities such as Watson will permit us to directly address our clients’ greatest challenges in innovative and powerful ways,” he said. “It will enhance our mutual commitment to risk management and regulatory compliance excellence, and our results will benefit customers and the overall financial system.”

Let’s be clear: Since Mr. Ludwig founded Promontory in 2001, it has become a safe haven for former financial regulators looking to jump-start their post-Washington earnings stream. It has become one of the biggest facilitators of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. For instance, in 2012, Promontory hired Julie L. Williams, a former chief counsel of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. She was swapping places with Amy S. Friend, who was a Promontory managing director for two years until 2013, when she landed the chief counsel job at the O.C.C. Before Promontory, Ms. Friend was chief counsel to the Senate Banking Committee.

On Promontory’s advisory board are such prominent aficionados of the revolving door as Arthur Levitt, who is a former S.E.C. chairman; Frank G. Zarb, a former “energy czar” and banker at Lazard and Citigroup; Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan; and Alan S. Blinder, a former Federal Reserve vice chairman and a professor of economics at Princeton.

What Promontory has become is the new Fannie Mae, in the sense that like Fannie Mae in days gone by, former regulators and political operatives could always find comfort and lucre within its brick walls.

Franklin Raines is perhaps the ultimate example of the role Fannie Mae used to play in providing succor to former high-level government officials. Mr. Raines, a former partner at Lazard in New York, served as vice chairman at Fannie Mae until President Bill Clinton tapped him to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1996 to 1998. He then returned to Fannie Mae as chief executive. He served for the next six years, receiving compensation of more than $90 million, before being forced out of the job after an accounting scandal. Now, of course, Fannie Mae is a ward of the state and no longer provides former government officials with a lucrative safe landing. That role now belongs to Promontory.

Mr. Ludwig is a law school friend of Mr. Clinton, and his firm has represented an all-star lineup of banks big and small. It has also taken some heat for its cozy ties.

Last year, Promontory paid $15 million to settle charges with the New York State Department of Financial Services that it had “watered down” reports that it had prepared for a British banking client, Standard Chartered. Standard paid $340 million in 2012 to settle accusations from the New York State regulators that it had purposefully hidden $250 billion worth of transactions with Iranian customers. Standard Chartered later reached a settlement, for $327 million, with the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve, among others.

Before the settlements, the bank paid Promontory $54.5 million to help investigate the misconduct and make an independent report to regulators. But New York banking regulators called Promontory’s independence into question, saying it had succumbed to pressure from the bank to sanitize its report to the regulators. As part of its settlement last year, Promontory agreed to sit out consulting jobs in New York for six months.

But the firm’s deep connections to Wall Street and banking remain, and it is obvious that IBM bought Promontory for these connections. There is little debate that Promontory has proved its worth as a repository of well-connected financial regulators. Training Watson has nothing to do with it.


Source by http://www.nytimes.com


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