“Greed is good,” trader and arbitrageur Ivan Boesky told our MBA class of 1984. He arrived with a stretch limo and an entourage, wearing a fur coat and an expensive Italian suit. He explained that his job was to find opportunities that others missed and that the trade-off in risk and reward was real. Those willing to accept more risk–the risk of losing money because a ship sinks or a drug fails–should get the bigger payout when the exotic cargo comes into port or the cure for disease proves successful.
The risk part is the problem. How can you minimize the risk and still receive high enough payouts to cover costs? Entourages aren’t cheap. One answer is a hedge fund.
GAAP. FASB. AICPA. APB. If you studied accounting formally, the first few pages of your textbook typically listed a set of acronyms that would make your eyelids flutter. The Financial Accounting Standards Board, the American Institute of CPAs, the Accounting Principles Board, etc. Buncha old (white) guys doing boring talking, as my son used to describe it. Except that what these guys do (and a handful of gals*) is remarkable. Because they set the standards for every other company in the United States.
GAAP stands for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, and it’s the prodigious set of rules that dictate how businesses should report their financial results. FASB is an independent group, elected from the community of practicing accountants. That means accountants are part of a guild.
G is also for Guild
If you remember your history of guilds, they arose in the Middle Ages as artisans developed their crafts and wanted to set their product standards. Rules were developed for certification to become part of the guild, and the guild stamp of approval reflected its authenticity and craftsmanship.
Enough of the accounting philosophy, let’s talk about something more fun. Fraud!
If accounting is as old as the hills, so is fraud. If you recall my post about Clay Balls a few days ago, you may remember that they were storage for tokens carried by tax collectors. The tokens were stored inside hollowed balls to “prevent tampering.” In other words, tampering–tax collectors collecting a few of the tokens to barter for their own purposes–was already a common practice in 3000 B.C.E. Where there are tax collectors, there are corrupt tax collectors, apparently.
Oops! My Warehouse Burned Down…Insurance Fraud
There was also ancient insurance, and with that came ancient insurance fraud. Ancient merchants purchased “bottomry” contracts (now there’s a word!) in Babylon as early as the third millennium BCE, as did Hindus, Greeks, and others. A trader would get a loan for his cargo and pay an extra fee for insurance, with the interest on the loan also helping cover the loss. When the ship came in, if he defaulted on the loan, the insurer would keep the cargo.
The Greek merchant Hegestratos decided to try an end run around his bottomry contract, in 360 BCE. He had received a cash advance and figured to keep it–and the corn–and claim an insurance loss. He put the corn in secret storage and sailed the ship, but empty. However, there were other passengers on the ship, and they were not too keen when they noticed him trying to scuttle the empty vessel. They chased him off, and he drowned. So much for early insurance fraud!