Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Merging Finance and Health Care Leadership - Robert Rubin Proteges Running DHHS, Spouse of Hedge Fund Magnate Running the FDA

Hidden between the lines of some not very prominent news stories were reminders of how close health care and financial leadership have become in these times of continuing economic unrest after the global financial collapse/ great recession.

After the events of 2008, it became more apparent that the dysfunction in academics and health care  paralleled that seen in finance.  One reason may have been the overlapping leadership of finance and health care.  For example, in 2008 we first posted about how Robert Rubin, who was then a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the top group responsible for the governance of that great academic and medical institution, bore responsibility for the global financial collapse/ great recession.  Mr Rubin as Treasury Secretary was a proponent of financial deregulation in the Clinton administration.  Later, he became a top leader of Citigroup, whose near collapse helped usher in the crisis of 2008 (look at our 2008 post here and our 2010 post here.  Rubin just stepped down from his Harvard position this year,)  Since 2008 we found many other links among the leadership of Wall Street and of academic medicine and of big health care corporations.  These links, if anything, seem to be getting stronger. 

From the Department of Health and Human Services to Citigroup and then back to the Department of HHS

A tiny, four sentence Reuters story noted an apparently routine appointment to upper management at the US Department of Health and Human Services.  The first three sentences were:

U.S. Health Secretary Sylvia Burwell named Citigroup Inc executive Kevin Thurm as senior counselor of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is implementing the controversial U.S. Affordable Care Act.

Thurm has served in a number of roles at Citi since joining the bank in 2001, including senior adviser for compliance and regulatory affairs and deputy general counsel.

Before joining Citi, Thurm, a former Rhodes scholar, was the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Why is that significant?  First, the near bankruptcy of the huge, badly led Citigroup was widely acknowledged to be a cause of the global financial collapse.  A 2011 New Yorker article on the role of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street ("Revolver," by Gabriel Sherman) summarized the plight of Citigroup and the role of Robert Rubin in it,

Citigroup was the most high-profile of Wall Street’s basket cases, the definitionally too-big-to-fail institution. With massive exposure to the housing crash and abysmal risk management, the firm cratered, surviving as a virtual ward of the state after the government injected billions and took a 36 percent ownership position. Along with AIG and Fannie and Freddie, Citi came to be seen as a pariah institution, felled by management dysfunction and heedless greed in pursuit of profits. Complicating matters for Citi, the wounded bank found itself tangled in the populist vortex that swirled in the crash’s wake. On the left, there were calls that Citi should be outright nationalized, stripped down, and sold off for parts. Pandit was called before irate congressional-committee members to answer for Citi’s sins, an ignominious inquisition captured on live television. In January 2009, under pressure, Citi canceled an order for a new $50 million corporate jet.

There was plenty of blame to go around at Citi. Chuck Prince, a lawyer by training who succeeded Citi’s outsize former CEO Sandy Weill, had little grasp of the complex mortgage securities Citi’s traders were gambling on. As late as the summer of 2007, when the housing market was in free fall, Prince infamously told the Financial Times that 'as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.'

Bob Rubin himself pushed the bank to take on more risk in order to increase its profitability, a move that Citi’s dismal risk management was ill-equipped to handle. Pandit, whom Rubin had helped to recruit in 2007 just as the economy began to unravel, was tasked with cleaning up the mess when he became CEO in December of that year, and his early tenure had a deer-in-headlights character. Eventually, he realized that the asset class Citi lacked most was human capital, of the blue-chip variety.  

The article also summarized Rubin's role in the fervor of deregulation in service of market triumphalism that lead to the financial collapse,

In tapping Rubin to run Treasury, Clinton was sanctioning a revolution in the Democratic Party, one that fundamentally redefined the party’s relationship with Wall Street. Rubin, along with Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, believed in an enlightened capitalism, which would spread prosperity widely. This enchantment with the beneficence of markets became the dominant view in Democratic Washington, hard to argue with when the economy was booming, as it was in the second half of the nineties. Rubin recognized that derivatives posed a risk but effectively blocked efforts to regulate them and pushed for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era legislation that prevented commercial banks from merging with investment and insurance firms (the new law essentially legalized the $70 billion merger in 1998 of Citicorp and Travelers Group that created Citigroup).

Circling back to recent events, Once he got to Citigroup, Rubin assembled a team, partially from his old associates in the Clinton administration,

He also recruited several former Clinton aides to Citi, including former Health and Human Services deputy secretary Kevin Thurm....

So Kevin Thurm became something of a Robert Rubin protege at Citigroup. In fact, he rose to an important leadership position at the same time Citigroup was getting ready to become a "basket case," in part apparently because of the advice of Robert Rubin.  According to a 2013 version of Mr Thurm's official Citigroup bio,

Kevin L. Thurm is Senior Advisor for Compliance and Regulatory Affairs at Citigroup.

Previously, Thurm served as the Chief Compliance Officer of Citi. In that role, Thurm led Global Compliance which protects Citi by helping the Firm comply with applicable laws, regulations, and other standards of conduct, and is responsible for identifying, evaluating, mitigating and reporting on compliance and reputational risks and driving a strong culture of compliance and control. Since joining Citi in 2001, Thurm has also served as Deputy General Counsel of Citi, where he led the Corporate Legal group, overseeing a number of Company-wide Legal functions and providing support on day to day matters, including issues involving the Board, senior executives, and regulators; Chief  Administrative Officer of Consumer Banking North America, where he helped lead the business group and was responsible for a variety of functions including Community Relations, Compliance, Legal and Public Affairs; Director for Administration in the Corporate Center; Chief of Staff to the President and Chief Operating Officer of Citigroup; and as the Director of Consumer Planning in the Global  Consumer Group.

To recap, Mr Kevin Thurm was a top compliance executive of Citigroup while the company was imploding, and being a protege of Robert Rubin, an architect of the financial deregulation that led to the global financial collapse, and a leader of Citigroup responsible for the risky behavior of that company that led to its near collapse, which was another precipitant of the global financial collapse or great recession.  It is not obvious that these are great qualifications to be Senior Counselor at DHHS.

Moreover, Mr Thurm's responsibilities at DHHS would not be limited to compliance or financial leadership.  According to the official DHHS press release announcing his appointment,

As a Senior Counselor, Thurm will work closely with the Department’s senior staff on a wide range of cross-cutting strategic initiatives, key policy challenges, and engagement with external partners.

Yet, there is nothing in Mr Thurm's public record to indicate that he has any actual experience in health care, medicine, public health, or biologic science.  So it is not obvious why he should be entrusted with leading "cross-cutting strategic initiatives, [and] key policy challenges."

On the other hand, Mr Thurm might be simpatico with the new Secretary of DHHS, Ms Sylvia Burwell.  According to a Washington Post article at the time of the hearings about her nomination,

despite her Washington experience, ... is not well known in health-policy circles, and, during her confirmation hearings, she gave little concrete sense of the direction in which she will take the complex department she will inherit.
This seems to be a polite way to see she also has no actual experience in health care, medicine, public health, or biologic science.   Her official biography lists no such experience.  However, she was also a Robert Rubin associate, and perhaps protege, during the Clinton administration,

During the Clinton administration, Burwell held several economic roles — as staff director of the White House National Economic Council, as chief of staff under then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin,...

To summarize so far, the new Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and now her new Senior Counselor, were both closely associated with Robert Rubin, who seems to bear major responsibility for the global financial collapse, and the new Senior Counselor worked with Rubin at Citigroup, whose near bankruptcy helped accelerate that collapse.  On the other hand, neither of these leaders has any experience in health care, public health, medicine, or biological science. 

Hedge Funds, Tax Avoidance, and the US Food and Drug Administration

This story is even less obvious.  A July, 2014, report in Bloomberg recounted plans for a Senate hearing on tax avoidance by huge, lucrative hedge funds.  The basics were,

A Renaissance Technologies LLC hedge fund’s investors probably avoided more than $6 billion in U.S. income taxes over 14 years through transactions with Barclays Plc and Deutsche Bank AG, a Senate committee said.

The hedge fund used contracts with the banks to establish the 'fiction' that it wasn’t the owner of thousands of stocks traded each day, said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The maneuver sought to transform profits from rapid trading into long-term capital gains taxed at a lower rate, he said.

An accompanying Bloomberg/ Businessweek story described testimony at a Senate hearing by the Renaissance co-Chief Executive Officer Peter F Brown,

Renaissance was founded by the mathematician James H. Simons, whose fortune is now estimated by Bloomberg Billionaires Index at about $15.5 billion.

Brown became co-CEO with Robert L. Mercer in 2010 after Simons retired and became non-executive chairman. Before joining the firm in 1993, he was a language-recognition specialist at International Business Machines Corp.

Mr Brown testified that the company was not so much trying to avoid taxes by the complex strategy but simply to make even more money.    But, per the New York Times, Senator Levin

focused on the lucrative nature of the transactions, most of which took place using Renaissance employees’ money. Between 1999 and 2010, the fund used basket options to produce profits of more than $30 billion, Mr. Levin said. Barclays and Deutsche Bank together made more than $1 billion in revenue.

Mr Brown's firm seems, unlike Citigroup, to have a record of financial success, and no one is accusing Mr Brown or his firm of being responsible for the global financial collapse.  However, Mr Brown is certainly a very rich Wall Street insider.  Also, as we noted in 2009, his firm clearly has had major involvement in health care investments.   And the current hearings emphasize concerns that his firm has been executing questionable tax avoidance strategies.

Mr Brown has one other very major tie to health care.  As  noted in 2009 on Health Care Renewal, but apparently only parenthetically by one recent news article, (again from Bloomberg, written before the Senate hearing),

Brown lives in Washington with his wife, Margaret Hamburg, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009.

In 2009, we noted that as a condition of Dr Hamburg's leadership of the US FDA, her husband, Mr Brown, would have to divest his shares of four Renaissance funds.  However, it is obvious that he remained at and became the co-CEO of Renaissance since. 

While the current leader of the FDA clearly has medical and health care experience, she is also steeped in the culture of finance and Wall Street.


Thus we have two recent stories of how top health care leadership positions in the US government are held by people with strong ties to the world of finance, but not always with any direct health care or public health experience.  Why was the wife of a hedge fund magnate the best person to run the FDA?  Why was a person not known in "health policy [or health care] circles" the best person to run the Department of Health and Human Services?  Why was a Robert Rubin protege from Citigroup the best person to be a Senior Counselor at DHHS?  Presumably there were many plausible candidates for these government positions.  Why was it not possible to find people to fill them who were not tied to Wall Street?  Why was it not possible to find people with profound understanding of and sympathy for the values of health care and public health to fill all of them?   

The leadership of health care and finance continue to merge.  This seems to be one broad explanation for why both fields continue to be notably dysfunctional.  While Wall Street has spread around plenty of money to influence public opinion and political leaders, many still remember how its foolish and greedy leadership nearly caused another great depression.  It is likely that the influence of Wall Street culture on the leadership of health care organizations, be they governmental, academic, other non-profit, or commercial, has fostered the continuing financialization of health care, with its focus on "shareholder value," that is, putting short-term revenue ahead of patients' and the public's health.

I strongly believe health care would be better served by leadership that puts patients' and the public's health first.  Occasionally people with such values may come from a finance or economics background.  However, in an era where many people continue to believe "greed is good," we at least ought to confirm that health care leaders really are about health care first, and money a distant second.

ADDENDUM (20 August, 2014) - This was re-posted on the Naked Capitalism blog.


Anonymous said...

"there is nothing in Mr Thurm's public record to indicate that he has any actual experience in health care, medicine, public health, or biologic science. So it is not obvious why he should be entrusted with leading "cross-cutting strategic initiatives, [and] key policy challenges"

Nothing surprising here. It should be recognized that the insane phenomenon of leadership by generic managers now extends to the very highest levels of government.

Don Levit said...

We do need to change the insurance paradigm from today's profit and loss scenario to more of a long-term partnership.
People change insurers every 3-5 years, whether group or individual.
With the rise of public exchanges, I expect switching to occur more often, based on the current year's second lowest cost silver plan, on which subsidies are based.
Part of every dollar not used for claims goes to an insurer's reserves. Insurers could share some of those reserves with their lower claimants.
Significant premium reductions can occur over time when a portion of these reserves accrue in participants' accounts.
Don Levit
Treasurer of National Prosperity Life and Health

Anonymous said...

Health care is a piggy bank for big business. Why not put a banker in charge?