Thursday, November 29, 2018
I’d like to thank the Business Law Prof Blog for the opportunity to be a guest blogger! In this first post, I build on a subject of previous posts (here, here, and here): Theranos, a now defunct Silicon Valley health-care start-up.
I rely heavily on the Financial Times to follow developments in one of my main research areas: financial market clearing and settlement (I’ll plan to report next week on the upcoming December 4th meeting of the Market Risk Advisory Committee, sponsored by CFTC Commissioner Rostin Behnam). The FT recently announced that Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, had been named the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2018. Having immensely enjoyed reading past winners, I wasted no time in ensuring that Amazon Prime speedily delivered it to my doorstep.
Bad Blood is a riveting tale of Theranos’ spectacular rise and fall, and well-worth the reader’s time. A fun fact is that a pathologist blogger, Adam Clapper (founder of the former Pathology Blawg), tipped Carreyrou onto the Theranos story (Chapter 19). Additionally, in the months after Bad Blood’s publication, its founder and CEO, Elizabeth A. Holmes, and former COO, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were charged by the Justice Department with wire fraud.
I know little about the health-care industry. Yet in reading Bad Blood, I was struck by links to and concerns shared with the financial industry (an area about which I know more). Below, I make a few observations and invite reader comments on their importance in these and other industries.
Post-financial crisis, rock-bottom interest rates acted as a “key ingredient” to a new Silicon Valley boom (p.82). Similarly, these low rates have also been a key ingredient for the many years of increasing stock market prices post-financial crisis. Indeed, recent equity market declines made at least a temporary rebound yesterday after comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at the Economic Club of New York.
The increasing expansion of private markets enables companies such as Theranos to “avoid the close scrutiny” (p.178) to which public companies are subject (nevertheless, Theranos and Holmes settled fraud charges with the SEC). Given current regulatory structures, it also risks severely limiting retail investment opportunities. And it adversely impacts financial journalists’ access to information!
When I teach Banking and Financial Institutions Law, the term “regulation-induced innovation” tends to amuse students. The Theranos tale demonstrates, however, that such practices aren’t a laughing matter. For example, its business strategies appeared to include: maneuvering in regulatory “gray zones” between the FDA and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (p.88), exploiting “gap[s] spawned by outdated statutes” (p.125), and “operat[in]g in a regulatory no-man’s-land” (p.260). Such practices can be troublesome enough in financial markets. However, in Theranos’ case, the stakes (patient health) were much higher.
Finally, who doesn’t love a good story? Carreyrou, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is an expert storyteller. His portrayal of Holmes suggests that she too profoundly understood the power of stories, and that she had a bewitching talent for telling them. Clearly, untruthful, non-fictional narratives are generally unethical and, depending upon the context, might also be illegal. However, taking a cue from Holmes on the importance of stories and honing one's ability to tell them could assist financial market policymakers. Indeed, several years ago, the FT’s Gillian Tett wrote an opinion piece entitled, “Central bank chiefs need to master the art of storytelling.” Enhanced storytelling capabilities could also assist academics researching financial market regulation. For both, the ability to compellingly communicate with the public about issues in financial markets and their broad-based importance is critical. Even so, constructing a fascinating narrative about clearing and settlement along the lines of Bad Blood would be no small feat!