Just when you think Valeant Pharmaceuticals Intl Inc (NYSE:VRX) is finally going to work its way out of the scrutinizing spotlight, it finds a way to fall back into it.
On Monday afternoon, reports said ex-CEO Michael Pearson and ex-CFO Howard Schiller were the focal point of a federal criminal probe. Surprise, surprise — the probe aims to determine if the duo knowingly and willingly committed accounting fraud in the way it dealt with its specialty pharmacy Philidor. VRX stock fell another 12% on the news.
It essentially has been confirmed that a too-close relationship between Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Philidor allowed the drugmaker to overstate some of its quarterly revenue figures. Presumably, what investigators are trying to determine now is whether Schiller and/or Pearson pushed the company in that direction, knowing it would create a misleading result.
Will the prosecutors find anything distasteful? Probably. Will they find anything convincingly criminal? Doubtful, not because there was no crime committed, but because proving intent could be impossible.
Crooks generally don’t leave a paper trail of impropriety.
Either way, owners of Valeant stock have already become victims, crime or not. VRX stock is down more than 90% since the August 2015 peak thanks to greed in one form or another. Convicting Pearson or Schiller now won’t help them.
In the bigger picture, though, the fact that federal prosecutors even feel the need to pursue the matter is in itself another convincing clue that too many constituents of what we call “corporate America” have become immune to shame, and oblivious of decency.
For too many, the idea of “legal” is now mostly a matter of what one can get away with.
Boost VRX Stock at All Costs
Just to stave off the knee-jerk criticisms of things I didn’t actually say …
- No, I have no idea if Pearson or Schiller had intent to commit a crime.
- Yes, Valeant Pharmaceuticals has every right to operate its business to the full extent of our nation’s capitalistic ideals in an effort to boost the value of VRX stock.
On the flip side, it can’t be ignored that …
- Valeant Pharmaceuticals is protected by the U.S. Patent Office and is regulated by the Food & Drug Administration. As such, it is subject to the government’s sense of fair play and consumer protection.
- Valeant has a long history of acquiring specialty pharmaceuticals and then raising prices on them to downright painful levels, even though it doesn’t have to do so.
Thing is, none of those arguments are even an actual part of a discussion of the bigger, ugly paradigm shift we’ve seen over the course of the past 20 years. This rant is far more overarching, and far more necessary now that we’ve nearly completed our journey to a land where anything goes. (As further evidence that being despicable rarely carries any actual consequences, look at this year’s presidential election.)
Where Is the Line?
Think about it.
Think about how Philidor became part of the Valeant family to begin with, then was said to alter doctors’ prescriptions to sell more Valeant-made drugs.
Think about how Philidor allegedly deceived pharmacy benefit managers.
Think about the fact that no other major drug manufacturer owns and operates pharmacies. Why would Valeant Pharmaceuticals feel the need to do so? It’s reasonably safe to say Pearson (and possibly Schiller) weren’t planning on being forced to explain why they needed Philidor in the first place, and how that relationship become so misused so quickly.
Equally curious is the abrupt decision from Valeant to close Philidor late last year. No sale. No winding down. Just a quick shutdown, not unlike like what one would expect to see when something is being brushed under the rug in a hurry, before anyone notices.
In other words, Pearson and probably Schiller were pushing the envelope not because they didn’t know it was wrong. They pushed the envelope — and then some — thinking they wouldn’t get caught. Shutting down Philidor in such a hurry certainly looks guilty, even if guilt can’t be proven.
As for why it ever happened in the first place, that’s simple enough too. Both Schiller and Pearson were ultimately compensated based on how well VRX stock performed.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being motivated by money, or with rewarding employees for strong fiscal results. At the end of the day, though, the same qualities that catapult someone to the helm of a corporation are also often the same qualities that prompt someone to cross a line — particularly when it doesn’t appear anyone is looking over their shoulder.
Throw in the fact that everybody else really is doing it and isn’t getting busted, and it becomes even easier to justify a journey deeper and deeper into that gray area … and eventually, beyond the gray area.
When Enron was exposed as a fraud back in 2002, the world was consumed for months. We were shocked that it was even possible for any organization to even perpetuate such a deception for so long with nobody noticing. We’ve spent the past 14 years becoming numb to similar, greed-driven gaffes — out of necessity.
This year alone we’ve seen plenty above and beyond Valeant’s. Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) was called out for opening 2 million unauthorized customer accounts, driven by sales goals for bankers. Volkswagen AG (ADR) (OTCMKTS:VLKAY) knowingly installed software that deceived Department of Motor Vehicles’ emissions tests. Mylan NV (NASDAQ:MYL), which had already inexplicably cranked up the price of its Epipen four-fold since 2008, was finally busted for overcharging Medicaid — by millions of dollars — over a period of years.
That’s just a small sample of the unbridled greed that’s become the new norm.
Although victims are still ticked off, investors and consumers have largely forgotten. There are just too many such improprieties to mentally process now. For that matter, there are too many such improprieties to investigate now.
For those who have been patient with VRX stock only to see the other shoe to drop several times now, sadly, there is no recourse. The only solace is knowing that after more than a 90% meltdown, things can’t get much worse.
For everyone else, Valeant Pharmaceuticals is another not-so-gentle reminder that no company is immune to the forces and eventual adverse impact of greed.
It’s the new norm.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.