Posted tagged ‘compensation’

Revisiting a Debate We Should be Past

June 10, 2009

Recently, Felix Salmon, Clusterstock, and others have been mentioning an essay from the Hoover Institute about the financial crisis. Now, I haven’t yet linked to the essay in question… I will, but only after I’ve said some thing about it.

I was on the front lines of the securitization boom. I saw everything that happened and am intimately familiar with how one particular bank, and more generally familiar with many banks’, approach to these businesses. I think that there are no words that adequately describes how utterly stupid it is that there is still a “debate” going on surrounding banks and their roles in the financial crisis. There are no unknowns. People have been blogging, writing, and talking about what happened ad naseum. It’s part of the public record. Whomever the author of this essay is (I’m sure I’ll be berated for not knowing him like I was for not knowing Santelli — a complete idiot who has no place in a public conversation whose requisites are either truth or the least amount of intellectual heft), unless it’s writing was an excesses in theoretical reasoning about a parallel universe, it’s a sure sign they don’t what they are talking about that they make some of the points in the essay. Let’s start taking it apart so we can all get on with our day.

For instance, it isn’t true that Wall Street made these mortgage securities just to dump them on them the proverbial greater fool, or that the disaster was wrought by Wall Street firms irresponsibly selling investment products they knew or should have known were destined to blow up. On the contrary, Merrill Lynch retained a great portion of the subprime mortgage securities for its own portfolio (it ended up selling some to a hedge fund for 22 cents on the dollar). Citigroup retained vast holdings in its so-called structured investment vehicles. Holdings of these securities, in funds in which their own employees personally participated, brought down Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. AIG, once one of the world’s most admired corporations, made perhaps the biggest bet of all, writing insurance contracts against the potential default of these products.

So Wall Street can hardly be accused of failing to eat its own dog food. It did not peddle to others an investment product that it was unwilling to consume in vast quantities itself.

(Emphasis mine.)

Initial premise fail. I had a hard time finding the part to emphasize since it’s all so utterly and completely wrong. Since I saw everything firsthand, let me be unequivocal about my remarks: the entire point of the securitization business was to sell risk. I challenge anyone to find an employee of a bank who says otherwise. This claim, that “it isn’t true that Wall Street made these mortgage securities just to dump them on them the proverbial greater fool” is proven totally false. There’s a reason the biggest losers in this past downturn were the biggest winners in the “league tables” for years running. As a matter of fact, there’s a reason that league tables, and not some other measure, were a yardstick for success in the first place! League tables track transaction volume–do I really need to point out that one doesn’t  judge themselves by transaction volume when their goal isn’t to merely sell/transact?

In fact, the magnitude of writedowns by the very firms mentioned (Merrill and Citi) relative to the original value of these investments imply that a vast, vast majority of the holdings were or were derived from the more shoddily underwritten mortgages underwritten in late 2006, 2007, and early 2008. In fact, looking at ABX trading levels, as of yesterday’s closing, shows the relative quality of these mortgages and makes my point. AAA’s from 2007 (series 1 and 2) trading for 25-26 cents on the dollar and AAA’s from early 2006 trading at roughly 67 cents on the dollar. The relative levels are what’s important. Why would Merrill be selling it’s product for 22 cents on the dollar if the market level is so much higher (obviously the sale occurred a few months ago, but the “zip code” is still the same)? This is a great piece of evidence that banks are merely left holding the crap they couldn’t sell when the music stopped.

Now, onto the next stop on the “How wrong can you get it?” tour.

It isn’t true, either, that Wall Street manufactured these securities as a purblind bet that home prices only go up. The securitizations had been explicitly designed with the prospect of large numbers of defaults in mind — hence the engineering of subordinate tranches designed to protect the senior tranches from those defaults that occurred.

Completely incorrect. Several people who were very senior in these businesses told me that the worst case scenario we would ever see was, perhaps, home prices being flat for a few years. I never, not once, saw anyone run any scenarios with home price depreciation. Now, this being subprime, it was always assumed that individuals refinancing during the lowest interest rate period would start to default when both (a) rates were higher and (b) their interest rates reset. [Aside: Take note that this implicitly shows that people running these businesses knew that people were taking out loans they couldn’t afford.] Note that the creation of subordinate tranches, which were cut to exactly match certain ratings categories, was to (1) fuel the CDO market with product (obviously CDO’s were driven by the underlying’s ratings and were model based), (2) allow AAA buyers, including Fannie and Freddie, an excuse to buy bonds (safety!), and (3) maximize the economics of the execution/sale/securitization. If there were any reasons for tranches to be created, it had absolutely nothing to do with home prices or defaults.

Further, I would claim that there wasn’t even this level of detail applied to any analysis. We’ve seen the levels of model error that are introduced when one tries to be scientific about predictions. As I was told  many times, “If we did business based on what the models tell us we’d do no business.” Being a quant, this always made me nervous. In retrospect, I’m glad my instincts were so attuned to reality.

As a matter of fact, most of the effort wasn’t on figuring out how to make money if things go bad or protect against downside risks, but rather most time and energy was spent reverse engineering other firm’s assumptions. Senior people would always say to me, “Look, we have to do trades to make money. We buy product and sell it off–there’s a market for securities and we buy loans based on those levels–at market levels.” These statements alone show how singularly minded these executives (I hate that term for senior people) and businesses were. The litmus test for doing risky deals wasn’t ever “Would we own these?” it was “Can we sell all the risk?”

But wait, there’s more…

Nor is it plausible that all concerned were simply mesmerized by, or cynically exploitive of, the willingness of rating agencies to stamp Triple-A on these securities. Wall Street firms knew what the underlying dog food consisted of, regardless of what rating was stamped on it. As noted, they willingly bet their firm’s money on it, and their own personal money on it, in addition to selling it to outsiders.

One needs the “willingly bet [their own] money on it” part to be true to make this argument. I know exactly what people would say, “We provide a service. We aggregate loans, create bonds, get those bonds rated, and sell them at the levels the market dictates. It isn’t our place to decide if our customers are making a good or bad investment decision.” I know it’s redundant with a lot of the points above, but that’s life–the underlying principles show up everywhere. And, honestly, it’s the perfect defense for, “How did you ever think this made sense?”

And, the last annoying bit I read and take issue with…

Nor is it true that Wall Street executives and CEOs had insufficient “skin in the game,” so that “perverse” compensation incentives created the mess. That story also does not pan out. Individuals, it’s true, were paid sizeable bonuses in the years in which the securities were created and sold.

[…]

Richard Fuld, of failed Lehman Brothers, saw his net worth reduced by at least a hundred million dollars. James Cayne of Bear Stearns was reported to have lost nearly a billion dollars in a matter of a few months. AIG’s Hank Greenberg, who remained a giant shareholder despite being removed from the firm he built by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in 2005, lost perhaps $2 billion. Thousands of lower-downs at these firms, those who worked in the mortgage securities departments and those who didn’t, also saw much wealth devastated by the subprime debacle and its aftermath.

Wow. Dick Fuld, who got $500 million, had his net worth reduced by $100 million? That’s your defense? And, to be honest, if you can’t gin up this discussion, then what can you gin up? The very nature of this debate is that all of these figures are unverifiable. James Cayne was reported to have lost nearly a billion dollars? Thanks, but what’s your evidence? The nature of rich people is that they hide their wealth, they diversify, and they skirt rules. So, sales of stock get fancy names like prepaid variable forwards. Show me their bank statements–even silly arguments need a tad of evidence, right?

Honestly, at this point I stopped reading. No point in going any further. So, now that you know how little regard for that which is already known and on the record this piece of fiction is, I’ll link to it…

Here ya go.

Although, Felix does a great job of taking this piece down too (links above)… Although, he’s a bit less combative in his tone.

Nor is it plausible that all concerned were simply mesmerized by, or cynically exploitive of, the willingness of rating agencies to stamp Triple-A on these securities. Wall Street firms knew what the underlying dog food consisted of, regardless of what rating was stamped on it.

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How to Fix the Compensation Issue… Yesterday!

April 15, 2009

With all the tone-deafness that followed the great compensation debate of 2009, I have a very simple solution. The problem, despite what people commonly believe, is not the absolute level of compensation. No, it’s the fact that management’s personal incentives and employees’ incentives are aligned–shareholders are still in the wilderness. How many times have we heard the trite, absolutely silly refrain stating “we need to pay the valuable people that know where the bodies are buried so they can dispose of them!”? Way too many. Although, there are dozens of examples of retention bonuses being paid to people as they resign… Idiots.

So, what do I suggest? Add all compensation, beyond a base limit, say $250,000, as T.A.R.P. debt to institutions who have already received funds under the program–and the interest rate from this new debt should be very high. I would suggest… okay, I never merely suggest… I would demand (better!) that this new debt carry a high coupon. Maybe even ensure the interest owed is cutely linked to the way these publicly owned (partially, anyway) institutions are negatively impacting our economy. One example: this new debt could carry an interest rate equal to the greater of the (a) median of the top quartile of credit card interest rates issued by the company in question and (b) 24.99%.

Now, what does this do? It better aligns management and shareholders. How can a C.E.O. allow divisions that lost billions to run up it’s debt? And, how can an institution award these bonuses necessary to pay people, right out of taxpayer money, if they aren’t willing to pay it back later? By definition, every dollar that flows into the pockets of employees can’t go back to the taxpayers whose money saved these same institutions. Once managers need to actually justify why they are paying people, due to the higher cost, I guarantee fewer employees will receive these higher bonuses. Gone will be the cuspy performers who are being paid because Wall St. is a creature of habit. This will create a wholesale re-thinking of compensation at many institutions. And, honestly, it’s long overdue. To be honest, I don’t really view this higher cost as excessive, either. People being paid 8-12% of profits (it’s actually revenue traders are compensated on, but don’t tell anyone that) should wind up actually costing 10%-20% of profits with this excess debt, perhaps as high as 30%–but these employees continue to be employed and able to profit due to taxpayer funds to begin with. It’s time managers are required justify, to their boards and owners, why high compensation for various employees is necessary. And, since companies say a surtax or banning of bonuses is bad and bonuses are absolutely required, they should be more than willing to pay these higher rates–they need these people after all!

To Understand the A.I.G. Problem, Look no Further than the Public Resignation Letter

April 2, 2009

I’ll admit it, Jake DeSantis’ resignation letter got me extremely annoyed. It’s a bait-and-switch–a one-sided telling of the story that doesn’t even jive with itself. I’ve been a bit torn about whether or not to write about it, but here we are. So, let’s get started (my comments are interlaced, in bold).

Dear Mr. Liddy,It is with deep regret that I submit my notice of resignation from A.I.G. Financial Products. I hope you take the time to read this entire letter. Before describing the details of my decision, I want to offer some context:

First of all, why is this letter public? They even have a screenshot of an email being sent from Mr. DeSantis to Mr. Liddy. To me, this is a huge P.R. ploy. When one writes a letter, knowing it will be made public, it immediately destroys the ability to “take it at face value.”

I am proud of everything I have done for the commodity and equity divisions of A.I.G.-F.P. I was in no way involved in — or responsible for — the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung A.I.G. Nor were more than a handful of the 400 current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. Most of those responsible have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage.

Ahhhhhh… Herein lies the most major problem. This is the common thread people are likely to hear over and over again. “It wasn’t my division/trading book/group that lost the money.” Well, unfortunately, this is completely and totally irrelevant. First of all, did anyone complain when that group was “juicing” the returns of your equity compensation? Did anyone hear, “I can’t take this! It wasn’t my group that made all this money!” No. Hypocrite. Second, you work at the same firm. This firm, 400 people large, as the letter states, is around the same size as my high school class. There are two possibilities for any front-office employees claiming to not know what the credit default swap businesses were doing: they are lying (highly, highly likely) or their head was in the sand (less likely). Firms like this have “town hall meetings.” There are transactions that cross areas and force people to work together and meet one another. Senior management (What is Mr. DeSantis’ title? Ahhh, yes, “Executive Vice President” …. Thank you screenshot) sits on executive committees, working groups, and other teams for business development, strategy sessions, and to ensure that everyone knows what is going on. In fact, we know that even accountants asked questions and saw enough inconsistencies to blow the whistle on A.I.G.! So, yes, very few people actually executed the trades. But, no, no one who worked there bears no responsibility for asking the right questions or raising concerns over things they didn’t understand.

This is exactly the same problem that existed in many other firms, so it’s not unique to A.I.G. This is one reason why Goldman is so successful, their co-presidents walk the floor and know traders and senior executives from all the businesses. A wide net is cast for opinions when doing a transaction or making a large decision. The partnership mentality exists there in a huge way, versus this “fiefdom” or “silo” mentality where people talk about “their business.”

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

Honestly, I’ll believe it when I see it. You shouldn’t get the credit for saying you’ll give away your money, you should get credit for giving away your money. Also, please note this: A.I.G. reassured them many times they would be rewarded… Doesn’t sound like a formal contract, does it? As for being “persecuted” … Show me the harm that elected officials have actually done. The T.A.R.P. surtax measure looks dead to me. And, if you’re giving it away anyway, not much harm there. Maybe you should have used another word, like, “lectured” or “scolded.”

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down.

I see. So you worked for eleven years because you’re dedicated and honorable, but now that you’re not getting paid for helping to maximize recovery for taxpayers, you’re leaving. Please note that, in reading this, it’s clear that the dysfunctional environment has been around before now, so that’s not the reason he is leaving. Even more amazing is the fact Mr. DeSantis agreed to work for $1 out of, “a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid.” Is he <expletive> kidding? So the $1 was out pf a sense of duty, but the $742,006.40 (post taxes, we’ll come to that later!) was out of greed? Well, then I think we know what you’re about.

You and I have never met or spoken to each other, so I’d like to tell you about myself. I was raised by schoolteachers working multiple jobs in a world of closing steel mills. My hard work earned me acceptance to M.I.T., and the institute’s generous financial aid enabled me to attend. I had fulfilled my American dream.

Congratulations on a stellar achievement, getting into M.I.T.! Unfortunately, your hyperbole surrounding the phrase “American dream” is asinine. If your dream was to go into debt to go to M.I.T., and then it was fulfilled, you probably should have thought a few steps beyond that.

I started at this company in 1998 as an equity trader, became the head of equity and commodity trading and, a couple of years before A.I.G.’s meltdown last September, was named the head of business development for commodities. Over this period the equity and commodity units were consistently profitable — in most years generating net profits of well over $100 million. Most recently, during the dismantling of A.I.G.-F.P., I was an integral player in the pending sale of its well-regarded commodity index business to UBS. As you know, business unit sales like this are crucial to A.I.G.’s effort to repay the American taxpayer.

The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses. In this way I have personally suffered from this controversial activity — directly as well as indirectly with the rest of the taxpayers.

Ahhh, here again Mr. DeSantis changes it up a bit. Unfortunately for him, his choice of words is telling. “The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation.” Oh? So you weren’t associated with A.I.G. the corporation? How about A.I.G. Financial Products?

As for your lost deferred compensation, well, then it worked! You were given deferred compensation, tied to the performance of your firm, to align your incentives with everyone else. This is part of the reason your attempts to disassociate yourself from the problems are meaningless. You likely made money, and cashed out portions of your deferred compensation (11 years of continued employment means a lot of it vested, I would assume). You clearly made money from this compensation scheme … Do you now intend to give back the portion you weren’t directly responsible for? No, of course not! Nor should you, by the way–live by the sword, die by the sword, as the saying goes.

Anyway, let’s make apparent what you aren’t saying. How much of this compensation, over the years, was actually in deferred equity compensation? Standard amount for a bonus of your size is 30-40% of your bonus. This could be 20-30% of your total compensation for a given year. So, for the past few years, most likely 30% of your compensation has been in equity, likely vesting over 3-5 years with equal amounts of any years award vesting over each following year… This means that for the first six years you kept 100%, for the next year you kept approximately 94%, then 88% … The lowest proportion being 65-70%. Now, these are all approximate, but unless something is very amiss, it’s all in the ballpark. It isn’t like Mr. DeSantis didn’t know his risk the entire time and one shouldn’t think, from the vagueness, that it’s much higher than it truly is.

I have the utmost respect for the civic duty that you are now performing at A.I.G. You are as blameless for these credit default swap losses as I am. You answered your country’s call and you are taking a tremendous beating for it.

No, no, for all the reasons I’ve stated before, Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Liddy is much more blameless than you are. He didn’t have 11 years to figure out what this division was doing, ask questions, raise red flags, or exercise the option to quit and sell all his unvested stock. You, however, did.

But you also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn’t defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.

Ibid. (Don’t want to sound like a broken record.)

My guess is that in October, when you learned of these retention contracts, you realized that the employees of the financial products unit needed some incentive to stay and that the contracts, being both ethical and useful, should be left to stand. That’s probably why A.I.G. management assured us on three occasions during that month that the company would “live up to its commitment” to honor the contract guarantees.

Honestly, this is where this <expletive> <insulting non-expletive> really gets under my skin. Let me give Mr. DeSantis a piece of advice: When you agree to an employment contract that has a total compensation (post taxes, more on that in a second!) of over $740,000 (don’t forget, he’s getting his benefits, too!), but the salary component of that is $1, you aren’t getting farily compensated by the non-salary portion and making a huge sacrifice by working for a $1 salary. Both cannot be true! This sort of posturing and propaganda falls very nicely into the “what isn’t he saying?” overtone that colors this entire P.R. stunt. Also, note that this entire paragraph is guessing. The only objective portion of this sentence is that A.I.G. management assured a group of people that they would live up to their commitment on three seperate occasions. Keep in mind no representations were made by A.I.G. as t the tax rate they would pay. They could have! This is a common executive perk called a “Tax Gross-Up” … I wonder how it works when there is over 100% tax rate, though…

That may be why you decided to accelerate by three months more than a quarter of the amounts due under the contracts. That action signified to us your support, and was hardly something that one would do if he truly found the contracts “distasteful.”

More guesses. I agree these actions seem inconsistent, though. I wonder if Mr. Liddy himself knew the specifics and timing.

That may also be why you authorized the balance of the payments on March 13.

At no time during the past six months that you have been leading A.I.G. did you ask us to revise, renegotiate or break these contracts — until several hours before your appearance last week before Congress.

I think your initial decision to honor the contracts was both ethical and financially astute, but it seems to have been politically unwise. It’s now apparent that you either misunderstood the agreements that you had made — tacit or otherwise — with the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, various members of Congress and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York, or were not strong enough to withstand the shifting political winds.

I’m sure Mt. Liddy takes comfort in hearing your thoughts on his actions.

You’ve now asked the current employees of A.I.G.-F.P. to repay these earnings. As you can imagine, there has been a tremendous amount of serious thought and heated discussion about how we should respond to this breach of trust.

And yet most of the bonuses have been paid back.

As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

Ibid.

Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.’s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.’s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you.

This is also stupid and, likely, doesn’t stand up. Likely this is built from hearsay But, I’ll give the truthfulness of this statement the validity of the doubt. First, understand the point here: the only reason these A.I.G. employees agreed to stay at A.I.G. and fix the mess they and their colleagues created is because they extracted large, guaranteed payments from A.I.G., now owned by taxpayers. Nice! Second, if they are truly the rationally thinking economic agents they claim to be, why did they turn down a job from a stable employer for a job that has an expiration date (the full unwind of A.I.G. F.P.)?

So, either these people are irrational idiots or they ransoming taxpayers and the American economy. I don’t care which they pick, honestly.

The only real motivation that anyone at A.I.G.-F.P. now has is fear. Mr. Cuomo has threatened to “name and shame,” and his counterpart in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, has made similar threats — even though attorneys general are supposed to stand for due process, to conduct trials in courts and not the press.

The only motivation? What about, well, Mr. DeSantis put it so well… “a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid” … ? Oh, right, that was when there was a guaranteed, $700,000+ payment.

So what am I to do? There’s no easy answer. I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.

Woah, stop the presses. So, you’ve been overpaid, your family isn’t “suffering devastating losses,” and you’ve benefited more than most form the past few years. So why are you resigning? Oh, right … because you didn’t get over $700,000.

Well, to your question about what you should now, I have an easy answer! If you’re truly needed to unwind A.I.G. F.P., and you’re going to be available, volunteer to help! Please note: volunteering doesn’t include a $700,000+ bonus. Your $1 salary, however, is still there if you’d like.

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less — in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.

Subtext: Congress will be stealing from the needy if they pass this surtax! Also, note that it’s $742,006.40 after taxes. If his effective tax rate is 35% then the payment is $1,141,548.31. If his tax rate is higher, it’s more!

This choice is right for me. I wish others at A.I.G.-F.P. luck finding peace with their difficult decision, and only hope their judgment is not clouded by fear.

Mr. Liddy, I wish you success in your commitment to return the money extended by the American government, and luck with the continued unwinding of the company’s diverse businesses — especially those remaining credit default swaps. I’ll continue over the short term to help make sure no balls are dropped, but after what’s happened this past week I can’t remain much longer — there is too much bad blood. I’m not sure how you will greet my resignation, but at least Attorney General Blumenthal should be relieved that I’ll leave under my own power and will not need to be “shoved out the door.”

I see. So there’s too much bad blood in the place that paid you millions and millions over ten years. What’s the word… right… perspective!

Sincerely,
Jake DeSantis

Who else now supports the T.A.R.P. surtax measure?

Contrarian View: HR 1586 (T.A.R.P. Surtax Bill) will Create Millionaires

March 19, 2009

This is  just a  few quick thoughts, but I believe, in a few years, we’ll be able to take this bill and place it’s effects high on the list of unintended consequences. Let’s wonder what a reasonable firm would do in order to protect it’s people as much as possible from this legislation… I would put forth the proposal that a firm would give it’s employees the most “bang for the buck.” This seems to clearly be by paying in options. Now, I don’t know all the technical details behind how finance companies have to account for and value options given as compensation, but, using the CBOE option pricer and volatility from Morningstar, I get around $0.50 as the option price for a strike of $2.50 at the time Citi was giving bonuses out, around the time it was at $1.00. Or, if we use $2.50 for the equity price and the strike price, we get $1.62 option price.

Since those prices are per share for lots of 100 option, we get anywhere between 500,000 and 155,000 options, depending on when Citi’s rules would require it to re-cast it’s payments to employees. That’s obviously a huge range. However, for some context, when Citi was trading at $50 / share, having 500,000 shares would have meant you had $25 million in the bank. And 155,000 shares would have meant you had $7.75 million in the bank. However, let’s look at some more likely scenarios. Citi is currently trading at $3.00. As these options are longer dated (I believe the prices quoted above were for 3 year options), could one see a world where Citi is at $10, $15, or even $20 3 years in the future? I think so. So, 155,000 options would be worth between $1.55 million and $3.1 million.The other option is some combination of cash and restricted stock. As we see above, the total shares one would get, if merely receiving restricted stock (at the current trading level) is approximately half to two-thirds.

Now, obviously there are risks. Citi might not be around in three or more years–that is anyone’s guess! This assumes share price increases quite a bit (although the numbers look good even for more modest scenarios). However, all of these would be issues with restricted shares as well–which Wall St. heavily relies upon for compensation. Also, this is just for Citi, which is clearly in a more precarious position than some of it’s peers. For a firm like Goldman, Morgan Stanley, or even Merrill/BofA, the probability of defaulting is way lower. And, for those firms, volatility is lower, making options less valuable, and increasing the ratio of options to restricted shares. the purposes of comparison, Goldman is currently trading at approximately $100 and it’s two year volatility is around 60%. This yields an option price of around $39, or 3x as many options as restricted shares. So, for every $20 Goldman’s shares go up, one would make 3x as much if they had options.

You see where I’m going with this? Now, I don’t know the specific rules surrounding a firm’s ability to re-cast their payments once they’ve been made, or how they compute strike prices, restricted share award prices, or other details. But, I would bet that these firms go back to their employees and let them re-think some of their options (no pun intended).

Fun Super Irony Fact: HR 1586, in the 110th congress was the “The Death Tax Repeal Act of 2007”!!!

Rick Santelli is a Lesson for our Children

February 21, 2009

So, by now you’ve heard of the rant of some guy I’d never heard of before (not to be confused with Barron’s Michael Santoli). Does anyone else find it amusing that Mr. Santelli was ranting on the floor of an “open outcry” trading pit? That’s right, he was ranting about wasteful spending to help homeowners while standing on a monument to the past of finance and inefficient execution.

Mr. Santelli, while I completely accept the fact that you are most likely compensated based on how many viewers you reel in and your entertainment value, and certainly not based on the quality of your journalism (this is CNBC after all, the house of Cramer), analysis, or even grasp of reality, you should still, every now and again, try reading something. From the details of the plan one could learn some simple things:

1. The plan is available only to those people whose mortgages are owned by Fannie or Freddie or those whose mortgages were backed by Fannie and Freddie and put into securities by them. Fannie and Freddie have strict limits on whose mortgages can go into those pools. They have to have high FICO scores, relatively low LTVs, and there is a maximum size allowed. Please note that this restriction, in and of itself, totally disqualifies sub-prime mortgage loans. Let me repeat: sub-prime mortgages and agency-backed mortgages are a totally disjoint set of mortgage loans–there is no overlap.

2. The program does not reduce principal owed. So, in essence, there is no forgiveness of debt, but only a reduction in interest rates and, perhaps, an extending of the term of the loan to reduce monthly payments. People still owe the same amount as before. Sounds like a welfare state to me…

3. The program doesn’t allow refinancing of second homes or investment properties. So all the speculators that own 3 houses on that were supposed to be flipped cannot refinance any mortgages except for the single first mortgage on the house they currently reside in.

4. Second mortgages aren’t covered under the plan. All the people who took out HELOCs to borrow money to buy stocks aren’t going to be bailed out either.

5. There is about $75 billion being used to help stabilize the multi-trillion dollar mortgage market. This number alone implied that there is some selection process to weed out unworthy people from being given government funds.

Look, I want the economy to improve as much as the next guy, but I think swelling the unemployment rolls by one idiotic reporter might be the kind of change I can believe in. Oh, and let’s finally close down the value-destroying open-outcry trading pits. Maybe removing that friction in our economy can help us save a few dollars.

I was going to stop here, but I’ll be honest… the complete and total stupidity of Santelli and those knuckle dragging dinosaurs who still use hand motions to make money, add trnsaction costs, and keep the computers at bay (not all of them, but most of them, I’m sure) on the floor of the C.M.E. are the reason middle America hates everyone in finance. Further, it’s the reason we need a bailout. How often did I hear “not my problem” or “because that’s where the market is” or any number of other, totally tone-deaf incantations from the mouths of people making seven-digit bonuses? Often. And, to be honest, do we have even single piece of tape with Mr. Santelli yelling about taxpayers paying for Citi? Bank of America? How about AIG? No? Well, we gave Merrill Lynch $15 billion and around $4 billion of that was immediately blown through to mint 696 seven-digit bonuses.

At least I can take comfort in knowing that Mr. Santelli will be forgotten in 100 years and that his rant likely has no lasting impact on our society–it showcases the worst, most base and uninformed stupididty. Children, pay attention in school or you’ll wind up working on the CME trading floor for CNBC.

Time For The Next Generation of Executives

February 4, 2009

Dear Shareholders:

I am writing to offer my name into consideration for the executive positions within your company–specifically, the Chief Executive Officer–and hope you will agree I am the perfect fit. I am well educated, resourceful, analytical, ethical, and decisive. However, this mix of qualities can be found in a myriad of candidates. What I would bring to your executive suite is much more valuable in these troubled times.

Before I elaborate, let me deal with an issue that I’m sure is at the forefront of your mind–my expectations for compensation. I am quite aware that there is an eminent move by the Obama administration to limit executive pay, and this is one reason I am currently writing to you. I realize that the common perception is, in the words of James F. Reda, “[that] $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus.” I wholeheartedly support others, who also seek this position, declining to be considered because of the meager pay. As a matter of fact, I will take the position for $400,000, if offered. Further, I encourage you to pay me three-quarters of that amount in equity. The reason I would suggest this is closely linked to my qualifications for the job, beyond the aforementioned.

First, I promise to be accountable. In these troubled times transparency is of the utmost importance. Companies’ leaders have to answer to their shareholders, their directors, their employees, and even, in some instances, the government. Uncertainty and the loss of confidence has caused the collapse of many firms. Too many executives have skated through the crisis by blaming problems on their predecessors (using codewords like “legacy assets”) a year or more later. Trumpeting a business model or a plan for months, or even years, to investors and the public alike, and then changing course abruptly shows a lack of leadership and ensures the market will assume the worst. In short, I will take responsibility for what happens on my watch, ensure my decisions are transparent, and will be ready to accept the consequences of my decisions and performance rather than deflect criticism.

Second, I will be a steward of our firm’s reputation and brand. Too many firms have consistently done the exact wrong thing. I will institute rules that ensure our sterling reputation emerges from this crisis intact. Further, I will hold employees accountable for actions that harm our image and will be harsh and swift to send the message that our firm doesn’t tolerate actions that cut against our values. Simultaneously, I will be a strong advocate for defensible decisions and use my position to ensure all relevant stakeholders understand our reasoning–I refuse to let the media scare me into making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of our firm. I will also ensure that tough decisions, like deferring or drastically reducing employee compensation, are made and explained. I promise not to tarnish our firm by repeating half truths and party-line nonsense in defense of the status quo.

Third, I promise to not be ruled by quarterly results and short-term gains. How many assets could have been sold and moved off of firm’s balance sheets, but for executives’ reluctance to miss out on any “upside” of these assets? How many buybacks and ill-conceived mergers were executed because they were the flavor of the day? How much more leverage was taken on because interest rates were low and competitors were doing the same? I will not bow to these “fads” and optical enhancements to earnings, at the expense of logic and long-term strength.

Fourth, I promise to get involved with every aspect of our business. I will make it my job to ensure I am very familiar with all of our products. Further, I promise to dive deeply enough into our business that I will be able to make intelligent decisions where others will not. If no one is asking the difficult questions, I will. If there is a poor incentive structure that leads to poor controls, risk management, or business practices, I promise to find out about it myself, not be told about the problem(s) when it starts adversely affect our firm.

Fifth, and lastly, I promise to eschew the trappings associated with being an executive–I will lead by example. I will set the example for our employees. I will maintain a modest office, fly commercial whenever possible (and that does not translate to “whenever I want to”), and ensure the company never incurs expenses for my comfort or convenience. In an era where travel and expenses are highly restricted for legitimate business purposes, for me to use my position for my own convenience would be inappropriate.

It is clear to me that I will bring exactly the sort of fundamental, common sense changes to your executive office that your firm needs. The past few weeks have shown us all that the current generation of executives, seemingly uniformly, completely fail to meet the obvious standards needed to lead our companies. Recent events have left companies’ equity values depressed, morale crushed, and, in some instances, partial or total financial collapse because of executives’ poor decisions, poor management of their brand and perception, refusal to take personal responsibility, and inability to think objectively and dispassionately about their business. And, when these executives have been forced out, they have been paid handsomely for doing an atrocious job by any objective measure. Simply put, I offer something different–any reward I will reap will come from the same reward you, as an investor, expect: an increase in the value of the firm’s equity.

I hope you agree with me that I am a great fit for an executive position–specifically, Chief Executive Officer–at your firm. Should you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at DearJohnThain@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

Dear John Thain

All the Important Stories Without the Word “Commode” in Them

January 27, 2009

We learned a lot today, although tomorrow we might find that we learned completely different things. Here are the articles that prove the idiom, “When it rains it pours.”

1. Citi, in what can only be described as a series of epic P.R. fails, purchased a $50 million jet. Next in the series was this paragraph from DealBook:

A Citigroup spokesperson told DealBook that he could not confirm the reports that the bank was set to take control of a new jet, citing “security” concerns. “Executives are encouraged to fly commercial whenever possible to reduce expenses,” Citi said in a statement.

Seriously? Security concerns? Now, there are some rumblings that the jet was purchased two years ago. However, if there was ever a time to wage the P.R. war and risk getting sued to keep the big picture impression of your firm together, this was it. I can, without a doubt, say that if I were sitting in Vikram’s seat I would be refusing to pay for the jet or take delivery of it, and would be doing whatever I could to be sued. The headline, “Citi Sued for Failing to Honor Commitment to Purchase Corporate Jet” sounds like music compared to “Citigroup Likely to Face Criticism Over Jet” (the actual DealBook headline).

And in the end, they ceded the ground anyway.

2. Congratulations, you’ve hired some lobbyists! It turns out that a whole bunch of firms, including Citi, American Express, Capital One, Goldman Sachs, KeyCorp, Morgan Stanley, PNC and Bank of New York Mellon, all hired lobbyists. The whole notion of a company hiring a lobbyist, clearly, leads to obvious questions about companies representing their own interests and those of their shareholders instead of those of the people (who, now, are also their shareholders). I can’t possibly imagine what firms are thinking when they hire these lobbyists, except that they will “get away with it.” Absolutely ridiculous.

And, no sooner than I had noted this, newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Geithner cracks down on lobbying.

3. Apparently, Bank of America approved everything they used against John Thain when it came time to push him out. From the Elusive January 23rd version of the WSJ article:

Thain also left for a vacation in Vail, Colo., after the losses came to light, accelerated bonus payments at Merrill so they could be collected before the end of the year and scheduled a trip this week to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland […]

Vitriol between the Bank of America and Merrill camps also stemmed from the fact that Merrill had paid out bonuses much earlier than expected. A person familiar with Merrill’s bonus scheme said executives typically are told what their bonus will be by the second week of January and the payments are made in the second half of the month. Some people inside Bank of America believe Merrill accelerated the payouts to avoid having them cut amid a much-leaner plan at Bank of America.

(Emphasis mine.)

And, from the FT:

Ken Lewis, BofA’s embattled chief executive, ousted Mr Thain on Thursday after news of the bonus payments appeared in the Financial Times. BofA told the FT last week that Mr Thain had made the decision to pay bonuses in December instead of January and it had been “informed” of the move. The bank said Merrill was an independent company until the deal closed on January 1.

[…]

BofA yesterday confirmed there were conversations about the bonus payments prior to the pay-outs: “We never said we didn’t talk with them about it. But, in the end, it was their decision and they informed us of it.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Jeeze. Ken Lewis needs to go… His P.R. war to keep his job despite fleecing taxpayers is pathetic.