Posted tagged ‘management’

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!

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

TARP Performance: Way Too Early to Judge

January 18, 2009

Felix has a post focused on some of the numbers in the CBO report on TARP. Specifically, it looks at subsidy rates (amount lost from various “bailouts” due to mark-to-market as a percentage of the original investment). First, I’ll note my strong objections to using mark-to-market at any given point in time as a true measure of what something has “cost” taxpayers. One issue that permeates this crisis is the government officials managing their response to (and this is borrowed from somewhere, but I simply cannot remember from where or find it) have something released before the asian markets open. Mark to market, however, is definitely the easiest to measure, hence the use of it. Things like economic activity, bank lending, credit rates for banks, etc. should be used as measures of TARP effectiveness.

Now, let’s move on to my other point–this is like calling the winner in the first few minutes of a game. Any analysis of the effectiveness of the bailouts is likely to be a bit skewed since what would have happened without them isn’t truly known. But drawing any conclusion on a five year investment less than three months after it was made is especially premature. The probability of taxpayers’  investments seeing an actual loss is, actually, quite low in my estimation. Why? These institutions were bailed out already, and that is, in some sense, an endorsement of not letting them fail in the near future. Be dismantled? Perhaps. Be sold? Possibly. But die, like Lehman did? Certainly not. In fact, if Bank of America and Citi prove anything, it’s that politicians are more likely to buy back into the game than face the taxpayers and explain how they lost tens of billions of dollars backing the wrong horse. Don’t get me wrong, I think there significant holes in the strategy for TARP.

This situation, of course, defines moral hazard when the current management is allowed to stay. Citi management can go around doing whatever they want to fix Citi, if they fail we pay. If they win, they look good. Same for Bank of America… Ken Lewis decides to acquire Merrill in a shotgun wedding and then plays chicken to get a subsidy. Did they lower the price of the Merrill acquisition? No. As a matter of fact, the government didn’t just have a right to put their boot on the professional throat of Ken Lewis, but they had a responsibility to–Mr. Lewis actually showed an active interest in leveraging the financial crisis and government strategy. But, I digress.

The point is we won’t know how our investments perform for quite some time, and if the strategy the government employs remains constant then taxpayers are unlikely to lose a dime. So, you won’t find me with a real-time accounting of the TARP investments in Bloomberg anytime soon.

On Recent Stories: Something for Everyone

August 27, 2008

I haven’t had the opportunity, in a long time, to cobble together some real thoughts. However, here are a few quick takes on what is going on recently…

1. Citi continues to shuffle deck chairs. Now, I don’t know what they could be doing right now to fix their situation. The problem they are facing is that they need to control costs in an environment rife with morale problems. As one commenter on Dealbook pointed out, I don’t know who believes that Jamie Forese is asking a subordinate to become his equal–indeed that’s probably not even within his power to do. I also don’t know why there is such a massive use of management consultants–in a large bank with an everything-needs-signoff-from-the-C.E.O. culture it’s hard to imagine someone who runs a department of 200 people can go out and hire McKinsey … Those managers can’t even upgrade their own travel arrangements to first or business class! Anyway, the real issue with these measures is that the worst abusers are powerful and find their way around these policies and senior management’s time is better spent doing other things than approving new computers and offsite meetings.

IRONY ALERT: As I was writing this post, I saw this item from Research Recap:

McKinsey sees considerable scope for investment banks to cut their noncompensation costs – possibly up to $2 billion in recurring savings.

McKinsey said its experience indicates that data, printing, supplies, delivery and professional services usually yield the fastest results; restructuring real estate and IT spending may take longer but generate much larger savings.

McKinsey said its analysis suggests that “executives can embark on this additional belt tightening without harming a bank’s culture and morale.”

Of course, morale at most investment banks is already so low that a further whack at expenses is unlikely to make it any worse.

(emphasis mine.)

Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up…

2. Lehman is approaching a deal to sell a stake in it’s asset management unit,  Neuberger Berman, to a private equity firm. This is a good start for a relationship, of the kind I have already opined on, between Lehman and a business that should be looking for disintermediation. I would, if I were Mr. Fuld, look to sell a stake in the asset management unit, get an equity investment in Lehman itself, and form a permanent J.V. with whatever top-shelf private equity firm will be winning the auction. Maybe Lehman can try cross-selling … “Mr. Kravis, I see you own a part of our asset management division, can I interest you in some cheap real estate debt? With gas prices so high who couldn’t use some hard assets?” Feel free to fo read my prior post–I go into a lot more detail there about the nuances of what the structure, in an ideal world, should look like.

3. Fannie and Freddie are falling … in slow motion! I have no idea, none at all, why the failing and bailout of Fannie and Freddie are both taking so long. Guess what? If Fannie and Freddie are woefully undercapitalized now then what’s the catalyst for things to get better? There is none. This whole situation doesn’t make sense. Are they waiting for the G.S.E.’s to be insolvent? We already know they are leveraged instutions completely concentrated in markets that are dead, dying, or woefully sick. I guess I don’t understand the rationale for waiting to take action… From the WSJ:

The Treasury probably doesn’t need to make a decision imminently unless the companies lose their ability to tap debt markets at reasonable costs, said Joshua Rosner, a managing director at research firm Graham Fisher & Co.

If the Treasury is forced to inject capital into Fannie and Freddie, though, that is likely to be part of a restructuring that would likely wipe out the value of previously issued common and preferred shares and lower the value of subordinated debt.

[Obligatory paragraph about what the stock did today.] …

Fannie increased its holdings of “liquid” investments, cash and short-term securities that can easily be sold, to $103.6 billion, up 43% from June. The move gives the company more flexibility to reduce its future borrowings if market conditions worsen, company officials said.

(emphasis mine.)

In what world is $100+ billion of anything easily sold? Simply stupid. Especially with the Fed pressuring the Treasury Department to ease up on wiping out certain equity holder because of the destruction wiping out parts of the G.S.E.’s capital structure would cause. Have any of these people ever seen markets function in the face of uncertainty? Oh, right … the last year or so. Well, at least that’s going well…

4. The next big problem is here: distressed companies. People expect that this will be the next set of losses and economic distress. Corporates have been fairly resilient, as a sector, to this economic downturn. Part of this is the lag that corporates have from the time consumers start tightening the purse strings to the time that effect is seen on the bottom line. Nothing else to say, really, the numbers are all moving in the same direction.

5. Random Assortment of other things…

A. Remember the rating agencies? Well, now one is going to sell you something that will tell you how much you’re going to lose on the C.D.O. paper you bought because they said was safer than it actually was after using their flawed ratings methodology… Apparently the part of their suite that worked was the part that picked out the downgrade candidates.

B. In a slight nod to my political views, there is finally hard data that we, as a society, have a vested interest in investing in those amongst us that have the least.

Build an Investment Bank: Introduction

July 7, 2008

As I hinted before, I have been thinking about this for a while. This series is going to be about taking some discrete pieces of what makes a modern day investment bank, making a choice about how that part would be setup under DJT’s tyrannical rule, and stating the case for setting things up that way. Here are some example topics:

  • Risk management and organization surrounding risk management
  • Business mixes and core competencies
  • Management structure and other nuances of configuring management roles
  • Proprietary trading / risk taking
  • Technology
  • Operations and support roles
  • Ownership / corporate structure and other things (owned by a bank or not, for example)
  • Deciding on what, if any, presence in consumer markets should exist
  • Compensation
  • Culture and approach to H.R. and other people issues
  • Reviews and performance management
  • Anything else that comes to mind

I think that feedback on other areas or how to group these would be interesting to receive. The first one of these issues I think should be tackled is technology. It’s a topic I have thought a lot about and is extremely important in figuring out how day-to-day operations occur. I hope to have this up shortly. I have lots of skeletons of these entries written about, and more thoughts, so hopefully this series will have a lot of meat to it soon.

Banking Risk

February 28, 2008

It’s funny to me that all of these problems are coming to light and, while there are clearly themes as to how these various products all became so prevelent, as well as why, there are some things that still need explaining. What do leveraged loans have to do with all this? Indeed Goldman could be asking itself why it got involved in that market–one in which it had become a major player, unlike some other businesses it was lucky enough to have been unsuccessful in entering. How did C.D.O.’s, a product generally managed off of trading floors where many market-sensitive businesses didn’t lose money, seem to be a categorical loser for banks? The answer seems pretty plain to me: These were products driven by “bankers.”

A “banker” is a person, as I think of them, whose job is to pitch a transaction to an entity/person/institution/group and get the fees involved in said transaction. They don’t manage risk, that is generally outsourced–but they do worry about it insofar as one can dimension the risk. Bankers make assumptions. Bankers LOVE assumptions. “Assume that trend continues.” “Assume defaults come in at 80% of the model for this collateral.” “Assume that debt gets taken out.” “Assume rates rally.” “Assume a static L.I.B.O.R.” “Assume this rate scenario and no losses.” It’s simply amazing. Why would one stress losses and not interest rates? Wouldn’t it be a better assumption that if 10% losses are occurring when 2.5% are projected that it’s because interest rates are higher than expected and people can’t get new loans? Well, the bonds don’t perform under those scenarios and showing that would make them harder to sell. Merely an example, I digress.

Bankers run the process on C.D.O.’s and  on leveraged loan deals. Their job is to put together scads and scads of powerpoint presentations detailing all kinds of details. Bankers show nice graphs like supply (amount of bonds issued) versus spreads (yield premium required for a bond’s incremental) to show some trend. Bankers trot out the all-knowing league tables for their product. (As we now know, the most accurate thing predicted by the C.D.O. league tables turned out to be writedowns–but bankers were judged on their standing in these league tables!) So, what if a banker was so successful at pitching these transactions that they were able to sign up dozens, creating a pipeline, and lock up the fees? They were a superstar! Imagine the fees on billions of dollars of C.D.O.’s? If their bank provided the financing for the C.D.O. issuer to acquire the assets? Higher fees! If the bank agreed in advance to buy the bonds and take them onto is own balance sheet if the market wouldn’t buy them? Higher fees! If these arrangement were made, 10-15 C.D.O.’s could earn $100 million in fees. Was there more risk? Of course, how do you think bankers would justify higher fees for these incremental commitments?! But, when your job is to spend months courting C.D.O. issuers, and you spend countless hours on conference calls telling them what a good deal issuing a C.D.O. is, and when you repeat, over and over, how strong the market is, citing many datapoints, then you’ll probably convince yourself too. Indeed, when told a deal you got a client to agree to commit to is too risky, by a risk manager or other independant person, then you will probably fight back… hard! (And, feel free to substitute C.D.O. with leveraged loan transaction in every instance.)

The point is the mentality. Bankers weren’t paid to manage risk day-to-day, watch the market, and hedge. Bankers became salespeople with some analytical and technical expertise. They weren’t thinking about hedging–they might not even have assets to hedge, they hadn’t created bonds yet. Market fluctuations didn’t affect the revenues from fee income. Although, a commitment to buy unsold bonds if the market has lost liquidity and values are plummeting is a risk, it’s not one bankers would have assumed, and definitely not hedged. Indeed these bankers, at some firms, even had separate reporting lines than the traders and risk management professionals. Their division was generating lots of revenue, so their senior layers of management gained a lot of power. A perfect storm? Seems like it was.

In fairness, the perfect storm that occurred was due to a fundamental problem–the disappearance of liquidity. In the heyday it wouldn’t have seemed rational to consider scenarios that correspond to what the market has actually experienced. But the methods of accounting for and cataloging the risk of, for example, derivative contracts exposed to tail events or highly illiquid investments clearly wasn’t used (When a P.E. firm makes a highly illiquid equity investment, I would bet bankruptcy risk is discussed!). Indeed most of the C.D.O. bankers were ex-lawyers, ex-structurers, or converted salespeople who didn’t have the background in these views on risk either. As for leveraged loans, the leveraged finance professionals were also mainly investment bankers and refugees from other relationship-driven fee-based businesses. I even know of people that jumped between the two (C.D.O.’s and leveraged loans)!

Another point, that seems obvious, is the scheme of compensation. Roger Ehrenberg had a recent post that discusses some of these issues. My personal belief is that the mentality was much more of an issue than the structure of the compensation scheme–but the perils of compensation, as it currently stands in the financial world, are well discussed and documented.

Maybe I just have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but maybe the traders and other people who poke fun at bankers (see Monkey Business  and, of course, DealBreaker) for not seeing the forest through the trees were on to something.