Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: March 17, 2009


The Phony Cacophony – Congress, The President and AIG

The other shoe concerning the AIG “bonuses” and the administration’s knowledge of them is beginning to drop. The Politico reports that all of the outrage from both Congressional and administrative officials is simply a front. All of them knew.

Watching the coverage the past 24 hours, it would seem AIG just made public its plans to give top employees big bonuses. Wrong.

AIG disclosed its retention-bonus program more than a year ago, including bonuses directed to those handling the exotic derivatives that got the company and the country into this mess.

The bonuses were essentially a nonissue when AIG got its initial bailout money, almost $150 billion under President Bush in the two months surrounding the presidential election. Joe Biden, then the vice presidential nominee, came out strongly against the bailout. Obama did not.

Timothy Geithner, then at the New York branch of the Federal Reserve, was a huge proponent and architect of the AIG bailout. So if Obama had strong private opposition to the idea it did not affect his pick for the person who would oversee all bailouts.

In fact, if you look at the first line in the letter AIG CEO Liddy wrote to Geithner, it is clear he at least knew about all of this before last Friday:

Thank you for the open and frank conversation on Wednesday regarding the compensation arrangements at AIG Financial Products and AIG generally. I admit that the conversation was a difficult one for me.

And there’s more:

You have also asked AIG to rethink our 2008 corporate bonus proposals. The proposals AIG originally submitted to you are part of a deliberate process, recommended by me and supported by the independent compensation committee of AIG’s board of directors.

So what you’re seeing out of the Obama administration is demagoguery at its worst. This was a plan being worked with the previous administration and the present administration, and when AIG payed those monies out last week Friday (they were required by law to do so prior to March 15), it was with the full knowledge and apparent acquiescence of the Obama administration, and, one assumes, key members of Congress.

As to the “why” of the situation, some reading of the AIGFP Employee Retention Plan – written last year - makes it clear that none of this was being hidden from anyone.  And it makes for some very interesting reading – here, for instance, is the portion which details the impact of their failure to pay these “bonuses”:

Details Regarding Business Impact of Failure to Pay

AIGFP’s derivatives portfolio stands at about $1.6 trillion and remains a significant risk. Failure to pay the required retention payments therefore could have very significant business ramifications. For example, AIGFP is a party to derivative and structured transactions, guaranteed by AIG, that allow counterparties to terminate in the event of a “cross default” by AIGFP or AIG. A cross default in many of these transactions is defined as a failure by AIGFP to make one or more payments in an amount that exceeds a threshold of $25 million.

In the event a counterparty elects to terminate a transaction early, such transaction will be terminated at its replacement value, less any previously posted collateral. Due to current market conditions, it is not possible to reliably estimate the replacement cost of these transactions. However, the size of the portfolio with these types of provisions is in the several hundreds of billions of dollars and a cross-default in this portfolio could trigger other cross-defaults over the entire portfolio of AIGFP.

There are also substantial risks related to the hedging of AIGFP’s various books. Although we view the large-market risk books at AIGFP as generally well hedged, the hedging is dynamic – that is, it must be monitored and adjusted continuously. To the extent that AIGFP were to lose traders who currently oversee complicated though familiar positions and know how to hedge the book, gaps in hedging could result in significant losses. This is driven to some extent by the size of the portfolios. In the interest rate book, for example, a move in market interest rates of just one basis point – that is 0.01% or one-100th of one percent – could result in a change in value of $700 million dollars if the book were not hedged. It has virtually no impact on the hedged book. There are similar exposures in the foreign exchange, commodities and equity derivatives books.

AIGFP’s books also contain a significant number of complex – so-called bespoke – transactions that are difficult to understand and manage. This is one reason replacing key traders and risk managers would not be practical on a large scale. Personal knowledge of the trades and the unique systems at AIGFP will be critical to an effective unwind of AIGFP’s businesses and portfolios.

In this current environment, any perceived disruption in AIGFP’s ability to conduct business, such as one that would result from the departure of a number of key employees, could also cause parties to limit or cease trading with AIGFP. Obviously, this would adversely affect its ability to continue to cost-effectively hedge its positions.

Departures also have regulatory ramifications. As an example, the resignation of the senior managers of AIGFP’s Banque AIG subsidiary would allow the Commission Bancaire, the French banking regulator, to appoint its own designee to step in and manage Banque AIG. Such an appointment would constitute an event of default under Banque AIG’s derivative and structured transactions, including the regulatory capital CDS book ($234 billion notional amount as of December 31, 2008), and potentially cost tens of billions of dollars in unwind costs. Although it is difficult to assess the likelihood of such regulatory action, at a minimum the disruption associated with significant departures related to a failure to honor contractual obligations would require intensive interactions with regulators and other constituents (rating agencies, counterparties, etc.) to assure them of the ongoing viability of AIGFP as well its commitment to honoring counterparty contracts and claims.

Essentially, as I pointed out this morning, the loss of key players could cost AIG and the taxpayer much, much more than the bonuses. Note the final paragraph where an example is used to point out the danger of seeing key players leave the firm while it continues to “unwind costs”. As pointed out the “personal” knowledge of the trades and transactions is critical. This isn’t necessarily about the “brightest and best”, but instead about those who know where the bodies are buried, how they got there and how to get them out of there and where they’re supposed to be. The possible downside of losing these key individuals is a potential cost of “tens of billions” to the tax payers.

Here’s something else which may interest you:

AIG has taken significant steps to limit overall compensation at AIGFP where it can and has committed to doing more. The 25 highest paid active contract employees have agreed to reduce their remaining 2009 salaries to $1. Salaries for this group ranged up to $500,000, and the average salary was in excess of $270,000. (There are apparently legal limits that may complicate the implementation of this and AIG will likely implement the lowest salary levels we can equitably put in place across the relevant jurisdictions.) The remaining 2009 salary of all other officers – anyone with a title of associate vice president or higher – is being reduced by 10% (subject to compliance with local law requirements).

In addition, other forms of non-cash compensation will be reduced or eliminated. We also believe that there will be considerably greater flexibility to reduce contractual payments in respect of 2009, and AIG intends to use its best efforts to do so. AIGFP intends to sell some of its books of business during the year. The employees related to these books will go with the sold businesses, and we intend to require the buyer to assume going-forward compensation payments.

It is also expected that, over the course of the year, employees will leave voluntarily or be terminated for cause and will therefore no longer be entitled to retention amounts from AIG. Because the plan was designed to provide security for employees, including protection against terminations without cause, AIG is required to pay the amounts owed to employees who are downsized. However, if a downsized employee finds new employment, retention amounts will be reduced by the earnings from the other employer. In addition, for employees in foreign jurisdictions who are not U.S. taxpayers, to whom the limits of Section 409A do not apply, AIG will have the ability to negotiate with employees who are downsized.

With all of these actions and other creative restructuring solutions, AIG hereby commits to use best efforts to reduce expected 2009 retention payments by at least 30%.

To review, the 25 highest paid contract employees are on a $1 a year salary for 2009. 10% salary reduction for all other officers. Non-cash compensation – reduced or eliminated. Selling some of it’s “books”. Downsizing. Retention payments for 2009 reduced by 30%.

As to the payouts themselves, this information is available:

Of the $220 million, about $165 million is required to be paid on or prior to March 15, 2009 and about $55 million was previously paid. In light of the large losses incurred last year, current and former employees will see their deferred compensation accounts reduced to the point where they will have negative balances. As a consequence there is no immediate prospect that employees will receive any payout of the at-risk piece for 2008 (about $93 million) or the remaining approximately $582 million in at risk pay earned from prior years. A senior AIGFP manager therefore worked in 2008 for about 43% of his 2007 expected level.

Did you ever hear about any of that in the phony cacophony that has blown up around all of this? AIG apparently had a plan, one has to assume it wasn’t one done in the dark, and it appears they were literally in the middle of executing it ($55 million having been paid last year and some more millions to be paid after March 15). The plan outlines how AIG planned to cut its costs while fulfilling the remaining contractual obligations they had. You and I may not like the fact that the bonuses are going out there, but if you take the time to read the retention plan, you can understand that there is a legal and financial reason for doing so.

All of this faux outrage, then, is politically calculated theater designed, as usual, to shift blame on the designated bad guy. It’s the usual reversion to populism when caught doing something unpopular. If you think a single politician, up to and including the President, is going to stand up and take blame, well, you have this example to dispel that notion. Insteadof  leadership, we get demagoguery.

~McQ


Community Organizing From the White House (Budget and AIG)

Once a community organizer, always a community organizer, I suppose – from an email I received recently from the Obama campaign email list:

The current debate in Washington over President Obama’s budget has made one thing clear — ensuring our long-term prosperity won’t come without a fight.

Partisan voices and special interests are showing real resistance to President Obama’s call for making the necessary reforms and investments in energy, health care, and education. That’s why we need to bring the conversation back into homes and communities across America.

Last week, thousands of you pledged your support for the President’s economic plan and encouraged your friends and family to join you in a national display of support. Now I need you to take the next step.

This weekend, supporters like you are organizing Pledge Project Canvasses to talk to people in their communities about this plan and mobilize support in neighborhoods across the country.

The eternal campaign continues with attempts to solicit the same ground support “magic” the campaign was able to solicit during the presidential campaign. However, doing that during a campaign when the focus is a person and his promises vs. attempting to do that when the person in question has gained the office and is now talking about concrete proposals which may or may not be in the best interest of the country isn’t quite as easy.

A couple of thoughts on this sort of an attempt. One – the tie that binds (getting Barack Obama elected) doesn’t necessarily extend to things like the budget or other specific issues. So the group that accomplished the former aren’t necessarily unified on the latter. That tends to promise lower turn out in the community events or, if they show up, some discord.

Two – the assumption is these events will demonstrate the will of the people and put pressure on Congress to act as Obama asks them to act, i.e. pass his budget. But there’s no direct linkage with this sort of activity and Congress like there was during the campaign when this sort of activity could be converted to votes. The Obama campaign used to brag about the “house parties” that were held at a grass-roots level demonstrating the power of his campaign and the promise of the votes to come. None of that translates into the same sort of power when aimed at Congress.

Three – it again demonstrates that the administration still hasn’t managed to get itself out of the campaign mode. Another example of that has been the AIG bonus debacle. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and AIG CEO Edward Liddy discussed the bonuses on the 11th of March. Liddy sent Geithner a letter on the 14th explaining the reason for them and the possible impact of not paying them (explained in the AIGFP Employee Retention Plan). It’s not about “retaining the best and brightest”. In fact, it is a calculated method of hedging their risk and ensuring the tax payer doesn’t end up on the hook for even more billions in bailouts.

Instead of calmly explaining this in a joint press conference with AIG, Geithner and the administration chose to fan the flames of outrage and use it for political gain.  That isn’t leadership, that’s politics.  And it is also an administration in the campaign mode.  That’s a dangerous mode to be in, especially at this time and place.  When given the opportunity to have a frank and tough discussion with the public about bonuses it knew were going to be paid and explaining their necessity, the Obama administration reverted to the populist campaign mode of demonizing AIG instead of calming the emotions and fears of the public.  

~McQ